Higher Powers


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ATTENTION GUMP-HATERS: If your beef with that beloved American fable was director Robert Zemeckis's apparent celebration of a dumb guy's privilege, Contact aims to complicate your revulsion. Launching another pop-cultural trip down a long and winding road, Zemeckis presents his latest star-studded universe through the eyes of an anti-Gump--described near the start as "brilliant, driven, and a major pain in the ass." Needless to say, she's also a woman.

Thus, where our man Forrest Gump floated through life like a feather blowin' in the wind, Contact's Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) shoots for the stars but is grounded in constant struggle, her mission fueled by a burning desire to recover one father figure and elude a half-dozen others. This being analagous to the pixilated world according to Gump, Ellie is relegated to somewhere outside the newsreel frame, while her male rivals for the captain's seat share screen time with the president and entertain this sort of rhetorical question from Larry King: "On what basis do you choose a human being to represent humanity?"

For Ellie, a radio astronomer and aspiring astronaut, the only chance to escape this power-house of sound- and image-bytes is to push her way onto CNN and then leave the planet--but even that's not far enough. Seeking truth, she fends off a slew of conventions (including those in Carl Sagan's novel), endures an Anita Hill-style inquisition, and survives an FX trip to rival 2001--only to find another perfectly synthetic scene out of a Hollywood movie.

What a difference gender makes. Still, even when Zemeckis was hurling Michael J. Fox back to the future, his subject has always been the individual's relation to those larger forces that direct recorded history (e.g. Hollywood, the White House). In this way, Gump's media parade worked as much to identify power as to indulge it, while Contact reaches further to show that an image is never just an image. In one of the film's multilayered metaphors, Ellie discovers that a clip from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia--the earth's very first TV broadcast, in which Der Fuhrer inaugurated the Berlin games in 1936--has returned to us from outer space along with 25 extra frames-per-second of hidden text: not the E.T.s' critical essay on fascism in cinema, alas, but a sort of screening ticket to the stars in the form of instructions on how to build a spaceship.

Naturally, the minute Ellie decodes this signal, an army of men marches in to take control and/or credit (played by Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, John Hurt, Rob Lowe, and, as himself, Bill Clinton). Joining these "authors," Contact's umpteenth patriarch appears in a rather ominous end-title: "For Carl." Nevertheless, Sagan disciples will undoubtedly find billions and billions of ways in which Hollywood has blasphemed their sacred text--just as the movie itself climaxes with a courtroom debate over whose "vision" of Ellie's fantastic voyage should be credited. Does Ellie really see her dad in heaven? Or only what she wants to see? Or only what the aliens think she can handle? Or only the virtual-reality production of a capricious millionaire (Hurt? Sagan? Zemeckis? Take your pick...)?

This is what our heroine's subjectivity is up against. Not counting her singularly respectful (and notably blind) male assistant (William Fichtner), only Ellie's half-hearted love interest (McConaughey) professes belief in her version of events. And we don't believe him, on account of his proven duplicity and overall slimy demeanor (not to be confused with what critics often call Foster's "lack of chemistry" with her male co-stars).

So whose movie is this, anyway? Actually, the idea of appropriation-as-pop-cultural-power-play is key to Zemeckis's universe: Elvis steals his pelvis schtick from the leg-braced young Gump, Fox's Marty McFly samples a Chuck Berry riff (via Van Halen) for his white-bread prom and appears to invent it. (Could there be a more concise rendering of the "history" of pop music?) Where the director gets into trouble is when these stolen moments seem mystically fated, as in Contact's cringe-inducing subplot of McConaughey's theologian character giving Ellie a (moral) compass that magically saves her life. Still, the film's drama remains fully dimensioned because its other auteur is Jodie Foster--among the only actresses in Hollywood whose characters are not to be fucked with.

As in The Silence of the Lambs, Foster is brilliant here, but also perfectly chosen to play a career woman shaped by childhood trauma, "directed" by men with their own agendas, fighting to remain independent rather than alone, and required to hide something potentially unpopular about her personal life. "I don't understand the relevance of that question," Ellie says when asked in front of a slew of TV cameras whether she is...a believer in God.

No wonder the astronomer's philosophy of contact boils down to this: "Don't call me, I'll call you."

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