|Directed by||Robert Zemeckis|
|Produced by||Robert Zemeckis
James V. Hart
|Music by||Alan Silvestri|
|Editing by||Arthur Schmidt|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Release date(s)||July 11, 1997|
|Running time||153 min.|
|Gross revenue||$171.12 million|
Contact is a 1997 science fiction drama film adapted from the Carl Sagan novel of the same name and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Both Sagan and wife Ann Druyan wrote the story outline for the film adaptation of Contact. Jodie Foster portrays the film's protagonist, Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact. Supporting roles are played by Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett and David Morse.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan began working on the film in 1979. Together, they wrote a 100+ page film treatment and set Contact up at Warner Bros. with Peter Guber and Lynda Obst as producers. When the film ended up in development hell, Sagan published Contact as a novel in 1985 and the film adaptation was rejuvenated in 1989. Roland Joffé and George Miller had planned to direct it, but Joffé dropped out in 1993 and Miller was fired by Warner Bros. in 1995. Robert Zemeckis was eventually hired to direct, and filming for Contact lasted from September 1996 to February 1997. The majority of the visual effects sequences were handled by Sony Pictures Imageworks.
The film was released on July 1, 1997 to mixed reviews. Contact grossed approximately $171 million in worldwide box office totals. The film won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and received multiple awards and nominations at the Saturn Awards. The release of Contact was publicized by controversies from the Bill Clinton Administration, CNN, as well as individual lawsuits from George Miller and Francis Ford Coppola. The California Courts of Appeal dismissed Coppola's claim that he had developed an unproduced version of Contact as a children's television special with Sagan in 1975.
Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway is a scientist for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She and her colleagues listen to radio transmissions in hopes of finding signals sent by extraterrestrial life. Government scientist David Drumlin pulls the funding from SETI. After eighteen months of searching, Ellie gains funding from reclusive billionaire industrialist S.R. Hadden, which allows her to continue her studies at the Very Large Array in New Mexico.
Four years later, with Drumlin pressuring to close SETI, Arroway finds a strong signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers, apparently emitting from the star Vega. This announcement causes both Drumlin and the National Security Council, led by National Security Advisor Michael Kitz, to attempt to take control of the facility. As Arroway, Drumlin and Kitz argue, the team at the VLA discover a video source buried in the signal: Adolf Hitler's welcoming address at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Arroway and her team postulate that this would have been the first sufficiently strong television signal to leave Earth's atmosphere, which was then transmitted back from Vega 26 light years away.
The project is put under tight security and its progress is followed fervently worldwide. President Bill Clinton and Drumlin give a television address to downplay the impact of the Hitler image, while Arroway learns that a third set of data was found in the signal: more than 60,000 "pages" of data. Government specialists unsuccessfully attempt to decode it. Hadden reveals to Arroway the means of decryption—by viewing the pages in a three-dimensional structure—revealing the basic mathematical language used in the message. The complete translation reveals plans for a complex machine allowing for one human occupant inside a pod to be dropped into three rapidly spinning rings.
The nations of the world come together to fund the construction of The Machine at Cape Canaveral. An international panel is put together to select a representative from a pool of ten candidates (including both Arroway and Drumlin) to travel in The Machine. While Arroway is one of the top selections, her lack of religious faith is noted by Palmer Joss, a trusted friend and one-time lover, resulting in the panel selecting Drumlin. The Machine is then destroyed during a test in a suicide attack by a religious fanatic, killing Drumlin along with many crew members. Afterwards, Hadden reveals to Arroway the existence of a second identical machine hidden on Hokkaidō island, Japan, informing her that they "still want an American to go." Arroway accepts.
Arroway begins her journey, outfitted with several recording devices. When the pod travels through a series of wormholes, she is separated briefly and can observe the outside environment. This includes a radio array-like structure at Vega and signs of a highly advanced civilization on an unknown planet. She finds herself in a surreal landscape similar to a childhood picture of Pensacola, Florida, and approached by a blurry figure that resolves into that of her father. Arroway initially embraces her "father", but realizes that the alien has used images from her mind to appear as her father and the environment around her. Though Arroway attempts to ask deeper questions, the alien ignores them and states there are "many others" while explaining that this journey was just humanity's "first step" and that eventually, in time, humans will take another step. The alien describes humans as an "interesting species that are capable of such wonderful dreams and such horrible nightmares". He concludes by saying that, in all their searching, the only thing that makes the emptiness of the universe bearable is the company of each other.
Arroway considers these answers and falls unconscious, finding herself on the floor of the pod where she is being repeatedly called by the machine's control team. She learns that, from all external vantage points, she and the pod merely dropped through the Machine. She insists that she was gone for approximately 18 hours, but her recording devices only show static. Kitz resigns as National Security Advisor to lead a congressional committee to determine if the Machine was a fraud by Hadden, who had the resources to set up an elaborate hoax, but has since died. Arroway admits the lack of evidence to support her perception of the events, but maintains the validity of her story; her faith is backed by Joss. Kitz and White House Chief of Staff Rachel Constantine together reflect on the fact that Arroway's recording devices contained 18 hours of static, exactly the same amount of time she claimed to have traveled. Arroway is given continued grant money for the SETI program at the Very Large Array.
Carl Sagan conceived the idea for Contact in 1979. The same year, Lynda Obst, one of Sagan's closest friends, was hired by film producer Peter Guber to be a studio executive for his production company, Casablanca FilmWorks. She pitched Guber the idea for Contact, who commissioned a development deal. Sagan, along with wife Ann Druyan, wrote a 100+ page film treatment, finishing in November 1980. Druyan explained, "Carl's and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would actually be like, that would convey something of the true grandeur of the universe." They added the science and religion analogies as a metaphor of philosophical and intellectual interest in searching for the truth of both humanity and alien contact.
Sagan incorporated Kip Thorne's study of wormhole space travel into the screenplay. The characterization of Dr. Ellie Arroway was inspired by Dr. Jill Tarter, head of Project Phoenix of the SETI Institute; Jodie Foster researched the lead role by meeting her. Tarter served as a consultant on the story, realistically portraying struggling careers of women scientists from the 1950s to 1970s. The writers debated whether Arroway should have a baby at the film's end. Although Guber was impressed with Sagan and Druyan's treatment, he hired various screenwriters to rewrite the script. New characters were added, one of them a Native American park ranger-turned-astronaut. Guber suggested that Arroway have an estranged teenage son, whom he believed would add more depth to the storyline. "Here was a woman consumed with the idea that there was something out there worth listening to," Guber said, "but the one thing she could never make contact with was her own child. To me, that's what the film had to be about." Sagan and Druyan disagreed with Guber's idea and it was not incorporated into the storyline. In 1982, Guber took Contact to Warner Bros. Pictures and with the film laboring in development hell, Sagan started to turn his original idea into a novel, which was published by Simon & Schuster in September 1985. The film adaptation remained in development and Guber eventually vacated his position at Warner Bros. in 1989.
Guber became the new president of Sony Pictures Entertainment and tried to purchase the film rights of Contact from Warners, but the studio refused. Coincidentally, in 1989, Obst was hired as a new executive at Warners and began to fast track the film, by hiring more writers. Roland Joffé was eventually hired to direct, using a screenplay by James V. Hart. Joffé almost commenced pre-production before he dropped out and Obst then hired Michael Goldenberg to rewrite the script, who finished his second draft in late-1993. Goldenberg's second draft rekindled Warner Bros.' interest in Contact and Robert Zemeckis was offered the chance to direct, but he turned down the opportunity in favor of making a film based on the life of Harry Houdini. "The first script [for Contact] I saw was great until the last page and a half," Zemeckis recalled. "And then it had the sky open up and these angelic aliens putting on a light show and I said, 'That's just not going to work.'"
In December 1993, Warner Bros. hired George Miller to direct and Contact was greenlighted to commence pre-production. Miller cast Jodie Foster in the lead role, approached Ralph Fiennes to play Palmer Joss and also considered casting Linda Hunt as the President of the United States. In addition to having aliens put on a laser lighting display around Earth, another version of the Goldenberg scripts had an alien wormhole swallow up the planet, transporting Earth to the center of the galaxy. Miller also asked Goldenberg to rewrite Contact in an attempt to portray the Pope as a key supporting character. Warner Bros. was hoping to have the film ready for release by Christmas 1996, but under Miller's direction pre-production lasted longer than expected. The studio fired the director, blaming pushed-back start dates, budget concerns and Miller's insistence that the script needed five more weeks of rewriting. Robert Zemeckis, who previously turned down the director's position, decided to accept the offer. Warner Bros. granted Zemeckis total artistic control and the right of final cut privilege. The director cast Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, who dropped out of the lead role in The Jackal to take the role in Contact. Despite being diagnosed with Myelodysplasia in 1994, Sagan continued to be involved in the production of the film. For the cast and main crew members, he conducted an academic conference that depicted a detailed history of astronomy.
Principal photography for Contact began on September 24, 1996 and ended on February 28, 1997. The first shooting took place at the Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico. "Shooting at the VLA was, of course, spectacular but also one of the most difficult aspects of our filming", producer Steve Starkey said. "It is a working facility so in order for us to accomplish shots for the movie, we had to negotiate with the National Science Foundation for 'dish control' in order to move the dishes in the direction we needed to effect the most dramatic shot for the story." Following arduous first weeks of location shooting in New Mexico and Arizona, production for Contact returned to Los Angeles for five months' worth of location and sound stage shooting utilizing a total of nine different sound stages at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank and Culver Studios. All together the art department created over 25 sets.
In an attempt to create a sense of realism for the storyline, principal CNN news outlet commentators were scripted into Contact. More than 25 news reporters from CNN had roles in the film and the CNN programs Larry King Live and Crossfire were also included. Ann Druyan makes a cameo appearance as herself, debating Rob Lowe's character, Richard Rank, on Crossfire. In January 1997, a second unit was sent to Puerto Rico for one week at the Arecibo Observatory.
Other second unit work took place in Fiji and Newfoundland. Also essential to the production were a host of technical consultants from the SETI Institute, the California Institute of Technology, the VLA and a former White House staff member to consult on Washington D.C. and government protocol issues. Sagan visited the set a number of times, where he also helped with last minute rewrites. Filming was briefly delayed with the news of his death on December 20, 1996. Contact was dedicated in part to his legacy.
Designing Contact's visual effects sequences was a joint effort between eight separate VFX companies. This included Sony Pictures Imageworks, Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic and Effects Associates. Weta Digital, in particular, was responsible for designing the wormhole sequence. Jodie Foster admitted she had difficulty with blue screen technology because it was a first for the actress. "It was a blue room. Blue walls, blue roof. It was just blue, blue, blue," Foster explained. "And I was rotated on a Lazy Susan with the camera moving on a computerized arm. It was really tough." News footage of then-President Bill Clinton was digitally altered to make it appear as if he is speaking about alien contact. This was not the original plan for the film; Zemeckis had initially approached Sidney Poitier to play the President, but the actor turned the role down in favor of The Jackal.
Shortly after Poitier's refusal, Zemeckis saw a NASA announcement in August 1996. "Clinton gave his Mars rock speech," the director explained, "and I swear to God it was like it was scripted for this movie. When he said the line 'We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say,' I almost died. I stood there with my mouth hanging open." One of the notable features of Contact is its use of digital color correction. This helped solve continuity errors during the location shooting at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. "The weather killed us, so we were going back in and changing it enough so that the skies and colors and times of day all seem roughly the same," visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston commented. The opening scale view shot of the entire Universe, lasting approximately three minutes, was inspired by the short documentary film Powers of Ten (1977). At the time, it was the longest continuous computer-generated effect for a live-action film, a distinction now held by the opening sequence from The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
The decoding of the extraterrestrial message, with its architectural drawings of the Machine, was created by Ken Ralston and Sony Pictures Imageworks. This is the sixth film collaboration between director Zemeckis and VFX supervisor Ralston. Imageworks created over 350 visual effects shots, utilizing a combination of model and miniature shots and digital computer work. On designing the Machine, Zemeckis explained that "The Machine in Sagan's novel was somewhat vague, which is fine for a book. In a movie, though, if you're going to build a giant physical structure of alien design, you have to make it believable." He continued that "it had to be huge, so that the audience would feel like it was bigger than man should be tinkering with. It had to look absolutely real." The machine was then designed by concept artist Steve Burg, reusing a conceptual design he had originally created to appear as the "Time Displacement Device" in Terminator 2 in a scene that didn't make it to the final cut.
Early conceptual designs of the Pod itself were based, as it existed in the novel, on one of the primary shapes in geometry, a dodecahedron or a twelve-sided figure. Eventually the Pod was modified to a spherical capsule that encases the traveler. Zemeckis and the production crew also made several visits to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, where officials allowed them access to sites off-limits to most visitors. Filmmakers were also brought onto Launch Pad V prior to the launch of the space shuttle. There, they concentrated on the mechanics of the elevator and the gantry area and loading arm. The resulting photographs and research were incorporated into the design of the Machine's surrounding supports and gantry. Once the concept met with the filmmakers' approval, physical construction began on the sets for the Pod itself, the interior of the elevator and the gantry, which took almost four months to build. The remainder effects were compiled digitally by Imageworks.
The climactic scene depicting the mysterious beach near the galactic core where Arroway makes "contact", in particular, called for major visual innovations. The goal was an idyllic seashore with a sky blazing with stars that might exist near the core of the galaxy. Ralston said that "the thought was that this beach would have a heightened reality. One that might make the everyday world seem like a vague daydream." To keep the question alive whether any of it was real in Arroway's mind, elements such as ocean waves running in reverse and palm tree shadows swaying with sped up motion were applied.
The Hitler newsreel also required digital manipulation.
Contact frequently suggests cultural conflicts between religion and science would be brought to the fore by the apparent contact with aliens that occurs in the film. A point of discussion is the existence of a god, with a number of different positions being portrayed. A description of an emotionally-intense experience by Palmer Joss, which he describes as seeing God, is met by Arroway's suggestion that "some part of [him] needed to have it"; that it was a significant personal experience but indicative of nothing greater. Joss compares his certainty that God exists to Arroway's certainty that she loved her deceased father, despite being unable to prove it.
Contact depicts intense debate occurring as a result of the apparent contact with aliens. Many clips of well-known debate shows such as Crossfire and Larry King Live are shown, with participants discussing the implications of 'The Message,' asking whether it is proof of the existence of alien life or of God, and whether science is encroaching upon religious ground by, as one believer puts it, "talking to your god for you." The head of a religious organization casts doubt on the morality of building the Machine, noting that "we don't even know whether [the aliens] believe in God." The first Machine is ultimately destroyed by a religious extremist, in the belief that building it was detrimental to humankind.
Although the revelation at the end of the film that Arroway's recording device recorded approximately 18 hours of static is arguably conclusive proof of the fact of - if not the experience of - her "journey," there are a number of coincidences and indications throughout the film that cast doubt on its authenticity. Director Robert Zemeckis indicates that "the point of the movie is for there always to be a certain amount of doubt [as to whether the aliens were real]." These indications mostly consist of visual cues during the "journey" which echo Ellie's experiences earlier in the film (which Ellie believed to be the result of the aliens "downloading [her] thoughts and memories"), but the timing of the Message's arrival and its eventual decoding are also highly coincidental: the Message was first received shortly before Arroway and her team were to be ejected from the VLA facility, and was only successfully decoded by S.R. Hadden (Arroway's only sponsor, who was close to death from cancer) after weeks of failed attempts by the team at the VLA.
At the end of the film, Arroway is put into a position which she had traditionally viewed with skepticism and contempt: that of believing something with complete certainty, despite being unable to prove it in the face not only of widespread incredulity and skepticism (which she admits that as a scientist she would normally share), but of evidence apparently to the contrary.
Zemeckis stated that he intended the message of the film to be that science and religion can co-exist rather than being opposing camps, as shown by the coupling of scientist Arroway with the religious Joss, as well as his acceptance that the "journey" indeed took place. This, and scattered references throughout the film posit that science and religion are not nominally incompatible: one interviewer, after asking Arroway whether the construction of The Machine - despite not knowing what will happen when it is activated - is too dangerous, suggests that it is being built on the "faith" that the alien designers, as Arroway puts it, "know what they're doing."
Contact had its premiere on July 1, 1997 at the Westwood Theater in Los Angeles, California. The film was released in the United States on July 11, 1997 in 1,923 theaters, earning $20,584,908 in its opening weekend. Contact eventually grossed $100.92 million in the US and $70.2 million in foreign countries, reaching a worldwide total of $171.12 million. With VHS release in early-December 1997, Contact earned an additional $49 million in rental figures. Warner Home Video released Contact on DVD later that month, containing two separate audio commentaries by director Robert Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey, and visual effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum, along with one by star Jodie Foster.
Contact received a generally average-favorable response from critics. Based on 51 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 65% of the critics enjoyed the film with an average score of 6.7/10. Contact was more balanced with 12 critics with the website's "Top Critics" poll, earning a 50% approval rating with a 6.3/10 score. By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 62/100, based on 22 reviews. Roger Ebert gave a largely positive critique, believing Contact was on par with Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to study Hollywood's most cinematic study of extraterrestrial life. "Movies like Contact help explain why movies like Independence Day leave me feeling empty and unsatisfied," Ebert commented.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film carried a more philosophical portrait of the science fiction genre compared to other films, but believed Contact still managed "to satisfy the cravings of the general public who simply want to be entertained," he said. Internet reviewer James Berardinelli called Contact "one of 1997's finest motion pictures, and is a forceful reminder that Hollywood is still capable of making magic." Berardinelli also felt the film was on par with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle largely enjoyed the first 90 minutes of Contact, but felt that director Robert Zemeckis was too obsessed with visual effects rather than cohesive storytelling for the pivotal climax. Rita Kempley, writing in The Washington Post, gave a largely negative review. She did not like the film's main premise, which Kempley described as "a preachy debate between sanctity and science".
Sound designers Randy Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis S. Sands and William B. Kaplan were nominated the Academy Award for Sound but lost to Titanic. Jodie Foster was nominated the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, but Judi Dench was awarded the category for her work in Mrs. Brown. Contact won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation over The Fifth Element, Gattaca, Men in Black and Starship Troopers. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films awarded individual awards to Jodie Foster (Best Actress and Jena Malone (Best Performance by a Younger Actor at the 24th Saturn Awards. Director Robert Zemeckis, writers James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, film score composer Alan Silvestri and the visual effects supervisors also received Saturn Award nominations. Contact was nominated the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, but lost to Men in Black.
On July 14, 1997, three days after Contact's opening day release in the United States, Warner Bros. received a letter from the White House Counsel, Charles Ruff protesting the use of then-President Bill Clinton's digitally composited appearance. The letter made no demands to director Robert Zemeckis or Warner Bros. in terms of pulling release prints, film trailers or other marketing, but defined the length and manner of Clinton's appearance as "inappropriate." No legal action was planned; the White House Counsel simply wanted to send a message to Hollywood to avoid unauthorized uses of the President's image. Zemeckis was reminded that official White House policy "prohibits the use of the President in any way ... (that) implies a direct ... connection between the President and a commercial product or service."
A Warner Bros. spokeswoman explained that "we feel we have been completely frank and upfront with the White House on this issue. They saw scripts, they were notified when the film was completed, they were sent a print well in advance of the film's July 11 opening, and we have confirmation that a print was received there July 2." However, Warner Bros. did concede that they never pursued or received formal release from the White House for the use of Clinton's image. While the Counsel commented that parody and satire are protected under the First Amendment, press secretary Mike McCurry believed that "there is a difference when the President's image, which is his alone to control, is used in a way that would lead the viewer to believe he has said something he really didn't say."
Shortly after the White House's complaint, CNN chairman, president and CEO Tom Johnson announced he believed that in hindsight it was a mistake to allow 13 members of CNN's on-air staff (including Larry King and Bernard Shaw) to appear in the film, even though both CNN and Warner Bros. are owned by Time Warner. Johnson added that, in the case of Contact, the CNN presence "creates the impression that we're manipulated by Time Warner, and it blurs the line." CNN then changed their policies for future films, which now requires potential appearances to be cleared through their ethics group.
During the filming of Contact on December 28, 1996, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola filed a posthumous lawsuit against Carl Sagan and Warner Bros. Pictures. Sagan had died that December 20, six days before Coppola filed his lawsuit. "All I can say is, when a man writes a complaint with his lawyer while your husband is dying after a third bone-marrow transplant," Ann Druyan, widow of Sagan, continued, "and then waits for him to die so he can file it - it's outrageous." Producer Lynda Obst commented: "Ann and Carl made up this idea from scratch, piece by piece. I sat in the room watching them do it. Of course Carl had been thinking about alien encounters all his life. He's the one who made the subject credible in science. And for Coppola to file a lawsuit within days after he died — it's appalling."
Scott Edelman, who represented Druyan, added, "... It exceeds all bounds of decency that after waiting over 20 years, he chose to sue Sagan six days after he died." Coppola claimed that Sagan's novel was actually based on a story the pair had developed for a television special back in 1975, titled First Contact. Under their development agreement, Coppola and Sagan were to split proceeds from the project with American Zoetrope and Children's Television Workshop Productions, as well as any novel Sagan would write. The TV program was never produced, but in 1985, Simon & Schuster published Contact and Warner Bros. moved forward with development of a film adaptation. Coppola sought to seek at least $250,000 in compensatory damages and an injunction against production or distribution of the film.
In February 1998, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ricardo Torres dismissed Coppola's claim. Although Torres agreed that Sagan violated some terms of the contract, he explained that Coppola waited too long to file his lawsuit, and that the contract might not be enforceable as it was written. Coppola then appealed his suit, taking it to The California Courts of Appeal (CCA). In April 2000, the CCA dismissed his suit, finding that Coppola’s claims were barred because they were brought too late. The court noted that it was not until 1994 when the filmmaker thought about suing over Contact.
The scene where the NASA scientists give Arroway the cyanide pill caused some controversy during production and also when the film came out. Gerald D. Griffin, the film's NASA advisor, insisted that NASA has never, ever given any astronaut a cyanide pill "just in case," and that if an astronaut truly wished to commit suicide in space, all he or she would have to do is cut off their oxygen supply. However, Carl Sagan insisted that NASA did indeed give out cyanide pills and they did it for every mission an astronaut has ever flown. Zemeckis said that because of the two radically different viewpoints, the truth is unknown, but he left the cyanide pill scene in the movie as it seemed more suspenseful that way and it was also in line with Sagan's beliefs and vision of the film.