Contact: First Contact

I have a soft spot in my heart for the film Contact.

I can’t exactly tell you why, I just took a fast liking to it and enjoy watching it when it  presents itself. I first saw it when I was 14, with my mother. I remember the opening BOOMS of the “signal” out in space, and was instantly hooked. The idea of seeing a movie exploring not just aliens but the idea of contacting them, of a more practical look at the effect of such contact, was exciting to me.

I know, I know, movies like E.T. and Close Encounter of the Third Kind already existed, and are wonderful, but Contact, to me, presented an alternative take, one in which wonder and curiosity was second to the practical and philosophical implications of such contact.

Everyone and their mothers talk about the amazing “mirror shot”. You know, the single take of young Ellie running upstairs after her father collapses, and reaching towards the medicine cabinet–but the camera has somehow moved behind her without us knowing.

Take a look:

But for me, one of the more memorable cinematic moments of the nineties was the “first contact” scene. We’ve been set up to follow Ellie as she struggles to hold onto funding her research. She’s of the strong belief that eventually we’ll be contacted by alien beings, and it’s worth the effort to investigate all suspected contact areas of the galaxy, in the hopes of furthering our species and finding something larger than ourselves. “Otherwise, it’s an awful waste of space.”

And this moment in the movie, the “first contact” moment, happens when funding is about to be pulled. Ellie is upset, goes off alone to sit among the radar dishes, under the stars, to find peace among the empty silence from the stars.

Except this time, there’s a signal. And when that moment hits, and we push in close on her eyes as they open with realization, it still gives me chills. The moment is exciting, fun, mysterious, and even a little scary. Because, like Ellie, we’re getting a sense that this signal means something important, will have an impact, and will change not only the course of the movie’s story but Ellie’s life–and ours (if it were real):

Quick cuts jump us back and forth between Ellie and her station’s staff (Fisher and Willie) as they try to lock and hold on the signal. The penultimate moment of the scene is a long tracking shot, following Ellie as she jumps out of her car, still on her walkie, and runs inside, upstairs, charging at the equipment and Fisher as they hook up speakers and lock in the signal.

When she turns up the volume, and the signal booms through their office, the sense of success and relief — that she was right, that she’s at the forefront of the “next step” — will last only a minute longer as the next scene begins a bureaucratic spiral of government control, military intervention, and immediate suspicion as to the true nature and source of the signal. Cynicism rears its ugly head.

But for just this moment, this First Contact scene, we as an audience are one with Ellie. It’s cinema at its most emotional, most hopeful, yet practically it’s a wonderful use of camera, sound, editing, and music to bring us along on Ellie’s level. We are one with the character.

 

 

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