MMM Flashback Friday: Contact

Contact posterThis isn’t tied to an anniversary or extended cut being released on Blu-ray or anything else. Instead today’s column was prompted by a coworker telling me that the website for Contact, the 1997 sci-fi drama, was still around and active. So knowing that I had to jump in the Wayback Machine and take a look at how else the movie was sold 19 years ago.

Contact, just so you remember, tells the story of Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a scientist who’s obsessed with finding proof of life elsewhere in the universe in part because her father died when she was a young girl and he had encouraged her to look to the stars. So she spend hours each day just listening, working with a team of others. One day…they hear something. Their discovery quickly becomes a political issue as they find it’s not a simple “hello” but instructions to build a transport of some kind. Ellie becomes obsessed with making it but has to work with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a new-age spiritual advisor to the President who makes her question why it is she’s so obsessed. After roadblocks and setbacks, Ellie finally finishes the machine and finds out what’s on the other side of of the gateway the aliens have had her construct.

The theatrical poster for the movie is solid but also kind if interesting in a few ways. Foster and McConaughey are obviously the focal point, with her sitting and him standing behind her, both of them looking into the middle distance off-camera. A collection of satellites sits behind them, making it clear to the audience that we’re dealing with something about outer space, a message that’s reinforced by how the sky includes more and more stars the closer to the top you look. At the top, above the names of the stars, is a note that the movie comes “From the Academy Award-winning director of Forrest Gump and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘Contact’,” with the latter point being kind of self-evident. Toward the middle of the one-sheet we get some text saying “A message from deep space. Who will be the first to go? A journey to the heart of the universe.”

It’s not exactly the smoothest copy and reads like, though I don’t think it is, a haiku. The overall design and look and feel of the poster sells a clean, slick drama about space exploration in some form. But it doesn’t oversell the outer space aspect of the story. Since everyone and everything is grounded here it tells the audience it’s still a character drama, not a thriller about interstellar travel.

The theatrical trailer – there was a teaser that played similarly, just more condensed – is an exercise in slow building tension. It starts with 45 seconds of almost complete silence as we see Ellie sitting amidst the SETI satellite array with headphones and her laptop as she listens for a signal of some sort. Suddenly, she starts to hear something. We then cut to the frenzy of activity as the team tries to figure out where the signal is coming from at the same time she’s chastised by a government official (played by James Woods) for making her discovery public. Throughout the rest of the trailer it’s clear he’s a big problem for her to overcome as he wants to turn the project over to the military and asks why the aliens can’t just speak English. Ellie finds and explains that they’re speaking through mathematics and are sending instructions on some sort of transport, a transport she’s eager to test herself, a commitment Jasper questions. It ends with a shot of her walking the entryway to the ship and being strapped in, at which point we cut to black.

It really is a tense trailer, but not in the same way many current trailers use quick smash-cuts to build tension. Everything, after that 45 seconds of silence, is timed out to the pulse of the sounds from the alien transmission. It’s constantly cutting back and forth from a scene from the movie to black, sometimes with text. It slow builds, dropping little bits of information here and there, just enough to give the audience a general idea of what the story is. We see who most of the main characters here are and it’s great that it doesn’t show anything about Ellie’s actual trip, not even a shot of her wide-eyed looking at something, but cuts just as she’s strapped in. There’s also nothing here about Ellie’s motivations, so we don’t see any shots from the opening of the movie showing her as a young girl with her father. Instead we’re just presented with a woman who is singularly focused and driven.

The opening of the trailer also leans heavily on the movie’s pedigree. It mentions the movie comes from the Academy Award-winning director of Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Carl Sagan) but oddly doesn’t actually name-drop either one. Sagan is of course well known and this was Zemeckis’ first film since Forrest Gump and I remember him being a fairly big part of the publicity campaign because of that. Also part of the publicity was the fact that Sagan had unfortunately passed away about six months before the movie came out, just as the marketing cycle was clicking into gear. Plus, this was a time when movies were still made for adults, so considering the name recognition both men likely had at the time their exclusion seems odd in retrospect.

contact-feat

It was an interesting time for the two above-the-title stars, too. For Foster, this was her first big-screen role since 1994’s Nell, which she also produced,, and it was just six years since her Academy Award-winning role in Silence of the Lambs. So she was still a big star but had taken some time off to direct and do other things, with this being kind of her return to the big screen. McConaughey was just starting to get hot again following a few smaller roles after 93’s Dazed and Confused, with this coming a year after a starring role in A Time To Kill and with another high-profile release, Amistad, coming later in 1997.

So what’s still on the website? It opens with the same pulsing signal we saw in the trailer, which you have to click on to see the text “A journey to the heart of the universe that was seen on the poster and in the trailer. Click that and you get the title treatment, which you then click to get to the main menu.

“About Contact” has sections containing Cast Bios, Filmmaker bios and Production Notes. The “Interviews” section has interviews with Zemeckis and others that are both text and available as downloadable Quicktime MOV files, in case you were wondering how web video worked pre-YouTube. “Visual Contact” has sections for the Trailer, B-Roll and Cast Interviews, all of which are also Quicktime videos as well as a collection of Movie Stills, each of which comes with a brief description offering the context of its appearance in the movie.

There’s also some material here that expands the world of the movie and offers more information. So “Sketches” has what look like production designs for The Machine, the Location and the Equipment that are being constructed in the story. Finally, the “Earth Reaches Out” section has various information on real space exploration, ranging from the esoteric “Drake Equation” to “TV and Radio,” which talks about the kinds of broadcasts that are being beamed from Earth out into the cosmos and which alien civilizations might be picking up. Points here for name-dropping “Seinfeld” and “Cheers” as examples of the current programming that are making their way out to the stars.

All in all the site is…yeah, this is what the internet looked like in 1997. That’s the same font everyone was using and that’s how we handled video, by downloading Quicktime files via our dial-up modems while hoping no one in the house picked up the phone while we were online. It’s a fascinating time capsule of the web and it’s interesting that it’s still active and hasn’t been replaced by something more modern that sells the movie on home video.

contact-feat 2

Picking up what I said about the poster, the whole campaign sells a slick, adult-focused thriller. It does everything but come out and say “You’re going to need to be patient” since the poster doesn’t hint at much other than the basic premise and the trailer, as I said, is mostly about the slow-burn. And it’s all very clean and crisp, with sharp visuals and understated performances. For audiences 19 years ago this was an intriguing drama, and it can’t be ignored that the movie was released in the middle of the summer, so it was a time where a movie like this could survive in a period that now is filled with super heroes and young adult novel adaptations.