Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cat's Away: First Contact

This is the first night in my film festival Cat's Away, as I watch (at least) one movie per night while my wife is overseas for ten nights.

There are any number of reasons why Robert Zemeckis' Contact might have made a good opening night film for Cat's Away, but I originally imagined watching it this Saturday afternoon, after my kids get picked up to go for a sleepover at their aunt's.

I don't know why I thought it would be well suited for an afternoon time slot, except maybe relative to the movies I had planned after that (which shall remain shrouded in secrecy for now).

But I ultimately changed my tune as a result of the overriding philosophy of this festival, which is: Don't plan too rigidly. I keep adding to the custom list of possible titles on Letterboxd -- it's up to 30 films now -- and I do really want my whims to help dictate what I watch. And so I discarded two other opening night films I thought I'd settled on and moved Contact up to the front.

What makes it such a good opening night film?

Well for one, the film is celebrating its 20th anniversary. This very month, in fact. Contact opened in the U.S. on July 11, 1997, and part of the reason I remember this (other than looking it up on the internet) was that I saw it on a date with a girl I'd met on the 4th of July. (It was one of only two dates we had.) There should always be a spot in a film festival for a film celebrating a landmark anniversary, and opening night seems as good as any time to do it.

Then there's the fact that it's also a tribute of sorts to John Hurt, who plays a small but significant role in this film. Twenty years before he actually did die, Hurt played a Richard Branson/Elon Musk-style billionaire visionary dying of cancer, who wants the legacy of his immense fortune to be playing a major role in putting humans in touch with extra terrestrials. It was poignant to see the man we lost this January, whom I belatedly celebrated in the most recent post on this blog, in a role in which his own mortality was a pressing consideration.

But then I just like the expansiveness, the philosophical struggle between science and religion, and the sheer ambition at the core of Contact as a symbolic way to usher in a viewing series. The film prides itself in taking measure of the entire breadth of existence in the universe, a theme it gives us straight off the bat with that terrific opening shot that starts with a satellite's view of the earth, then pulls out by millions of light years until the galaxies fly by as little specks, finishing in the iris of our protagonist as a young girl, dreaming dreams of infinity. In that one shot, the film also takes in the entirety of every other story that has ever been told in the movies.

But enough with all the ways Contact might work as the opening of a real film festival. This is a film festival of one, so I'll shift to my personal takeaways as I watched this movie for probably the third time overall, but possibly only the first time this century.

The MVP bit player of 1997

Contact was my #2 ranked movie of 1997. My fourth ranked film was Starship Troopers.

Only on this viewing -- which falls less than two months after my most recent Starship Troopers viewing -- did I realize that both movies feature the same bit player.

And I'm talking about an itty bitty bit player, a blink and you'll miss him player. This guy, in fact:

His name is Timothy McNeil, and it took a lot of random clicking in IMDB before I finally figured out which one was the right guy. In Troopers, he's probably a bit more memorable despite less screen time than he has here. He plays a talking head expert on a TV show who has the following line: "Frankly, I find the notion of a bug that thinks offensive." Or something to that effect.

In Contact, he's one of the other astronomer geeks who mans the station with Jodie Foster's Ellie Arroway at the beginning of the film. He disappears after that but he's in two or three scenes and has about that many lines of dialogue in each.

Is Timothy McNeil in any way crucial to the success of two of my favorite films of 1997?

Of course not, but it was fun to notice it anyway.

Oh, and in case you're keeping track at home, Starship Troopers has flip-flopped with Contact in my favorite films of 1997 on Flickchart, with Troopers occupying the #2 spot, Contact the #4 and Boogie Nights in between them. As it was in 1997, Titanic is still ranked above them (though I actually think I like Troopers better). Incidentally, my #3 movie when I did my rankings in 1997, or rather early 1998, was Face/Off, which has dropped all the way to #8 -- the exact ranking Boogie Nights had then. So they too have flip-flopped.

Alright alright alright

I was struck by just how young, and how studly, Matthew McCounaghey looks in this first scenes here. This was one of the actor's earliest showcases, in his first ascendant period before he slummed it in romantic comedies for the better part of a decade.

It was interesting to see him occupying kind of the opposite role to the one he played 17 years later in Interstellar, at the height of his second ascendancy. In fact, both characters expend dialogue on the elasticity of time in space, as McConaughey's Palmer Joss talks about how four years in space could be the equivalent of 50 Earth years for the prospective traveler to Vega, the source of the radio transmission that has left everyone aflutter. However, the conclusion is quite different from McConaughey's Cooper in Interstellar, who jumps at the opportunity to fly to impossible distant worlds and possibly never come back to Earth. Palmer Joss looks at the exact same scenario and says "Why would you want to do that?"

So I guess I'm saying he really is multi-talented.

The woman gets to be the careerist

Contact was feminism before Hollywood was really all that worried about it. I really like how Ellie never lets love sway her from her professional goals, and not only because her romance with Palmer Joss is always a bit half-baked, more of a screen contrivance than a genuine emotional component of the film.

In fact, she's the one who runs out on him after a one-night stand, declining to call him. Sadly, that's the role stereotypically ascribed to the man, while the woman, presumably the one more focused on monogamy, is desperate for any scraps of his attention. But yeah, she leaves Palmer cold and pining for her.

He's also kind of the traditional beauty -- the other role usually played by the woman -- while she is of course beautiful, but prized particularly for her brains.

Good on ya, Contact.


A very minor point here but this is the fourth and last of my notes, despite not being the totality of my impressions, so I thought I'd give it its own subheading anyway.

When Hurt's S.R. Hadden first reaches out to Ellie by hacking into top secret information, sending her little riddles, she types back on her oh-so-dated computer screen: "Who are you?"

I don't know why this occurred to me, but isn't "Who is this?" the more likely phrasing there?

The semantics between the two are similar but one sort of feels more natural. I guess the difference could come down to accusation vs. inquisitiveness.

If someone is prank calling you and you want it to stop, you demand "Who is this?" But when someone is dangling a carrot in front of you and you want to eat that carrot, perhaps you are more likely to say "Who are you?" as the more open means of communicating the same query. "Who is this?" is a stop sign; "Who are you?" is a green for go.


In my final estimation of Contact, I don't like it quite as much as I once did, but I also marveled over how well it moves for being a 140-minute movie which goes long stretches without what you would consider as traditional "action." In fact, I suppose you could say there's almost no "action," if you are defining that as set pieces or moments that rely specifically on the physical, to speak of.

Instead, this is a film that exists on the strength of its ideas, and the occasional ways it blows your mind ... whether you are a fan of that ending or no.

Good start here -- nine more nights (and blog posts) to go.

No comments: