I was trying to delineate the difference between Robert Zemeckis's last two films to see what makes a great movie and how that's different from a movie that comes very close, but just doesn't hit a real home run. Forrest Gump is the movie that made it to great; Contact is the one that just didn't quite. Contact is still quite entertaining, but somehow it just didn't reach that plateau which made me bring literally everyone I know to see Forrest Gump, one at a time, until I knew the movie by heart.
What I have concluded is that a great movie is so idiosyncratic and unique that it is literally impossible to think, "It was good, but they just needed the right [writer, lead actor, director]." You simply can't imagine any of these three basic factors being changed and still having a good film. Nobody ever said, "Gee, that Forrest Gump really would have been something if Kevin Costner had been Forrest," or "if Spielberg could have gotten his hands on it." It needed Tom Hanks, Zemeckis, and writer Eric Roth. That's what made it, and that's also why they all have Oscars on their mantels right now.
Jodie Foster may have another Oscar on her mantel come March, but it's difficult to imagine that Zemeckis will be in contention again or that writers James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg will need to rent a tux.
I know it might seem mean, or unrealistic I guess is a good word, to expect Robert Zemeckis to hit it out of the park every time up, but I really am interested in the slight differences that distinguish the good from the great. I think the answer, in this case, is that the project just didn't need Robert Zemeckis. It needed him to get made in the first place, but it didn't need his particular vision to make it compelling. There may or may not have been someone out there who could have made Contact great, but almost any working director could have made it just as watchable. Nothing lifts Contact above the crowd and says, "Contact! This is what it is." Contact, as you probably have heard by now, is the story of Ellie Arroway, an astronomer obsessed with finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. She runs a program which tries to identify patterns in the radio transmissions constantly arriving from deep space which might distinguish intelligent transmissions from the noise that stars make. Despite cuts in funding and being looked down upon by the rest of the scientific community, Arroway battles on, obsessed by her need to reach out. Her best efforts aside, however, Arroway's funding is about to be cut when she suddenly finds what she's been waiting for: a pattern among the noise.
As David Letterman said, "The aliens faxed down the plans for a spaceship." Suddenly, Ellie Arroway isn't just that crazy chick who looks for aliens, she's that brilliant visionary who found the aliens. The next big question, obviously, is who's going to fly the mother. I don't want to ruin the expertly crafted suspense, but I will say that the obstacles to Ellie's selection are among the best things about the film. Contact sets the stakes extraordinarily high, and generally pays off in the end. There are some truly unsatisfying things about the payoff as well, but you have to admire whoever had the guts to bring the plot of the film so far to the brink.
Jodie Foster does a good job as Arroway, despite the character's stupid name. Every time Matthew McConnaughey said, "Ellie," I cringed. It just sounds dumb. Nevertheless, Foster's full-bore intensity is on display, and you have to like her and admire her character's resourcefulness and determination. One thing, though. Forget the hats, Jodie. Really, darling, they're too much. You look like a refugee, and refugee chic is so over.
A word about the ending. It's a huge surprise, and a lot of people felt let down by it, myself included. And yet, following the very valid thoughts of the film through to their conclusions, there really can't be another ending. Any alterations would knock over the ideological house of cards. Maybe that's the problem with the film. It knows itself so well, it leaves barely any room for heart.
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