Film: If there isn't life on other worlds, it's a waste of space

So say the men in Jodie Foster's life in `Contact'. And, wide- eyed and trusting, she's off in search of her extra-terrestrial cousins.

Contact

Robert Zemeckis (PG)

In the 20 years since Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released, the margin between those who believe in extra-terrestrial life and those who regard such belief as the sign of a derailed mind has swiftly narrowed, yet the disparity is still fresh enough in the memory for the writers of to feel the need to differentiate between two strains of UFO enthusiasts. Them and us. On the one hand, there are the eccentrics who bring their deckchairs and flasks and camp out at space stations upon news of messages from another world. The slow, cautious tour which the camera takes through this crowd is a way for the film-makers to nudge us in the ribs and whisper: get a load of these weirdos.

Then there are the sane believers. The ones who watch The X Files. The ones we don't have to ridicule because they're just like us. People like Ellie (Jodie Foster), the scientist who has discovered the alien transmissions. You can tell by her wide eyes, and the way that her faith has subsumed all traces of a sense of humour, that she means it, man. She's in it for the right reasons. Not to get on the six o'clock news, but to satisfy the yearning in her soul. Strange that a film that argues for a universal community should find it necessary to portray other human beings as aliens.

Like the orphaned hero of Static who believed he had picked up a television signal from heaven, Ellie's quest is driven by bereavement. Her father, who died when she was nine, used to say: "If there isn't life on other worlds, it seems like an awful waste of space." When the adult Ellie meets Palmer Ross (Matthew McConaughey), he spins her the same line. She's hooked. Well, don't all women want a man who's like their daddy? Palmer is a priest - sort of. Making Matthew McConaughey play celibate would be like casting Jim Carrey as a coma victim, so naturally he's excused from that part of the job. Curiously, the post-coital theology discussions are shot like demonstration scenes in a sex education video - tender, coy, gently explaining to the audience what goes where and why.

There's a good deal of clandestine condescension ensconced in the structure of . As the screenplay gains momentum, and is forced to deal with action as well as ideas, the director Robert Zemeckis relies more heavily on excerpts from fabricated news broadcasts to usher the plot along. The one human being who will be ferried to our extra-terrestrial cousins, in a machine designed from specifications sent to earth in coded messages, inevitably turns out to be Ellie. But at this most crucial point, the film pulls back from her and becomes a composite of TV excerpts. Zemeckis may be making some salient point about how television has united us, but on a more immediate level his approach severs our sympathies, so that stops being Ellie's story and becomes a news report on Ellie's story. That way, the picture can use the patronising, prosaic language of television news to inform us, without being seen to collaborate in the condescension. Or rather, that was the idea.

is full of tricks, some good, some wretched. Zemeckis is a wonderful technician - two backwards zooms, one through the galaxy, the other pulling out of a bathroom mirror, make this indisputable. But sometimes his choices prove that he's not half the craftsman he was when he directed Used Cars in 1979. He inflicts irreparable damage on by manipulating footage of President Clinton so that the President appears to be participating in the film. Why didn't Zemeckis go the whole hog and flash "from the director of Forrest Gump" on the screen?

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