To coincide with the 25th anniversary of Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi classic, Luke Walpole looks back on its perfectly pitched lead turn
In Performance Review, writers go deep on the performances that continue to obsess or fascinate them years after a film's release. As Contact turns 25, Luke Walpole explores Jodie Foster's crucial casting sells us the film's big ideas
In July 1996, Independence Day delivered an explosive extra-terrestrial apocalypse for a baying public, hoovering up more than $800 million worldwide at the box office and making a certified star of its lead star Will Smith. In the world of the Hollywood machine, it seemed inevitable that the next expensive sci-fi yarn to come along – this one roughly a year later – would follow suit.
Not quite. Based on astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, Contact isn’t even really about aliens. Instead, it’s a film which sits at the crossroads of religion, politics and science, supplanting Roland Emmerich’s operatic mayhem with Robert Zemeckis’ finely-tuned sentiment. It's also a work simultaneously grounded and elevated by a layered, magnetic performance from its lead actor, Jodie Foster, whose physicality and sheer star power ensures Contact's status as one of the most affecting sci-fi pictures ever made.
As the film begins, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie”Arroway (Foster) is desperately searching for extraterrestrial life. Subtly subverting many of the Hollywood roles available to leading women at the time, Foster is no ingenue and doesn’t need to be fixed or saved. She laconically swigs beer by the bottle, marches around with unbridled enthusiasm, and casually sleeps with Palmer Joss (a beautifully cast Matthew McConaughey, playing a preacher-turned philosopher) before casting his number aside. There’s a self-confident, charismatic swagger to Foster’s performance – unabashed smile, boundless energy and all – which is gradually besieged by the cynics around her.
Upon making radio contact with the planet Vega from her base in New Mexico, Ellie has to grapple with those seeking to make the discovery their own; politicians, religious leaders, and other scientists. This is coyly summarised when the characters debate whether the aliens’ (yes, Vegans) cryptic message is a passage of the “encyclopedia galactica,” terms of the Vegans’ “colonisation procedure,” or “a few billion new commandments.” Thrust into this situation, Foster has to play politics in a way which is utterly (ahem) alien to her. When passed over for the opportunity to explain her findings to the press, her slumped shoulders show an initial hint of resignation. Yet central to Foster’s charm – and why her casting proves to be such a masterstroke – is her indefatigable nature. She may be down, but she’s never out.
Foster physically manifests the courage of her convictions and fully commands the screen, taking control of the narrative and selling us her position in a way that enhances the themes of the film. Of course, by 1997 she was already no stranger to doing so in the company of condescending men. Just five years previously the actor took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, another woman caught in a man’s world. In Contact, she has no qualms with ordering a group of soldiers out of her research station, taking the President’s advisors to task, or fixing Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) – the man who so often seeks to take the credit for her work – with such daggers in her expression that you’re surprised they don’t tear the screen apart.
Her steel is tempered by an undeniable melancholy, a balance Foster delicately conveys throughout. As a child, Ellie asks her father whether there's a radio out there capable of reaching her deceased mother. Later, at her father’s wake, a pastor explains the desperate situation away with a vague platitude, and it is in that moment religion is made redundant to a young girl cut adrift in the world.
Tellingly, Zemeckis often frames his star (in every sense of the word) alone in the midst of enormous vistas, whether the span of the cosmos or the reach of the New Mexican desert. In doing so, the director beautifully shows the perfect isolation of Earth when set against the entire galaxy, and the untethered life of an orphaned young woman seeking the impossible chance to speak with her parents. Yet it is Ellie’s childlike exuberance which comes bursting through Foster’s beaming blue eyes when she talks about the possibility of life somewhere in the universe, Foster expertly channelling the lingering sadness of the character's younger self into the present day woman.
Unsurprisingly, given the film’s tone, the meeting which the film builds to for so long is understated. There is no grand reveal or pearl of infinite wisdom. Instead, the truth which Ellie has sought for so long is difficult to grasp, like sand falling through her fingers. In doing so, the character must reconcile her desire for connection with her scientific knowledge that there are no easy answers in the universe, a conundrum etched on Foster's face throughout.
Contact thrives thanks to a script which wryly narrows the gap between science and faith, with Foster so often embodying this overlap. She continually listens to radio waves with her eyes closed, as though caught in prayer, and is later described as the “high priestess of the desert” thanks to her diligent control over the research station’s work. In its final act, the film fully commits to this symbiosis. Met with an incredulity on her “return” to Earth, she concedes her lack of evidence, the probability of Occam’s Razor (that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is often correct), and nevertheless appeals to the public’s better nature. In short, she asks them for their faith. Foster delivers it all with utter clarity.
It's in this moment that Ellie becomes a prophet. Someone who, through their cast-iron belief in a deeper meaning, is gifted with supernatural insight. Hauled up in front of an inquiry, and under the poisonous stare of the President’s security advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods), she must prove the unprovable and convince the world of what she saw through force of character alone. Caught on the edge of tears, Foster masterfully holds the audience's attention, speaking with a righteous and sincere conviction despite the lack of tangible evidence.
It’s a performance and a film which have left their mark. Amy Adams’ role in Arrival – as Dr. Louise Banks – is a spiritual descendent of Foster/Arroway, while Interstellar and Contact share more than just Matthew McConaughey. While Christopher Nolan’s film is set in a vaguely dystopian future, its focus on the transcendental power of love absolutely echoes Contact’s worldview. More gallingly, the media circus and fierce battle to own the narrative – fought between scientists, opportunistic politicians, greedy corporations and ferocious evangelicals – is something which feels even more acute in today’s climate.
But to call Contact cynical would be unfair. Thanks, in large parts, to Foster, the feeling we're left with is undeniably hopeful, exemplified by Ellie and Palmer's coming together in the film’s final scene, the marriage of science and faith which Zemeckis has been pining for throughout. As Palmer explains: “Our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of truth.” And in Foster’s enlightened expression you can see it all; the hope that science and faith can not only be reconciled, but actively work together; the wish of a little girl who wants to speak to her parents again; and a pioneering scientist determined to continue her work no matter the obstacles put in her way.
Contact is available on various streaming services.