Fetal Attraction

Will Robert Zemeckis never grow up?

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Warner Bros.

Shall We Dance?
Directed by Masayuki Suo

Everyone knows that aliens look like giant fetuses. Just think of Roswell, N.M., or the glowing eggheads in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But in Contact, the closest thing to a fetus is the adult woman who’s tracking the aliens down. She’s Ellie (Jodie Foster), a brilliant, idealistic scientist who, when things go wrong, hugs her knees to her chest. She’s been searching for signs of extraterrestrial life ever since she was a little girl. Why? Because her mother died in childbirth, and a few years later her father died of a heart attack. Now, in her loneliness, she spends day and night listening for signals from little green men. She knows that when she finds them, they’ll be sweet and loving and helpful, like the parents she never had.

Robert Zemeckis ought to have been the ideal director for this film. After all, he’s the leading explorer of the child in American adults. In the goofy Back tothe Future, he regressed Michael J. Fox to a 1950s high-school student and had him strike up an incestuous flirtation with his then teen-age mother. In the whimsical-ponderous epic Forrest Gump, Zemeckis made a saint out of a simpleton who was essentially a 5-year-old in a man’s body. Contact opens in much the same vein, with a series of calm, loving, emblematic scenes from childhood. Ellie’s white clapboard house even looks suspiciously like Forrest’s house, even though she’s from Wisconsin and he lived in Alabama.

So fond of iconic childhood is Zemeckis, in fact, that he takes a good half hour to inch toward anything that looks like a plot. Ellie finally grows up to run a facility in New Mexico that listens for signals from outer space, and one day, as she’s sitting in the desert, her headphones pick up a noise. Instantly, she knows it’s aliens (the audience could be excused for thinking it sounds like a garbage truck backing up). With remarkable speed, she and her team figure out that the noise is actually a code, a blueprint for a machine to carry a human being to the faraway solar system of Vega. The government casually comes up with half a trillion dollars to build it, and in what seems like a weekend, a launching pad as big as a mountain is ready to go.

But before she can fly to Vega, Ellie has to face down some earthly obstacles. There’s a selfish scientist (Tom Skerritt) trying to take credit for her discoveries, and a national security adviser (James Woods) scheming to be elected to Congress. There’s also a contest to see who’ll get to fly the machine. Of course, by now we know that Ellie’s lonely childhood has given her a unique gift for listening, and that she’s the only one who can go to Vega, and that everything that happens up until her trip is a mere distraction. Even Zemeckis seems impatient to get to the magic; throughout the middle of this movie he simply checks out, like the directorial equivalent of a deadbeat dad. This is unfortunate, because in his negligence he has allowed into his film dialogue (by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, based on Carl Sagan’s novel) that falls far beneath the standards of your average corporate memo. Tearfully, Ellie announces that her discovery represents “a profoundly impactful moment for humanity.” Matthew McConaughey–who plays Ellie’s love interest, the ridiculously named Palmer Joss, a former priest who is now the respected author of a best-selling book about “faith” and “meaning,” and who, though still in his 20s, is a trusted adviser to the president–thrusts out his lower jaw like a calendar pinup while delivering such lines as “I’m not against technology, I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth!” Charlton Heston couldn’t have said it better.

Occasionally, Zemeckis stops nodding off and sprinkles in some flashy Gumpian touches. Refining Gump’s mix of real and fictional footage, he makes truly shameless use of two long clips from Clinton press conferences, and invites hordes of journalists to stop by for cameos. Talk about self-plagiarism. What we’re waiting for is the trip to Vega, and indeed, this 10-minute sequence turns out to be pure joy. Ellie gets strapped into a metal ball and hurtles through a tunnel of space. Instead of the massive, gray, meticulously detailed sci-fi city we’ve come to expect, she floats through weird, puddly red and blue atmospheres. She speeds up and slows down, and she has no idea why. She reaches out to touch the wall of the machine and it ripples, the way the highway seems to flutter on a hot day. The scene is grave, scary, and beautiful. It dawns on us that she’s heading into something completely unknown, something she can’t even fully perceive. Also, that for the first time in the movie, Jodie Foster is getting to act.

Then she lands on the alien planet, and the pat speechifying takes up where it left off. I won’t reveal the details of her encounter with the aliens except to say that they are most un-fetuslike–in fact, they distinctly resemble parents. Could market research be to blame? Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out 20 years ago, when the audience largely consisted of trail-end baby boomers likely to groove to Richard Dreyfuss’ desire to throw off the shackles of adulthood and play. Contact comes out at a time when we’re obsessed with role models, and nurturing, and making sure our children grow up to be healthy, responsible adults. Alas, this is not the premise of a great movie. When Contact finally comes alive, it leaves you frightened and thrilled and emotionally overwrought, as only a child can be. The rest is pandering.

O n a brighter note, Shall We Dance? is being hyped as a throwaway feel-good movie, but it has moments of genuine depth. At first I resisted the plot, which has a depressed Japanese accountant secretly attending dance lessons. Haven’t we had enough of dance as therapy? Besides, it’s stocked with factory-made eccentrics. There’s your requisite bawdy spinster, and the co-worker who’s a systems analyst by day and a wig-wearing rumba dancer by night.

What the movie does have going for it is an amazingly moving performance by Koji Yakusho, the actor who plays the accountant. He’s a handsome but humble Everyman–a Japanese Joel McCrea. Another strength of the film is that its surprises have little to do with the plot. They occur at random, whenever one character discovers that another character has feelings. The accountant starts dancing because he has a crush on his frail, beautiful teacher, and for much of the movie we watch her through his longing eyes. But quite late in the day, she reveals a cluster of emotions we couldn’t have guessed at–she is, for example, deeply absorbed in her failure to win a quick-step contest. And she, too, has to correct a few unfair assumptions about him.

Abrupt shifts in sympathy like this result in choppy filmmaking. Shall We Dance? has neither the style of Strictly Ballroom nor the cheap catharsis of DirtyDancing. But the clunkiness is director Masayuki Suo’s way of stopping to make sure that he’s emotionally accurate. Shall We Dance? isn’t quite art, and it doesn’t qualify as mass entertainment either. But it’s alert to its characters’ constantly evolving desires in ways that high- and low-culture movies, with their strict aesthetics or their mass-market formulas, tend not to be. Maybe this movie will be the first in a modest new genre–the inquiry into adult happiness. Unlike Contact, and however doggedly, Shall We Dance? sincerely wants people to grow up.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve been searching. …” Dr. Arroway (Foster) explains herself to Joss (McConaughey). (52 seconds):
Sound05 - contact3.avi or Sound06 -; download time, 3 minutes at 56K Sound01 - movie-contact3.asf for sound only

A government committee debates the alien blueprints (Foster, Skerritt, and Woods). (58 seconds):
Sound03 - contact2.avi or Sound04 -; download time, 3.25 minutes at 56K {Sound02 - movie-contact2.asf for sound only