Contact, film and book

Contact won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1997, beating four other films (the first time since 1992 that no TV episode was on the ballot, and only the second time since 1992 that a cinematic film won). The losers were, in order, Men in Black, Gattaca, The Fifth Element and Starship Troopers. I have seen Men in Black and Starship Troopers, and I really like them both, but I actually think Contact is better. IMDB users are not as impressed, rating it 13th of the year's films on one system and 19th on the other, with all the other Hugo finalists ahead of it on the latter ranking and all but one on the former. Top IMDB spot for the year goes, of course, to Oscar-winner Titanic, on both rankings.

There are a number of returnees from previous Hugo and Oscar winning films. To start with the big one, Jodie Foster stars here as Ellie Arroway, and also starred as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, which won the Oscar six years ago.

And there's a pretty big Doctor Who crossover too, in the form of John Hurt, billionnaire S.R. Haddon here; as Kane, he was the first to die by the jaws of the Alien 18 years ago; back in 1966, 31 years ago, he betrayed Thomas More as Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, and in 2013, 16 years hence, he would appear as the forgotten incarnation of our favourite Time Lord, the War Doctor.

Another Alien crossover is Tom Skerrett, the main antagonist David Drumlin here, the doomed captain Dallas in 1979.

Several smaller parts went to actors who had appeared three years ago in Forrest Gump, also directed by Robert Zemeckis. Geoffrey Blake is astrophysicist Fisher here (in the middle) and previously abusive boyfriend Wesley (also in the middle).

Timothy McNeil is Davio, another astrophysicist here (on the left) and the T-shirt guy (I think) in Forrest Gump.

Finally, director's son Alex Zemeckis here plays the son of Major Russell (who is himself played by Stephen Ford, son of former President Gerald Ford) and was one of the nasty kids on the bus in Forrest Gump (I am fairly sure I have got the right kid, there's something about the determined set of his brows).

Marc Macaulay, who plays a NASA technician here, is one of the reporters in Edward Scissorhands, but I did not find good shots of him in either role.

This film is based on a novel by the great astronomer Carl Sagan, who died during production or else would surely have been seen in a cameo role (his wife Ann Druyan does appear on the chat show with Geraldine Ferraro). Set in the present day (1997), it's about a mysterious message received by aliens, and the astronomer who discovers it, decodes it and then becomes the sole passenger on the machine built according to the aliens' instructions, a journey in which she meets her long-dead father.

Cards on the table: I really liked it, more than I had expected to. I have a vague memory of watching it once before at the end of a long evening and being underwhelmed. I obviously wasn't paying attention. There is a lot to like here, and I'm putting it in my top ten Hugo-winning films, just below Terminator 2: Judgement Day but ahead of Superman.

To start with the one thing that I did not like so much: all the main characters are white, and although there is a decent represenation of African-Americans and Asians among the second-rank cast, they are all there to support the white folks. This is one of the few points where the film does not live up to the book, which has Chinese, Indian and African travellers, along with a Russian, joining the protagonist on her journey. I guess you have to do some ruthless trimming (and more on that when I get to the book) but it's a shame that the interesting non-white characters were trimmed.

Ellie is a bit isolated as a lead woman character (the top credited woman apart from her, Angela Bassett, is also the top credited actor of colour), but a) that's partly the point, and b) she is given a lot of agency. And let's also shout out to Jena Malone, who went on to a solid enough acting career, as young Ellie, especially in the famous mirror shot.

The film crawls over the Bechdel test, with Jodie Foster asking Angela Bassett where she can buy a dress, but a pass is a pass.

I liked everything else. A nice touch is that various luminaries of the 1997 political and media scene (Geraldine Ferarro, Larry King, a dozen more) appear as themselves commenting on the impact of the alien message and the appropriate response. Particularly cheekily – and I believe the film-makers got into truouble for it – they spliced in real footage of then-President Clinton commenting on the potential discovery of bacteria on a Mars rock in 1996, cut to make it look like he was commenting on the events of the film. As a politics geek I just love this kind of thing.

The special effects are just sufficiently flashy to be convincing and support the narrative, and not so flashy as to overwhelm it. The climax is of course the heroine's journey to another world, and I love the way we keep grounded in what is happening to her despite the extraorinary things happening to the dodecahedron – it's both a homage to and an improvement on the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I don't often say this about Hugo-winning films, but even ahead of the FX, I was wowed by the performances here. It could very easily have slipped into cliche, but doesn't. Making Ellie's lover the thoughtful evangelical Christian, rather than the senior government official (who is trimmed from the film), makes them both more interesting and gives her more agency. John Hurt possibly is hamming it up a bit, and James Woods as dodgy security apparatchik Kinz is a little two-dimensional, but everyone else is dead serious, and makes you take it seriously.

And this starts and ends with Jodie Foster, who leads without dominating. Always watchable, this must be one of her best performances (and she has many good ones). Here she meets the alien intelligence incarnated as her father:

Anyway, brilliant stuff. Next up is The Truman Show, which is ahead of Shakespeare in Love, the 1998 Oscar winner, on IMDB.

As usual, I went back and reread the book. The second paragraph (if one takes a quote from Kafka as being part of the first para) of the third chapter is:

In the control room she quickly reassured herself that all was in order. Through the window she could see a few of the 131 radio telescopes that stretched for tens of kilometers across the New Mexico scrub desert like some strange species of mechanical flower straining toward the sky. It was early afternoon and she had been up late the night before. Radio astronomy can be performed during daylight, because the air does not scatter radio waves from the Sun as it does ordinary visible light. To a radio telescope pointing anywhere but very close to the Sun, the sky is pitch black. Except for the radio sources.

I had read this soon after it came out in 1985 – I was a big Carl Sagan fan, of course, and lapped it up uncritically. Coming back to it a third of a century later, I can see the flaws, particularly those that were addressed by Zemeckis in making the film. There is way too much info-dumping, and too much philosophical debate on subjects that interested Sagan deeply, but are only loosely connected to the plot. Ellie's relationship with the senior government official is much less interesting to us (and indeed to her) than the screen relationship with the evangelical chap. The coda in which Ellie finds the secret message from the Creators to the Universe concealed in the digits of pi reminded me, perhaps unfairly, of the end of Douglas Adams' So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (which was published the year before, so this is mere coincidence). But on the other hand, fitting five passengers into the cosmic journey makes it more interesting on paper, where you cannot see the cinematic special effects. And I should not be too harsh: the whole thing is inspired by a sensawunda that I basically share and sympathise with. You can get it here.

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