THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Contact
Reassessing “Contact” in the Age of Coronavirus
Twenty-five years ago, one of the most thought-provoking science fiction films of all time hit theaters. With a story by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, 1997’s “Contact” was destined to be a cut above the rest.
As Vulture’s recent oral history of the film reveals, however, “Contact” almost never happened. Directed by Robert Zemeckis – near the end of his amazing twenty year run of hits that includes “Romancing the Stone,” the “Back to the Future” franchise, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Castaway” – “Contact” stars Jodie Foster, Mathew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, David Morse, William Fichtner, James Woods, John Hurt, and Angela Basset.
James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg (with uncredited work by Menno Meyjes) wrote the screenplay, based on the book of the same name by Carl Sagan. “Contact” is a film that defies all conventions about alien movies. The aliens, in fact, never actually appear in the movie. They do not invade Earth. There is no battle.
“Contact” is a science-based voyage into the space between faith and reason. Between fact and belief. Into the space where the universal merges with the personal, where certainty shakes hands with doubt. It stands alone in a genre crowded with spectacle and action as a film dedicated to the scientific method, to thinking, intelligence, and wonder.
“Contact” tells the story of a brilliant female scientist (Eleanor Arroway played by Jodie Foster) dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). When a signal from Vega shows intelligent life in the universe, it kicks off a worldwide mission to send one human representative on the journey of a lifetime.
In the world of “Contact,” however, the aliens are not the threat; humans are. Presaging the fractious and conspiratorial nature of the world today, “Contact” shows a world in existential upheaval when the message arrives from space.
“Contact” hauled in over $170 million worldwide, went on to win numerous sci-fi awards, and remains a popular film 25 years later. But its strongest legacy might just be how many women were inspired by “Contact” to pursue careers in science.
Let’s brush up on our astrophysics, contemplate our place in the cosmos, and look through the COVID lens at 1997’s “Contact.”
To illustrate how pandemic guidelines and restrictions would affect this classic, we’ve broken things down into three parts:
- Okay to Go: What Makes “Contact” Safe
- Small Moves: Pandemic Risks in “Contact”
- They Should Have Sent a Poet: How the Specific Becomes Universal
Okay to Go: What Makes “Contact” Safe
“Contact” is a big-budget studio film made by one of the most in-demand directors (Zemeckis) and biggest stars (Foster) at the time. Movies like this are not often pandemic safe but the creative team behind “Contact” did several things that make it COVID-19 safe. We want to highlight three:
- Cast Size
- Scene Size
- Reliance on CGI
As we have highlighted many times over this series, one of the best ways to increase safety in a scene is to decrease the number of characters in it. While “Contact” certainly has its large-scale scenes packed with extras, its main focus is on a handful of characters, often in two-to-four-person scenes.
Foster’s Dr. Arroway works in a maligned corner of science, SETI, and is therefore surrounded by only a small band of fellow searchers. Her main obstacle is ego-maniac David Drumlin (Skerritt) who goes out of his way to isolate Arroway further. This leads to a movie that, despite is size, is often comprised of scenes with few cast members.
To further increase safety, let’s look at the size of the scenes themselves.
When we talk about scene size we are talking about the number of characters, the length of the scene, the complexity of the shots, the character actions in the scene, and any special considerations like stunts, etc.
We will address the large crowd scenes, courtroom scenes, and mission control scenes in a moment. But right now we want to focus on the simplicity of the majority of other scenes.
Zemeckis is known – especially during this spectacular section of his career – as a filmmaker dedicated to special effects and complicated shots. “Contact” has some of his most impressive effects and at least one shot that every film geek has tried to recreate. But those scenes are the exception in “Contact.”
When we rewatched “Contact” for this article, we were surprised at how many times the camera was locked down. Simple push-ins and dollies spice up an otherwise straightforward lensing of the non-special effect scenes.
This strategy gives the balance of the scenes in “Contact” the safety of simpler shots, easier set-ups, and smaller on-set crew requirements as a result. These are tactics that can help to decrease personnel and therefore increase pandemic safety during production.
But the real safety hero here is the CGI.
Reliance on CGI
In 1997, CGI was still in its infancy. But that didn’t stop Zemeckis from pushing the limits of the technology a decade earlier in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Here in “Contact,” he relied on computer technology for a large portion of the film, namely almost every shot in outer space.
CGI moves the bulk of the work to post-production. In a pandemic that increases safety. Principal photography is the riskiest part of moviemaking during COVID-19 – pre-production and post are far safer. By removing a portion of the on-set work during production, Zemeckis off-loaded some of the pandemic risk to post.
This saves time and makes principal photography safer. But this is where the safety list ends. The rest of “Contact” is less than ideal from a pandemic perspective.
Small Moves: Pandemic Risks in “Contact”
“Contact” has its fair share of COVID-19 safety issues. We would like to quickly highlight two areas of concern.
- Travel: “Contact” used its $90 million budget to jet set around the globe. This is a film with a sneaky-large number of locations. “Contact” was filmed, in part, in New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, California, Fiji, Newfoundland, Puerto Rico, Virginia, DC, and Washington State. Production travel remains one of the riskiest aspects of any production. Given his love of CGI, Zemeckis could have reduced the travel requirements by using special effects to augment locations closer to production HQ. This one choice would dramatically increase pandemic safety.
- Crowds: There are several scenes in “Contact” bursting with extras. The courtroom scenes, the protest scenes, mission control, and several more. Crowded scenes decrease safety and increase the workload of your COVID-19 safety staff. More testing also impacts the budget and can negatively impact the schedule, leading to a vicious feedback cycle that can get out of control in a hurry. These crowded scenes are necessary to establish the scope and scale of the story in “Contact,” but – as we have covered many times before – there are tricks that can minimize the number of people on set without noticeably affecting the perceived size of the crowd.
Despite the travel and the crowds, “Contact” preserves much of its pandemic safety because the script – and the filmmaking – focus on Eleanor Arroway, a protagonist unlike any the sci-fi genre had yet seen in 1997.
They Should Have Sent a Poet: How the Specific Becomes Universal
Hollywood often forgets the lesson of “Contact.” Far too often this industry’s drive for universal appeal leads it toward stories that feel generic, set apart from reality, in nameless cities with a reliance on violence as the default global language.
But as Foster’s Dr. Arroway tells us, “Mathematics is the only true universal language.” This focus on science upends convention and creates a story that, much like Arroway herself, reaches far beyond its grasp.
Sagan and Druyan met while working on the Golden Record project of the Voyager missions. They were part of a team charged with distilling all the sights and sounds of earth and humanity onto a record that would accompany Voyager on its mission beyond the solar system, into parts unknown, and potentially into contact with other life-forms.
This project led to their marriage, offspring, and to the story of “Contact.” Sagan and Druyan conceived of the story while living in a rental home in West Hollywood. They set out to build this film on a foundation of science with a strong female lead.
And make no mistake, “Contact” began as a film, as a 100-page treatment for a film to be exact. It was only after it began to languish in development hell, that Sagan penned the novel that would become a touchstone for the screenwriters who followed.
Sagan and Druyan created a very specific central character, a story with explicit themes, and a foundation of hard science. Building on their ideas, Hart and company helped to create a very specific character in Dr. Arroway, tease out the themes, and make the science come to life.
Instead of focusing on the international plots, the terrorism, the adventure, the competition, “Contact” makes all those backdrops to the central story. And what a central story it is.
At its core, “Contact” is the story of a daughter finally getting to say goodbye to her father. It is an intensely personal story hiding inside a massive, visual effects blockbuster. Sagan wrote much of this story – and assisted with the production – while dying of myelodysplasia. He died before production finished, leaving behind a 14-year-old daughter, Sasha.
To this day, Sasha staggers when she thinks about how “Contact” is, in a way, a love letter from her father to her.
Arroway travels through a wormhole and across the universe to reunite with her long-dead father and finally say goodbye. Tunneling through space-time to find something so specific to this central character is part of the magic that allows “Contact” to endure 25 years later. The literal universe holds, in its palm, the personal.
The opening of the movie says it all: the entire universe exists in Ellie’s eyes.
By focusing on the specific and the personal, “Contact” captures something universal. This is the narrative wormhole in the structure of the piece that allows the production to achieve a considerable degree of pandemic safety while seeming so large-scale.
Personal stories are, by their very nature, intimate. Intimacy necessitates small scenes. It pushes the spectacle and the crowds to the background. In lesser hands “Contact” would have been a large, generic alien film, destined to be tossed on a heap of forgettable films. It endures because the child-parent connection at its core is one we can all understand.
If we had to shoot “Contact” during a pandemic, we would be sure to maintain its small central cast, small scenes, and reliance on CGI. We would help the production team to see that additional CGI could reduce travel and further increase safety.
But the biggest safety element of all is the one baked into the story itself. Sagan, Druyan, and the screenwriters all rightly kept the focus on the personal, the specific, and this backdropped the large-scale nature of the story and foregrounded the intimacy. This strategy increased safety and helped to imbue “Contact” with its universal appeal.
Isolation is a central characteristic in “Contact.” Arroway is isolated in SETI; isolated by her devotion to science. S.R. Haden is isolated by his wealth. And the very nature of the mission the aliens give humanity – to send only one person into the depths of outer space – is isolating to the extreme. But its central message is about the importance of connection.
As the pandemic continues, we can all empathize with this focus on isolation, but we must not forget the words of Arroway’s father at the end of the film, “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
Join us later this month to celebrate the 35th anniversary of an 80s comedy classic when we look through the COVID lens at 1987’s “Three Men and a Baby.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
UPDATE: This article was updated on 8/12/2022
Major Sources and Further Reading:
- ‘No Aliens, No Spaceships, No Invasion of Earth’ An Oral History of Contact by Rachel Handler for Vulture, 2022.
- The Making of Contact
- “Contact” by Carl Sagan
- Making Contact: The story behind the controversial space odysseyby Benjamin Svetkey for EW, 1997.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.