Revisiting Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi drama 'Contact' as it turns 20

If there weren’t civilizations out there, “it’d be an awful waste of space.”

Twenty years ago this week, the world became acquainted with one of the best sci-fi films of the 1990s. The movie, based on the book by astronomer Carl Sagan, still holds strong today with its deep thematic undertones and inquisitive nature. The movie’s questioning of faith, humanity, space travel and philosophy is weaved into a larger and more exciting narrative littered with secrecy, disbelief and pure wonder.

Finely acted and written with a suspenseful subtlety, “Contact” even earned a spot in famed critic Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” collection.

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Mathew McConaughey, as Palmer Joss, with Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway In “Contact,” based on the best-selling book by Carl Sagan.

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Jodie Foster’s portrayal of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientist Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway came just a few years after her iconic role in “Silence of the Lambs.” The 1990s proved quite fruitful for the actress, now 54.

What’s more, a 27-year-old Matthew McConaughey makes a mark in the film as Palmer Joss, a Christian philosopher. If nothing else, “Contact” helped firmly plant the actor in Tinseltown.

As we remember Robert Zemeckis’ star-studded film (it also features Tom Skerritt, James Woods, John Hurt, William Fichtner and Angela Bassett), let’s take a look at five of its most wholly unique moments.

David Morse as “the alien”

One of the movie’s more unpredictable moments comes when Arroway boards the celestial ring ship/pod (a clandestine version created in Japan), “drops” through wormholes and finds herself at the star system Vega. Here she spots signs of intelligent life. But the scene begins to coalesce in a familiar way: it looks like a picture she drew of Florida as a child. At that moment, a silhouetted figure approaches; this being takes the form of Arroway’s late father, Theodore (Morse).

The life form proceeds to tell Arroway that it took the form to make the first contact easier. He says that it’s humanity’s entrance into a universe of other species.

Hitler TV broadcast

In a bit of complex storytelling, Adolf Hitler even makes an appearance in the movie. The part comes when Arroway discovers a signal repeating prime numbers. As she slowly uncovers that it’s from Vega — merely 26 light-years away — the president’s science advisor David Drumlin (Skerritt) attempts to take over the operation with the National Security Council. But it’s Arroway’s team that discovers more to the initial signal. Inside of it holds a video of Hitler delivering the opening address at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Arroway determines that the Hitler clip would’ve been the first strong TV broadcast to reach space. It would’ve taken 26 years to reach Vega, at which time the other life forms processed it and returned it to Earth.

The secret life of S.R. Hadden

The mysterious billionaire is the film’s most perplexing character. When you believe him to be mischievous, he provides Arroway with direction. When you believe he doesn’t know the next step, he proves viewers wrong.

More specifically, Hadden provides financial incentives to Arroway when no one else will (once SETI is abandoned by Drumlin). When it appears that Arroway has 60,000 pages of encrypted data, Hadden meets with her in private to reveal the movie’s neatest moment. He tells her the data must be viewed in three dimensions not two, which results in blueprints to a strange craft that will carry a human to some undisclosed location. When viewers see Hadden next, he’s battling cancer — and is aboard the Russian space station Mir. He informs Arroway that a second craft was covertly built.

Spacecraft construction

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Jodie Foster, as Ellie Arroway, enters the capsule in the sci-fi hit “Contact.”

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As mentioned, even while he’s stricken with cancer and moving across the globe — and beyond — Hadden always appears to have his eye on Arroway. That holds true with the construction of the craft/pod, which is supposed to launch Arroway through wormholes, into the Vega star system. In another neat moment from the film, Hadden casually informs Arroway that another craft was built in private, in a remote part of Japan.

This ship is controlled by Americans and was built by Japanese subcontractors — who were bought out by Hadden himself. In a famous line from the film, Hadden asks Arroway, “Wanna take a ride?”

Eighteen hours

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Jodie Foster, as Ellie Arroway, prepares to embark on a celestial mission in “Contact” (1997).

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The last point here today is about Arroway’s actual “ride” through the craft, toward Vega. The beauty of the writing comes from the ambiguity of this strange odyssey. Arroway arrives in what appears to be a paradise — where “Theodore” emerges. But when she wakes up, feeling as though she’s traveled, footage shows the pod just falling into safety nets.

A congressional committee suggests that the now deceased Hadden may’ve been behind a massive hoax. But Michael Kitz (James Woods) and Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) reveal that the recorded static was, in fact, 18 hours long.

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