I’m not the biggest fan of Contact, Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel. That’s partly because the film tosses out the more nuanced relationship between faith and science that Sagan put in his novel and replaces it with a bunch of Hollywood clichés, such as fundamentalist Christian suicide bombers.
George Miller’s version of Contact would have been “much more ambitious intellectually,” says one of its writers
The film concerns a brainy mathematician named Max who is convinced that there is a pattern — perhaps of divine origin — underlying the apparently chaotic universe. Wall Street brokers and Kabbalistic Jews agree, and they want to use the secrets locked inside Max’s brain.
Inventive imagery, creative montage and, above all, some truly interesting ideas raise this film above the more pedestrian flicks that fall under the “independent film” umbrella these days. Aronofsky discussed some of those ideas with Two Chairs during a phone interview shortly before his film opened at the Fifth Avenue theatre.
It is a bitter irony, much noted by critics, that many films dealing with the civil-rights movement and its legacy — Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, and, most recently, Ghosts of Mississippi, to name three prominent examples — have minimized the role of black activists within their own movements while extolling the (at times fictitious) heroism of white people who came to their rescue. But what is equally true, and not so frequently noted, is how these films secularize their white heroes and, through them, the process of racial reconciliation. If religion is visible at all, it is typically found among racial minorities or on the lips of white villains.1
Ghosts of Mississippi is a classic case in point. The film tells the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, an attorney who successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for murdering civil-rights activist Medgar Evers some 30 years before. In the film, the black activist and his family take a back seat to the white lawyer and his domestic troubles, while the film’s only clearly articulated reference to religious belief comes in a racist rant of De La Beckwith’s. But when I interviewed the real-life DeLaughter for a secular publication, he told several stories of the prayers that had been said by himself, by members of Evers’s family, and even by the foreman of the jury. These prayers, he believed, helped bring the killer to justice, but there is no trace of them in the film.
THE CRITICS are hailing Contact as Hollywood’s sole voice of reason in a summer filled with dumb, mass-marketed duds, and they’re not far wrong. The film, adapted by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) from the novel by Carl Sagan, is this year’s most nakedly thought-provoking movie, and it does raise significant questions about the search for truth and the relationship between religion and science within that search.