screen gems

A queer Oscar winner. One of the great sci-fi epics of all time.



Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Cosmic: Contact

The 1990s heralded Jodie Foster as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. With two Academy Awards and a track record of movie hits, few actresses could boast her track record as box office gold, or her depth of dramatics.

For Ms. Foster at her best, and perhaps, her most underappreciated as well, please refer to director Robert Zemekis‘ 1997 sci-fi epic, Contact. Based on futurist Carl Sagan’s novel, the film tells the story of Ellie Araway (Foster), a plucky astronomer fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Elle’s colleagues often chastise her for her obsession with meeting aliens; her research almost gets shut down more than once. Her work also infringes on her personal life, torpedoing a love affair with a handsome minister, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). Still, with the help of an eccentric billionaire (John Hurt), Ellie manages to expand a program to search deep space for signs of civilization. Then one day she detects a signal, and all Hell breaks loose on Earth.

More than that we’ll not reveal here, as Contact is the kind of movie that loves to pull the rug out from under its audience at every opportunity. Suffice it to say that, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the more recent Arrival, the film treats first contact with extraterrestrial life with verisimilitude. Zemeckis, Foster, Sagan, et. al. all want to paint a portrait of what the world would really look like if it discovered alien life. How would that affect global commerce? International relations? Civil society? Religion? And what would it mean if one person has to speak for the whole of humanity?

Unlike the other aforementioned films in this genre, Contact also loves a twist of the emotional life. Zemeckis, who crafted the epitome of emotionally manipulative cinema with Forrest Gump, doesn’t hold back here. Neither does Foster: Contact requires her to play some very difficult notes, and she nails each one. If Foster gave a performance for the ages in The Silence of the Lambs, her work in Contact ranks a close second in her filmography.

Contact features an extraordinary supporting cast, groundbreaking special effects (most of which hold up more than 20 years on), and an electrifying performance by Foster. Critics and audiences didn’t quite recognize its brilliance upon release. Foster received substantial Oscar buzz but no Best Actress nomination, and audiences used to the spectacle of Independence Day or awaiting the release of The Phantom Menace seemed perplexed by Contact‘s sincerity. Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review upon relase. 14 years later, he revised that review to name Contact as one of the Greatest Movies of All Time. Why? Maybe because in 1997 conspiracy theories, anti-science crusades and terrorist violence seemed like the stuff of fiction. By the 2010s, they had become realities of everyday life.

They still are. Contact is the kind of fearless, provocative, expertly-crafted film that terrifies present-day Hollywood. The film asks just as much of its audience as it does of its leading lady. Foster has to carry the film with a layered, complex performance. The audience has to wrestle with questions of equal depth.

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