Ellie (Foster) is determined to find out if we are alone in the universe. When her satellite array picks up a message from space, she is determined to be the person to make first contact with the mysterious callers.
What you get out of Contact will depend much on your take on humankind's quest for proof either that we are not alone, or that there is a god (the two are tantalisingly opposite sides of the Contact coin). But you need not to have read Carl Sagan's book, only to have gazed at the stars and wondered...
The story is of Ellie Arroway (Foster), orphaned and single, but refusing to believe we are alone in the universe. Inspired by her father's memory, she now works as an astronomer sifting through deep space radio waves with a small team (including a fine William Fichtner as blind astronomer Dr. Kent Clark - ouch) financed by reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (Hurt). Ellie and the team are viewed as outcasts by much of the establishment, including her ex-boss Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) until an E.T. calls and Arroway tunes in ecstatically.
But reaction to her discovery disappoints her: national security advisor (Woods) takes a dim view; Drumlin takes the credit; and only presidential advisor Constantine (an excellent Angela Bassett) takes the sensible middle ground. While the world goes nuts, and the nuts go religious, the signal is dissected but not understood. Then Hadden intervenes and it is decoded as the blueprint for a giant machine that promises transport, contact and the ultimate truth... for one person only.
Zemeckis redeploys all the brilliant stylistic tricks that made Forrest Gump such a visual treat: digital magic (giving President Clinton almost as much screentime as some co-stars); beautiful cinematography (by Don Burgess, painting stunning pictures of New Mexico satellite dishes), and an opening sequence (pulling back from Earth to deep space) that could just be the Greatest Movie Beginning Of All Time.
In places (as in Gump) the film seems a little long and too deep in sentiment - especially in developing the romance between Arroway and McConaughey's religious scholar-cum-government advisor. Strangely, McConaughey drifts in and out more as the film's moral conscience than Arroway's hunk on the side, but plays as well as he looks, with a presence far outweighing his years. And with Foster as his focus Zemeckis can hardly fail. She is brilliant (and more beautiful than ever), as the forceful individual whose idealism leads the whole planet towards a giant leap.
There are few laughs, no Men In Black-style monsters and only a little sci-fi hokum (Hurt's barking Hadden - an airborne Howard Hughes - and NASA's over-familiarity with the technology of the alien machine) because Contact delivers on more than a pure visual level, reiterating the idea that greatest progress is made taking "small steps" towards enlightenment. We've long grown accustomed to the movies telling us we are not alone, but Contact is the first film to take the answer as seriously as the question. And if you can't see that, your attendance at this theatre is an awful waste of space.
Less sci-fi blockbuster, more spiritual thinkpiece, this is a Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for the X-Files generation.