September 04, 2006


My initial reaction... well, my very initial reaction was that I liked the intro sequence. But when people started getting involved in the story, it seemed to go downhill. Clichés everywhere! And incredibly ham-handed. When Jodie Foster's character finally came out with her mathematically illiterate line about there being millions of planets with intelligent life—less than twenty minutes into the show!—I had had it, and had to pause the show and take a break.

But, I'm supposed to be reviewing this as a potential text, so I had to go back to it. It got a bit better later. But I spent a huge amount of time rolling my eyes at the clunkiness of the whole thing; particularly, I noticed, in scenes that involved Matthew McConaughey. Not that he was doing a bad acting job, per se, but more that when his character was in play was when the worst of the glaringly obvious cinematic ploys were taken.

That, in turn, probably has to do with the reason this show was picked in the first place. It positions itself as a debate between faith and science—with McConaughey cast as faith, and Foster as science—and is furthermore painted on a backdrop of alien first contact, as is The Sparrow, one of our other texts this term. This territory is staked out quite early in the film, and as soon as McConaughey becomes the avatar of faith, it becomes clear that science avatar Foster will clash with him a few times before having some experience that converts her to the cause of faith. Oh, and she'll sleep with him. (They got that part over with quickly enough, anyway.)

Other characters, though entertaining (or infuriating, as the case may be), were also poorly drawn. We had the Supportive Coworker, the Slimy Supervisor, the Eccentric Tycoon, and so on. Several deus ex machina devices to advance the plot.

Am I being too harsh? The movie certainly had its nice moments. The human reactions to the existence of life on Vega were probably spot-on, and very funny. Some of the graphics work was very nice (although some of it totally fell flat). Foster and McConaughey did what they could with what they were given. But even aside from the sometimes-schlocky writing, I also found it hard to get past the plot holes.

Spoilers (highlight to reveal): For instance, just how many years is Clinton supposed to be President for? Even assuming the first message was received in 1993 (though it seemed like it was supposed to be "now", i.e. 1997), there appeared to be months of trying to fit the pieces together, and then months of assembling diagrams, and then there were clearly *many years* of construction and ‘naut selection and so forth. And yet, Clinton was president through all of this?

Or, the bomb. I mean, not only is the personnel security going to be a big deal, I'm guessing they'd at least have, say, a metal detector for the workers on the single most expensive, most international project in the history of the world. Right? I mean, even in 1997 you'd've had a hard time smuggling that much explosive onto a plane in the US, and I'd have to guess that security would be even better at this operation. (I also wonder why that guy would've waited so long to detonate, but whatever.)

Or, when the skeezy guy running the hearing asks how you could fake a signal from Vega. Foster says "well, ... a satellite...", which was the answer he was looking for, and the hearing continues on that basis. But, hello, they were doing triangulation with massive antenna arrays; they placed the source quite a bit further away than a satellite. To fake it, you'd need a device actually sent outside the solar system to send the signal back. They'd both know that, or at least she would.

But perhaps the worst is the 18 hours thing. First, it's not clear how she knew her subjective time was 18 hours, since she was apparently unconscious for most of that. Second, if the recorder really did record 18 hours of static, how in the world did that never get mentioned during her interrogation or the hearings, or if nothing else, why wouldn't someone have leaked it? And would it have been that hard to run the wormhole machine a second time with somebody else?

Part of me says that I can't in good conscience assign a movie that I wouldn't be able to sit through again myself, and ugh, I couldn't bear it, I don't think. But part is saying that the themes explored really are interesting ones, meshing excellently with some main ones running through The Sparrow. I kind of feel like I'd be inflicting it on my students, which is not the highest of recommendations; but maybe I'm just being a philistine (not the first time), since the movie seems to have gotten all sorts of nominations and awards for things.

Can't... decide.... Fortunately, I can put this off for now. I'd sort of hoped that writing would help me clarify my thoughts, but no dice. Guess I'll just leave it off the syllabus and stew on it for a while.

"The fall contest between Stroger and Cook County Commissioner Anthony Peraica shapes up to be as snippy as the governor's race. It will go something like this: Stroger: My name is Stroger. Peraica: His name is Stroger." --Carol Marin

Posted by blahedo at 3:35am on 4 Sep 2006

Well, I can't argue with you much on what was dumbed down in the translation of the book to the movie.

I can argue with you about your concern for spoilers... on a movie released 9 years ago. :-)

As far as running the Machine twice, it wouldn't have worked. But that was only explained in the book.

I do recommend reading the book, if only for the epilogue. Those few pages still send shivers down my spine.

There were some other little bits of the movie I liked. The 3-D nature of the message and the location of the primer. Also the V-TOL aircraft, the Japanese techs at the launch site, and the graphics of the Machine itself. What Sagan had wouldn't have worked on film.

Re: the 18 hour thing. It could be that Ellie finally figured out what here role was supposed to be and decided to play along. Becoming a more political animal, if you will, with Kitz (the James Woods character) in the lead. He knew exactly what had to happen, and how it all had to be played.

Posted by ansible at 2:10pm on 4 Sep 2006
If they're really serious about getting this story in the FP curriculum, they need to go with the book. The movie, for what it is, is pretty decent, but as ansible implies, it really only makes sense when you've read the book. (And yet, at the same time, it gets even more frustrating. Like the fact that she's NOT THE ONLY ONE THAT GOES.) Do yourself a favor and, if you haven't already, pick up Sagan's text (or ask nicely and I'll lend you my copy.) I know that they probably don't want to have yet another text to cram into FP, but as far as texts go, a novel's not a terrible thing. Posted by Chelsea at 11:43pm on 4 Sep 2006
Nah, definitely not picking up another reading. If I show it (and for the profs that do show it), it's as an ancillary text to Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which is already locked in to the syllabus. (And which, btw, is an excellent book that y'all should go read.)

I suppose I'll probably get around to reading Contact at some point. Incidentally, it dawned on me today that the fact that this movie was based on a book explained a couple of minor curiosities relating to "why Vega?"—because that places the events in the late 1980s, so the distance makes more sense, and because they weren't calling people "vegans" yet then. :)

Posted by blahedo at 12:18am on 5 Sep 2006
Anyone heard anything from Don? Posted by elvin at 7:19pm on 29 Sep 2006
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