sábado, 8 de setembro de 2012

Contact (1997) with Jodie Foster: "An intellectual blockbuster" by Peter Krämer



In what is arguably one of the most spectacular opening shots in all of film history, the science-fiction epic Contact (1997) begins with the camera hovering over the globe, radio stations playing contemporary music on the soundtrack. Then the camera pulls back from Earth into space, the globe and the sun recede into the background, other planets in our solar system pass by, and the radio sounds go back in time, mixing music of previous decades with soundbites from important historical figures. This is followed by silence, while the camera is pulling back further, out of the Milky Way and the cluster of galaxies of which it is part, and further still toward the very edge of the universe, revealing amazing sights of celestial configurations along the way.
When the silence, the relentless movement, and the sheer size of the space that is being traversed begin to become oppressive, sounds can be heard again, initially only radio static and then a voice. Finally, the camera concludes its journey by pulling out of the eye of a young girl, who sits at her CB radio calling out, with some urgency, to other radio amateurs: “CQ. This is W9GF0. Come back.”

This four-minute “shot” — actually a composite of photographic and computer­generated images and sounds from many different sources, rather than a single recording — is not only an incredibly rich and varied audio-visual design, it also fulfills a number of important functions. First, the shot suggests a significant self­reflexive dimension for the film it opens, with the girl, Ellie Arroway, standing in for the people in the cinema auditorium, all eyes and ears and filled with fantastic dreams and the wish to break out of the confines of the everyday world. Second, the shot sets up the story that the film is going to tell — about Ellie growing up into a scientist dedicated to the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Third, it introduces some of the film’s main themes, such as the relationship between mankind and the universe, between personal longings and technological and scientific endeavors. Finally, it foreshadows Contact’s main attraction.
Almost two hours into the film, there is another spectacular journey across the universe, reminiscent of the famous climactic trip which formed the main attraction of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the film which Contact resembles most closely in its thematic preoccupations and intellectual ambitions. When Ellie is invited to go on this trip by her mysterious benefactor, S. R. Hadden, he does so with the words: “Want to take a ride?” Indeed, this is what Contact announces itself to be with its amazing opening shot, and how at least one reviewer (in Variety) described the film — as “an engrossing ride for most of the way” (reprinted in Elley 2000: 173).

The reviewer and the film’s script refer to what is perhaps the most powerful critical metaphor for contemporary blockbuster cinema — the rollercoaster ride (King 2000: 179—80). According to many critics, spectators of blockbuster films are invited to give themselves over to a meticulously designed and expensively constructed mechanism, the main purpose of which is to stimulate them sensually by confronting them with wondrous sights and spectacular action, making their muscles tense and their breath go faster, with adrenaline pumping through their veins, and dizziness taking over before calm is temporarily allowed to set in, suspense, fear, and terror alternating with relief, joy, and elation, screams inter­mingled with laughter. No matter what they experience and feel during the ride, spectators know that they are perfectly safe, and that at the end they will arrive exactly where they started.

This account of the blockbuster experience accords well with certain aspects of Ellie’s “ride” toward the end of Contact, a ride which is in fact introduced and executed as the equivalent of a cinematic experience (the transporting device standing in for the film, Ellie for the spectator, the trip for the viewing experience). Extraordinary amounts of money have been spent to create a machine able to remove Ellie from her own world and transport her into another. She is strapped into the passenger seat, and a mysterious light announces the beginning of her journey, which cuts her off from the friends and colleagues she had just been talking with. She goes on a rollicking rollercoaster ride in empty space, punctured by moments of calm in which she submits to the beauty of celestial formations and events on display in front of her eyes. During the longest of these moments, she is magically removed from her seat, floats in the air, and regresses to a younger self: the face of the girl she once was is superimposed on the face of the adult she now is, first one, then the other exclaiming softly: “so beautiful.” In a reversal of the very opening of the film, the camera then moves into Ellie’s eye and into darkness.
It is at this point that Ellie’s trip leaves the rollercoaster model behind. Instead of sensual thrills and visual spectacle, an encounter with an alien creature taking the shape of her own father is at the center of the next part of her journey, which is set on a beach based on a drawing she did as a child of a place she made radio Contact with. Overwhelmed by emotions as she is, Ellie still does not lose herself completely: “You’re not real,” she says to her “father,” “None of this is real.” At the same time, she is receptive to his words, when he assures her of her parents’ love, and of her specialness: “You are capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares.”
This is addressed both to Ellie as an individual and to humanity in general (“You are an interesting species”). The very core of the human condition, according to her “father,” is a terrible feeling of isolation: “You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not.” His most important message is this: “The only thing . . . that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” Ellie is then transported back to where she started out from, reconnected to her friends and colleagues, and embarks on the long process to make sense of her experience which lasts until the end of the film.

While much about Ellie’s journey is subject to debate, one thing is certain. Far from being a purely sensual ride, it has dealt with the very foundations of her being, her individual existence, her relationship with parents and others, and her conception of her place in the universe. In other words, Ellie’s journey across the universe, and by implication the journey on which the film Contact takes its viewers, has a deeply psychological and spiritual dimension.
In its two sustained sequences of audio-visual spectacle, then, the film reflects on the very nature of the blockbuster experience it offers its audience. How do these reflections relate to the story that Contact tells? And to what extent is the film a typical blockbuster?




In terms of its production, Contact’s blockbuster credentials are impeccable (according to the criteria provided by Steve Neale’s chapter in this volume).
Contact had a much higher budget ($90 million) than the average Hollywood release (Stevens 2001: 13) and also had an excessive length (150 minutes); it foregrounds special effects, not only during the two journeys across space, but also, for example, by blending footage of President Clinton into the film’s action. Like many other megahits the film is based on presold material, in this case a best-selling novel (published in 1985) by America’s foremost science popularizer Carl Sagan (Davidson 1999: 341—53, 399—411). Contact features Jodie Foster, one of the very few female stars with sustained box-office success across the 1990s. Perhaps most importantly, the film was directed by Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis, Holly­wood’s most consistently commercially successful director since the mid-1980s. Before that point Zemeckis had directed two minor films produced by Steven Spielberg — I Wanna Hold jour Hand (1978), which he also co-wrote, and Used Cars (1980) — and he had co-written one of Spielberg’s rare flops, 1941 (1979). Since the mid-1980s, however, Zemeckis’s box-office track record has been astonishing.

With the exception of Death Becomes Her (no. 27 in 1992), all of the films Zemeckis directed between the mid-1980s and Contact made it into Variety s end-of- year top ten chart of the highest grossing movies:1 Romancing the Stone (no. 9 in 1984), Back to the Future (which he also co-wrote, no. 1 in 1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (no. 2 in 1988), Back to the Future II (based on a story by Zemeckis, no.10 in 1989), Back to the Future III (script co-written by Zemeckis, no. 10 in 1990), Forrest Gump (no.l in 1994). After Contact, he managed the unique feat of releasing two massive hits in the same year: What Lies Beneath was at number 8 in 2000, and Cast Away would have made it into the top three if it had not been released so late in the year that more than half of its revenues were generated in 2001. In the Internet Movie Database’s October 2001 list of all-time top grossers in the US, Zemeckis had two films in the top twenty five (Forrest Gump at no. 6, and Cast Away at no. 23) and five films in the top 100, more than any other director apart from Steven Spielberg (who also produced several of Zemeckis’s megahits).

Despite his extraordinary success, Zemeckis has a surprisingly low public profile, and there is, for example, not a single book on his life and films.
It is, however, possible to make some preliminary statements about his work. Having started out as a scriptwriter, he continues to be heavily involved in the writing process even when he is working with someone else’s script. He says: “I’ve never found a screenplay yet that didn’t need massive amounts of what we call rewriting. For me the writing never stops” (Kagan 2000: 39). As one of the most powerful people in Hollywood since the late 1980s (he was, for example, at no. 22 in Premiere magazine’s May 1996 “Power List”), Zemeckis has certainly been able to select and shape his projects, asserting his authority in relation to studios and stars. While in interviews he emphasizes the importance of character development (Kagan 2000: 39), his films are best known for their spectacular action and their special effects, in particular computer-generated images. In fact, Zemeckis’s films since the mid-1980s put the latter in the service of the former. Despite their big-budget spectacle and occasionally epic length, they tell intimate stories, either about childlike men (Marty McFly, Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, even to some extent Chuck Noland in Cast Away) and their familial or quasi-familial relationships in a largely fantastic (or exotic) universe, or about women and their fantasies, desires, and anxieties (concerning adventurous romance, eternal youth, and murderous husbands) which, quite shockingly, become real.
Thus, Zemeckis’s hit movies fit into two important trends in contemporary Hollywood. The first is what I have elsewhere labeled “family-adventure movies” which typically revolve around the adventures and (quasi-)familial relations of boys or boyish men and have consistently been the most successful Hollywood films since the late 1970s (Kramer 1998a). The second trend is what one might call women’s films, that is, films centered on female characters and/or appealing primarily to female audiences — a type of film that has been marginalized in Hollywood since the late 1960s, yet at the end of 1997 received an enormous boost with the unprecedented success of Titanic (Kramer 1998b and 1999).2

Contact brings the two strands of Zemeckis’s work together by placing a woman at the center of a spectacular and fantastic adventure (including an intermittent romance), which ultimately revolves around her relationship with her parents. Already the film’s second shot introduces her father, who responds to Ellie’s increasingly desperate radio calls — “Is anybody out there?” —
by encouraging her to be patient: “Small moves, Ellie, small moves.” She finally receives an answer from Pensacola, Florida, which prompts her, that evening in her bedroom, while getting ready to go to sleep, to ask her father about other distant places she could talk to with her radio: California, Alaska, China, the moon, Jupiter, Saturn. After a pause, she asks: “Dad, could we talk to mom?” “I don’t think even the biggest radio could reach that far,” he responds. After showing him a colorful picture she has drawn of Pensacola, she then asks her father whether there is life on other planets, to which he replies: “If it is just us, it seems an awful waste of space.” Later that night, she sits again at her radio and decides that she needs a bigger antenna, which is followed by a shot of the adult Ellie looking at a huge radio telescope in the jungle (the radio observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico), and saying “It’ll do.”

This sequence reveals the mother’s death, together with her father’s encourage­ment, to be at the root of Ellie’s attempts to make Contact with life beyond the confines of her everyday life, first as a radio amateur and then as a radio astronomer.
At the most basic emotional level, her CB activities as a child and her later SETI work are shown to be a search for life after death (“Could we talk to mom?”), and also perhaps for a higher order in the universe which gives meaning to human suffering. Ellie’s work as a scientist is thus explained as an emotional and a spiritual quest — an explanation she herself would, of course, deny vehemently. Further­more, in a move typical for family-adventure movies and women’s films, the film’s story is set up as the externalization of the protagonist’s subjectivity, the magical fulfillment of her wishes (“I need a bigger antenna” — “It’ll do”). The film’s fantastic story about Contact with extra-terrestrials is thus firmly anchored in the everydav experiences and psychology of the central character, whose condition the opening shot, as we have already seen, equates with that of the audience. By inviting the audience to identify with Ellie’s predicament as a dreamer and seeker and mourning child, the film aims to tap into some of their fundamental fears and desires, concerning every child’s separation from parents (or parental figures), the loss of loved ones, the hope for a reunion overcoming this loss or for something else able to fill the void created by it. This something else, the film suggests, may be rational understanding, vivid memory, religion, and, most immediately, the cinema itself.

In many of the most successful family-adventure movies (e.g. Star Wars [1977], E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial [1982], The Lion King [1994]), it is the loss of the father which provides the focus for the story (whereas in women’s films such as Ghost [1990] and Titanic it is the loss of the male lover). While Contact initially revolves around the death of the mother,“the film soon shifts its focus to the lost father. The first sequences with Ellie as an adult replay in many respects the opening childhood sequence. Again, Ellie sits at the radio, only now she listens to the static picked up by the telescope. Again, a supportive male figure is introduced — her fellow scientist, Kent, who is blind and comments on her old-fashioned way of monitoring radio signals (“I think that it is great you still listen”) — and then two more men, who represent aspects of her father. The first is her former lecturer (having taken over from her father who was her first science teacher), now head of the National Science Foundation, David Drumlin, who objects to her SETI work as an illegitimate use of resources and of her talent, which will ruin her career as a scientist; indeed he soon stops her research project at Arecibo. The second is the theologian Palmer Joss, who is critical of any scientific project that does not put the interests of humanity first, yet also becomes emotionally involved with Ellie.
After they have sex, a rather uncomfortable parallel is established between him and her father: both are calmly passionate men in awe of the wonders of the universe as exemplified by the sky, which her father, in a flashback, talks about in scientific terms (thus stimulating Ellie’s interest in astronomy); Joss, on the other hand, talks about the time that he looked at the sky and felt the presence of God. Joss even responds to Ellie s statement that she believes the universe to be full of extraterrestrial civilizations by echoing her father’s line: “If it wasn’t, it would be an awful waste of space. Ellie then withdraws from him, perhaps because she is afraid to get too attached to people, after she has lost her mother and — we now learn — also her father. A flashback shows her father’s death at a time soon after the events of the opening sequence, and Ellie’s subsequent rejection of a priest’s comforting statements and her now desperate attachment to her CB radio. “Dad, this is Ellie. Come back,” she calls out.

The initial attempt to reach her dead mother has thus been replaced with a call to her dead father, and it is this secondary search which in the end meets with success. After Ellie and Kent start a new SETI project in New Mexico with funding by the eccentric billionaire Hadden (another figure set up in close parallel to her father), she receives a signal from the star Vega, which turns out to contain instructions for building a machine apparently able to transport one person across the universe. Drumlin, now converted to her cause, promptly takes over as leader of the project to build that machine and is selected — over Ellie — as its passenger, yet he gets killed in a terrorist attack by a religious fundamentalist.
The original machine is destroyed in the process, and when it is revealed that a second one has secretly been built in Japan, Hadden invites Ellie to go. What she experiences is, as we have already seen, indeed a journey to another world, where the immensely powerful extraterrestrials — so as not to overwhelm her with their strangeness — present themselves to her in the shape of her father. In the emotional reunion with her “father,” she is given a message of hope, not only for herself, but for humankind at large: the universe is full of intelligent life, and humans will eventually participate in interstellar exchange, but this will take a long time, and Ellie will have to be patient: “Small moves, Ellie.”

For now, she has to return to Earth, where her report is met with disbelief, because, from what observers could see, nothing happened at all: the passenger pod never disappeared to go on its journey; it just fell straight into the water. Conse­quently, Ellie’s testimony is discredited, although a scene toward the end does reveal that physical proof for Ellie’s journey was found and kept secret by the government. In any case, Ellie herself is enriched by the memory of her great adventure — and so are the countless people who believe in her (thousands of whom greet her outside the Capitol after her testimony). It appears that now Ellie will be able to deal with her childhood loss, and to be open to new emotional attachments (a renewed relationship with Palmer Joss is hinted at) and even spirituality (more about this below). The film’s closing scenes show' her finally at peace with herself. In front of the New Mexico observatory, she patiently talks to children about science like her father used to talk to her, and when they ask her whether there are “other people out there in the universe,” she encourages them to “keep looking for your own answers” and then concludes with her father’s line from the opening scene:
“I tell you one thing about the universe, though: the universe is a pretty big place. So if it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Thus she combines a basic faith in the meaningfulness of the universe (it is not, after all, a “waste of space”) with the skepticism and rationality underpinning scientific inquiry.

The very last scene of the film shows Ellie alone at night in the desert, examining

tiny stones in the palm of her hand in the same way her “father” did on the imaginary reconstruction of a Pensacola beach during her trip. As is typical of many of the most successful family-adventure movies, then, at the end the protagonist’s original familial issues are resolved and peace of mind is regained (as it is for Luke Skywalker, Elliott, and Simba, for example), and although the lost father never really returns, he is present as a memory (or indeed — like Anakin Skywalker and Mufasa — as a spirit); curiously, though, Ellie’s mother is forgotten. What is more, the glittering stones look a bit like the stars in the night sky, and the night sky, which is the film’s final image, in turn is like the darkened screen in front of which the audience is sitting.
This suggests that the sky that Ellie has been studying all through the film is not distant and alien, but like the palm of her own hand (or indeed like the inside of her own head, as the opening shot implies), and also like the screen which the audience has been examining so intently for the preceding two and a half hours. In the same way that Ellie comes out of this experience as a more rounded and fulfilled person, so, the film suggests, does every spectator, and while for Ellie it is the stars in the sky to which she will turn for further insight and emotional and spiritual nourishment, for the spectator it is first and foremost the cinema screen. Like many family-adventure movies and other blockbusters, Contact thus ends up celebrating the power of cinema.

Despite its impeccable blockbuster credentials, with Zemeckis mining the most successful narrative formula of recent decades, Contact was a relative box-office disappointment. Its domestic revenues of $ 101 million did not even ensure the film a place in the annual top ten (it was at no. 12 in 1997), and they were far below the gross of Zemeckis’s big hits of the last decade:
only a third of the amount for Forrest Gump, less than half of that for Cast Away, and about two-thirds of that for What Lies Beneath. One of the main reasons for the film’s somewhat disappointing commercial performance was its almost exclusive focus on a female protagonist. Not only do successful family-adventure movies rarely feature women, but science-fiction hits, with the exception of Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), do not do so either. What is more, unlike Aliens and Terminator 2, Contact does not concern itself centrally with the issue of motherhood, nor does it replicate the strong focus of most successful women’s films — ranging from Pretty Woman (1990) to Titanic and What Lies Beneath — and of most blockbusting female-centered action-adventure films — ranging from Romancing the Stone to Twister (1996) — on a romantic relationship.3 Instead, Contact foregrounds intellectual issues and the ways in which the film’s protagonist negotiates her intellectual worldview with her emotional and spiritual needs (and in that respect it is in fact closely related to what had been Jodie Foster’s biggest previous hit, The Silence of the Lambs [1991 ]).


Indeed, the film and its heroine were perceived by the press primarily in terms of their intellectual orientation. While some critics celebrated this aspect of the film as a welcome departure from the norms of contemporary' Hollywood, others felt that it undermined the film’s entertainment value, especially for children, usually a primary audience for the kind of family-adventure story Contact tells. Andrew Sarris’s (1997) review of the film in the New York Observer, for example, criticized it as a failed “attempt at an ‘intellectual’ blockbuster for grown ups,” which managed to demonstrate only that “the cinema is more an emotional than an intellectual medium.” On the other hand, an Entertainment Weekly cover story described Contact as an “Event Movie for intellectuals,” a “serious” and “unabashedly esoteric” film “packed with cosmic meditations on the duel between Science and God,” and asked, with reference to the film’s commercial chances: “is Earth prepared?” (Svetkey 1997: 19). Jack Mathews of Newsday welcomed Contact as “the smartest film in the summer market”: “A little intellectual provocation counts for a lot in this summer of braindead action films” (Mathews 1997: B3). Within a few weeks, Contact had confirmed its status as an event movie, in the process polarizing critics even more. For Stuart Klawans, writing in The Nation (11 August, 1997: 35), it was “perhaps the worst summer film overall,” and the Village Voice (19 August, 1997: 86) declared it to be the “Summer’s Most Obnoxious Movie.” At the end of the year the science-fiction magazine Starlog insisted again that Contact was the “only intellectual genre movie from the past summer” and as such was to be valued and taken seriously (O’Quinn 1997: 78).
A similar controversy surrounded Jodie Foster’s intellectualized portrayal of Ellie Arroway. Sarris found Ellie to be “a curiously disembodied creature,” because Foster seemed “determined to make herself all mind and spirit by draining all the sensual juices out of her hitherto provocative star persona.” Starlog, on the other hand, saw Foster’s performance in Contact as “the crowning achievement of her already stellar acting career,” precisely because “Foster constantly lets us see Ellie think” (O’Quinn 1997: 78).

What, then, is the protagonist’s and the film’s intellectual inquiry about? Ostensibly, as we have seen, it centers on the relationship between different world­views: one driven by feelings, another religious, and the third one scientific. In long dialog sequences, the film again and again brings these worldviews into conflict with each other: for example, when the young Ellie rejects the comforts of religion in favor of a rational analysis of the reasons for her father’s death (he did not get to his medicine in time, for which she feels responsible; her rational analysis is thus closely linked to the child’s feelings of guilt); or when the adult Ellie competes with Drumlin for the single place in the alien machine and loses out to him in a public hearing because, due to lack of empirical evidence, she does not believe in God and is therefore held to be unrepresentative of humankind.
In particular, Ellie’s relationship with Palmer Joss is overshadowed by his criticism of science and her rejection of religious beliefs (and indeed it is he who asks the question about her belief in God which leads to Drumlin being selected over her). During their first night together, Joss talks about his religious awakening: “I was lying there, just looking at the sky and then I felt something. . . . All I know is that I wasn’t alone, and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of nothing, not even dying. It was God.” She immediately doubts the validity of his experience and suggests that he just projected an inner need into the outside world when in fact there was nothing out there. At their next meeting, during a debate with the American president on the significance of the message from Vega, she rejects any suggestion that it may have religious implications. If it were of a religious nature, it would have been “a boom­ing voice from the sky,” to which Joss replies: “That is exactly what you found.” Afterwards, they discuss their differences in more detail. While he argues that science cannot give people what they really need, she argues that humans invented God “so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone,” and while he says he would not want to live in a world without God, she can not accept God’s existence without tangible proof. He responds by asking her whether she loved her father. When she says yes, he demands: “Prove it!” The conversation ends without any agreement.

Having stated their differences very starkly, from here on the film begins to demonstrate the compatibility of emotional, religious, and scientific worldviews. When in a later conversation Joss asks Ellie why she is willing to give up everything, even her life, for the chance to travel across the universe (and it is clear that he asks her because he loves her and does not want to lose her), her answer is meant to convey a total commitment to the pursuit of scientific insight, yet comes across as spiritually motivated: she has always been “searching for something, some reason why we’re here.” What she finds during her encounter writh the extraterrestrials is, of course, the emotional resolution of her childhood trauma and a vision of a higher order in the universe as well as scientific insight. When she returns from her journey and is interrogated about her experience, she is forced to admit that as a scientist she would have to find her own story unbelievable, because there is no physical proof that she ever went anywhere, and because there is indeed — as suggested by her interrogator — a simpler and therefore better explanation for everything that has happened: she hallucinated, and the message from Vega itself was simply a hoax staged by S. R. Hadden. Not being able to defend her experience on scientific grounds, she can confirm and articulate it only in emotional and spiritual terms: “I had an experience. . . . Everything tells me it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are, a vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and hope.” This, of course, comes close to Joss’s previous description of his experience of God.
In the end, then,
Ellie’s scientific inquiry has brought her the emotional and spiritual comfort that she was looking for all along. When Joss in his final statement declares to the crowds outside the Capitol that he and Ellie have “one and the same” goal, namely “the pursuit of truth,” the film suggests that truth can, and needs to be, found on various levels — emotional, religious, and scientific — and that these levels complement rather than contradict each other.


While this insight may not be particularly profound, it does challenge received scholarly wisdom in relation to the blockbuster experience itself. No matter how rationally constructed a film is (making use of the latest special-effects technology and perhaps of “scientific” market research, and definitely intended to make money), Contact’s allegory — which equates Ellie with the spectator, her journey within the film with the journey of the film, the debate about the journey with a debate about the film — suggests that blockbusters aim to put the spectator on an emotional and spiritual journey through the stories they tell and through the creation of extraordinary audio-visual spectacle. Following this suggestion, one might say that successful blockbusters do indeed resonate with the most basic experiences and longings of their audiences, reunite them, albeit only imaginarily, with loved ones, expose them to previously unimaginable beauty, inspire awe, humility, and hope in the face of a higher power, assure them that, while each person is unique and precious, he or she is not alone — and thus help them along on their way toward emotional and spiritual fulfillment.

“Want to take a ride?” is the implicit invitation of all contemporary blockbuster movies. Contact delivers the promised ride already in its very first shot, but then goes against the expectations raised by the film’s genre, the previous films of its director, and its opening shot by withholding further extended spectacle until close to the end of the film. Instead the film, through intimate family scenes and long, thoughtful dialog sequences, explores the deep seated needs to which such fantastic rides respond and the various ways in which riders on and off the screen may make sense of them. Critics (and, presumably, audiences) were divided in their response to this intellectual blockbuster, the more so as it centered on a woman. For some, the film’s entertainment value was destroyed by its reflections on the relationship between feelings, religion, and science; for others it was deepened. For all, how­ever, Contact was inextricably linked, by way of contrast and continuity, to Hollywood’s big budget, special-effects driven, action-oriented summer movies — as an expensive and pretentious failure to live up to their promise of pure fun, or as a welcome departure from the norm they set.

In this chapter, I have tried to show that Contact is perhaps most interesting when understood as a meditation on the blockbuster experience, in particular its spiritual dimension. At the very least, this approach alerts us to the frequency with which Hollywood’s biggest hits since the late 1970s have explicitly dealt with spiritual subject matter. There is, for example, the central role played by “the Force” in the Star Wars films, and there are Indiana Jones’s encounters with divine power at the end of both Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and the spirits caught between this world and the next in Ghost and The Sixth Sense (1999). Contact's reflections on the blockbuster experience also encourage us to investigate the allegorical religious dimension of other megahits, for example E.T. (the extraterrestrial as a Jesus figure) and Terminator 2 (Sarah Connor as a Holy Mary figure). More generally, they suggest that it may be worth relating the blockbuster experience to the religious beliefs and spiritual longings of the baby-boom generation. This generation includes the majority of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers, such as Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, and also constitutes the largest segment of the American cinema audience. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of baby boomers (and by the 1990s a majority) have been identified by religious scholars as spiritual seekers on a quest for “values and meaning beyond oneself, a way of understanding, inner awareness, and personal integration” (Roof 1999: 35). Many of Hollywood’s big hits appear to be informed by, and responsive to, this questing outlook, not only in their stories but also in their moments of intense, overwhelming audio-visual spectacle, such as the two cosmic journeys depicted in Contact. Perhaps, then, audio-visual spectacle, usually considered to be the most superficial and meaningless aspect of contemporary Hollywood cinema, sometimes facilitates its most spiritual experiences — much like it used to do in the long defunct tradition of biblical epics.


Research for this essay in American archives was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

1   Information about annual box-office charts is taken from “The 1980s: A Reference Guide to Motion Pictures, Television, VCR, and Cable,” Velvet Light Trap, 27 (1991): 81—2; and the German magazine steadycam. Both these sources derive their information from the American trade press. For the year 2000, I have used “Top 2S0 of 2000,” Variety, 8 January, 2001: 20.

2   It is also worth pointing out that Zemeckis’s films have often dealt explicidy with the power of popular culture: most notably, Beatlemania in I Wanna Hold your Hand, romantic adventure fiction in Romancing the Stone, classic Hollywood cartoons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jules Verne novels in Back to the Future III, and celebrity in Forrest Gump. Contact emphasizes the importance of television as a news medium.

3   As I have pointed out elsewhere (Kramer 1999: 603—4-), there is a powerful narrative model in children’s fiction for nonromantic female-centered fantastic adventure stories such as Contact. Indeed, Carl Sagan’s novel ([198S] 1997: 37, 323, 330) references explicitly the four key examples in this tradition of girl adventurer stories: L. Frank
Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904 play, 1911 novel), and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (186S) and Through the Looking Glass (1872). Contemporary Hollywood has not been able successfully to revive this tradition, although there are strong resonances in, for example, Contact, Twister, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and Monsters Inc. (2001).
Davidson, Keay (1999) Carl Sagan: A Life, New York: John Wiley.
Elley, Derek (ed.) (2000) Variety Movie Guide 2000, New York: Perigee.
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In: Movie Blockbusters. Edited by Julian Stringer. London, Routledge, 2003, pp. 128-140.

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