Friday, July 25, 2008

Review - Contact

1998 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I have to confess that I have never read Carl Sagan's book Contact which this movie is based on but let this serve as a warning to those who feel that bad adaptations do not harm books: having seen the movie and disliking it makes me want to avoid the book. I reasonably understand that Carl Sagan is probably better at handling the science than the movie is but the science in the film is so bad I can't even think about looking at the book.

A radio astronomer has spent her life working with SETI and a few weeks before her project is shut down she detects a signal coming from Vega. The movie then goes into the world wide reaction as it is decoded and a strange machine based on plans included in the signal is created. The hundred foot tall machine is designed so that a person travels into it when it is activated meaning that most people suspect that it is an interstellar communicator or a transportation device but the only way to know for sure is to turn it on and send someone in.

When I say the science in the movie is bad I'm not talking about the magic-tech alien science. I can accept that as part of the premise of the movie. The idea that people might think that a signal from Vega could be faked, on the other hand, demonstrates a lack of understanding of grade school science. It doesn't take a scientific genius to realize that this would require blocking every single potential receiver on earth in perfect line with Vega indefinitely. The only way to fake it would be to get your signal source well outside of the solar system. Around Vega would be about right.

That sums up the problems with the science in the film. It's in half measures getting loose concepts right but fills in the details so poorly it makes me want to scream. No one has any idea of what the giant alien machine is supposed to do but they know its working properly. No one takes into account the fact that giant spinning electromagnets might interfere with electronic equipment. The scientist objects to taking along even basic observational tools. And perhaps most egregious of all is that no one in the film grasps the concept of recording data and duplicating results.

Since Contact is a film about science being unable to get elementary concepts correct is a bad problem, but the movie goes on to have a central theme of faith and how science and faith have to work together since both are "the search for truth". I'm not a touchy atheist who feels the need to slap down any religion that I come across but that made me angry. That unfortunately is how far too many people think of "science", it's an attitude I've come across far too often, and it speaks of a mind happily wallowing in ignorance and refusing to make even a basic attempt to understand the world around them.

Then there's the other theme in the movie: everything the government does is bad or wrong in some way. When the alien signal is detected the US government is angry that they let foreign sites track it completely missing the concept of the rotation of the earth. They bring an armed military escort along with them mainly so our heroic scientist can express a dislike of firearms. The government man gets credit for the project because he's part of the government and the government says so despite the fact that our main characters were well known in the field and already publicly acknowledged as the ones who did the work. Every time the US government is involved they are at best corrupt and at worst incompetent. I'm not fond of government but as presented in Contact they couldn't run a softball team let alone a country.

Then there are the characters. We're supposed to be building sympathy with the radio astronomer played by Jodi Foster who is our view point character but she doesn't confront adversity so much as whine at it until it goes away or she is handed a solution to her problems by someone else. She's in a relationship with a non-denominational preacher who insists that belief is as important as evidence. Everyone else is essentially a non-entity who exist only in service of the plot.

So I hated the characters, the themes, and above all else the science in the film. There were things I did like: the longest pull out shot in film history and the reactions of the public for example. Those were tangental to things that annoyed me in this movie. The plot could have worked if it wasn't undermined every few minutes by the insistance that faith is the equivelent of science and it has one of the worst climaxes I can think of. I'd say that this film is just better off ignored.