Warner’s 1080p VC-1 Blu-ray release of Robert Zemeckis’ CONTACT is a healthy improvement over its earlier DVD counterpart. That said, there is still a somewhat noticeable amount of DNR applied, though not as distracting as some other recent titles (e.g. Universal’s SPARTACUS). Film grain is still present, but one gets the feeling there should be more. Backgrounds are a little soft now and then, but faces never look waxy. So while a less-manipulated transfer would be nice, this one still looks good enough not to distract from the film’s enjoyment. Warner’s presents it here in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Audio is also improved over the DVD release with a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. While not as dynamic as one might expect, the sound does kick in strong in some of the more crucial effects-driven sequences. However, basic ambience during the quieter scenes is somewhat lacking. Again, nothing that will distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.
CONTACT was originally scripted by scientist Carl Sagan, who also authored the novel. It took nearly 15 years for the script to find its way to the big screen and, sadly, Sagan died six months before the film’s release. But many of Sagan’s messages and questions remain intact despite some studio tampering that knocks the intelligence of the film down a few notches. And it’s a shame because truly smart and provocative science fiction films are rare these days. And while CONTACT is still among the better of the last 20 years, there are a few unfortunate decisions that were made during the film’s creation that result in the story being somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading now as there are spoilers afoot!
The first and least offensive unfortunate moment comes later in the film when Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss visits Jody Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway to confess that the reason he did not vote for her to go on the mission was because he couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. This is a man who puts truth before all else. The idea that he would make any selfish decisions based on his feelings for a woman he slept with once and conversed with half a dozen times is insincere and unmotivated. It completely betrays the integrity of Joss and reads as nothing more than a manufactured Hollywood moment. It also highlights a lack of faith in the film’s ability to convey the intricacies of a romance that was, up until this moment, both believable and layered.
Then there’s the climax of the film, which would have been challenging enough for any director to successfully pull off, but Zemeckis’ choice to play it out on an effects-heavy landscape almost completely squeezes the life out of the film. What should have by all rights been a simple beach setting becomes a weak effects extravaganza that not only takes away from the intimacy of the moment, but looks downright awful. Not even Foster’s staggeringly emotional performance, so raw and honest throughout the film, can save this scene. The characters simply take a back seat to all the toys at play.
And finally, the most damaging of all script decisions is the one in which the filmmakers let you know, unequivocally, that what Ellie believes happened to her actually did. When it is revealed that her camera filmed 18 hours of static, the possibility for the audience to walk out with questions and opinions was instantly taken away. Even Foster’s performance, which was so clearly in the service of setting up these ambiguities, is undone by this simple revelation. One can hear the studio execs complaining that audiences “need to know whether or not it was real!” God forbid we should think for ourselves.
So while CONTACT still remains one of the more engaging, thoughtful and entertaining science fiction films of the past 20 years, it still suffers from some unfortunate decisions in the film’s final third that take a small but painful bite out of the movie’s intelligence and reason. Luckily, there’s enough of Sagan’s thoughfulness and imagination left, in addition to Foster’s honest and heartfelt performance, to make it well worth seeing.