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It starts with wonder. Young Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) gets hooked on short-wave radio, learning from her encouraging father (David Morse) there is a new world waiting to be discovered. She becomes fascinated with just how far away she can establish a connection with someone over the air, and it is this need to reach farther that eventually has her growing up to be a scientist working for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She spends her time often in isolation, always listening to the sounds of space, hoping for something beyond the stars to be a sign that we as a species are not alone. But when her funding goes dry, an eccentric billionaire offers to back her work, and then, when it turns out she actually does get a signal from life beyond our pale blue dot (who found us by listening to radio and TV broadcast beamed out into space), she earns a ticket to take a solo ride and see just who is out there, even though there are some down on Earth not so happy or convinced all is what it seems.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis and based loosely on the best-selling novel of the same name by the late Carl Sagan, this is not your typical alien movie. There are no attacking bug-eyed people eaters in shooty spaceships because for once, the idea of what would be Man’s greatest (or most terrifying) discovery, is examined in an intelligent and realistic manner with actual science and theory backing it up. While it deviates a lot from the dense narrative of the book, the film is an engrossing character study that poses a lot of ethical and theological questions about the ambiguity of a message from space and the manner in which we as a people should respond. A gripping, often pulse-pounding thriller, this is a movie that challenges its audience and still remains incredibly satisfying. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Spoilers ahead. The alien signal is actually a rather complex, three-dimensional message that details the making of an enormous machine that appears to offer one human a free ride out to, well, somewhere. It’s not actually clear. After some politicking and debating and what-not, the world comes together and decides that the lucky traveler for this mission is none other than Ellie’s boss, the press-hound and short-sighted Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who pompously wins the role by declaring his faith in God and promise to bring that message with him (even though he is totally lying) beating out Ellie who answered that she has no faith and religion is no place in this operation. It is then ironic when a religious zealot (Jake Busey) works his way up to the platform tower on launch day with a bomb and goes kablooey on camera, suicide-bombing the entire mission, killing Drumlin and destroying the machine.
Ellie returns home, devastated at the loss and the turmoil the incident has caused, though when she opens her door, she discovers a large monitor TV, a laptop, and a satellite link hooked up in her living room. The computer informs her to press any button and in so doing, she is connected to a Russian orbiting space station, where a cosmonaut tells her that “he’s been expecting her call.”
That man is S.R. Hadden (John Hurtb), the eccentric and reclusive billionaire from earlier, now dying and using his wealth to live out the last remaining days in space. He tells her that in Hokkaido, Japan, there is a second, secret machine, constructed under control of the Americans who are looking for a pilot and if she’s interested, well, would she “wanna take a ride?”
The moment is spine-tingling as we realize, like Arroway, that a second chance is on the table, and this time, she gets to be the one, the right one. That is the real satisfying element of the moment, simply because we know that there is no way Drumlin should or could be the one to make the trip, and after the devastating bomb, we know for sure that somehow, things have to come back to Arroway. But how?
Of course, by this point, we’ve all but forgotten the billionaire, and yet when we see her walk into a room full advanced technology, we get the first hints that things are going to change. Zemeckis stages this perfectly, crafting a brilliant setup to the flip where we see our hero, Arroway, once constantly set back in the story by Drumlin, take her rightful place. The payback, as it were, is in her patience and her clearly more qualified role as Earth’s representative in this mission to a distant world. And so it ends with wonder, as Arroway stares in disbelief, now about to see her dreams fulfilled and visit life beyond our own little orb. Or does she? It’s a great moment.