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If you're looking for the answers to life's big questions, summer blockbusters are not usually the place to go. Addled by excessive gunfire, rapid edits and throwaway taglines, most moviegoers are so exhausted by July that they stand in the heavy heat of a movie ticket line expecting to be loudly underwhelmed. Then along comes a movie like "Contact" and you sit in silent awe of a beast powerful enough in its quiet simplicity and grand, sweeping themes to make you swear off the big guns forever. Well, perhaps not forever. But for two hours, "Contact" is about the best escape you're likely to find until the sun starts setting early.

The opening scene is a dazzler; starting with a tracking shot of the earth, and all the billions of radio waves coming out of the ionosphere (rap music, AM talk shows, dance beats). We travel backwards through the solar system, with the sounds getting older and older. By the time we get to the gas giants, we hear old television broadcasts, then old radio shows, finally descending into the furthest planets, when we can faintly pick up a few early Marconi experiments. Then...static.

Static is the movie's unspoken theme—a word that can mean "stationary" and "unmoving" also, ironically, is what you get from too many sources, too much information, too much noise, and not enough direction. Ellie Arroway, our heroine, played with vulnerable tenacity by Jodie Foster, spends her life trying to filter a signal from the static, both in her spiritual life and in the radio waves of a night sky. As the ultimate cynic, she is also an idealist, seeking truth even at the expense of faith (at her father's funeral, the priest tells the 9-year-old Ellie that some things happen because God wills it so. "I should have kept his medication downstairs," she says, and turns away).

Ellie lands a job at the Very Large Array radio telescope site in New Mexico and sets out to search for intelligent life in the skies. Belittled by everybody, her project suddenly finds a signal from the Vega system that is as complicated as it is fascinating. Unlike the trailers to this film, which give away a criminally large portion of the ending, I'll leave it at this: The journey Ellie takes is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful things I've ever seen on the screen. The audience at Chapel Hill's Carolina Theater sat clutching the armrests as though they were on a trip to the stars. Unbelievable.

There are a few things that interrupt the dream, for sure; Robert Zemeckis, who directed the amazing "Back To The Future" and the dimwitted "Forrest Gump" has trouble keeping his emotional checkbook balanced. Ellie's love interest, Palmer Joss, "spiritual advisor to the White House," is probably too complicated a character for this movie's intentions (and perhaps Matthew McConaughey is too young and handsome to play him), but it's OK. This is Jodie Foster's spaceship all the way. Her devastatingly sad intensity is catching and chronic; her blue eyes saying more in a nanosecond than most can in a career.

This is a movie about the big questions: Is there a God? Are we alone? Is there any sense to the rushed madness that we call a world?

There is a fantastic bit in Carl Sagan's original 1985 novel, left out of the movie but germane nonetheless. Ellie is arguing with Palmer about faith and science. Ellie says she has put all her faith in science, and Palmer makes her stand in front of a gigantic Foucault pendulum. Science states that the pendulum cannot swing back farther than where it was let go, but when Ellie puts her face to the pendulum, she still flinches when the pendulum swings back. I dare any of you to see this movie and not flinch a little when the big questions float by.

—Ian Williams

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© Copyright 2002 Ian Williams