Zemeckis’ take on Carl Sagan’s classic novel of first contact with alien life is reverent and stately. Sensitive and intelligent performances from Jodie Foster and her costars give weight to the real-life struggle facing the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) better than a million alien invasion movies ever could.
Contact’s secret sauce is the seamless, unobtrusive special effects, one of the first films to do so when Hollywood CGI engineers were more interested in pizzazz than story. Ellie’s (Foster) ‘trip’ to visit the alien world is full of obvious digital animation, but you’d be surprised how many other scenes are constructed of background plates behind studio sets, digital tinkering or CGI repairs — the jungle floor dish of the Arecibo radiotelescope in Puerto Rico looks shiny and new in the film even though it’s pock marked and stained in real life.
Zemeckis’ style — of long shots that often went from outdoors to indoors in the one shot — put unique obstacles in front of the visual effects team of Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum to the extent they invented a new term for the practice; ‘blorfing’. A key example is the early scene of a young Ellie (Jena Malone) in her bedroom talking to her beloved father (David Morse) about how far her ham radio can reach. The shot zooms in toward the house and through the window to the bedroom interior, which was a set on a sound stage.
But the standout sequence is where Ellie and her father are preparing to watch a meteor shower from their upstairs verandah. Hearing her father fall to the ground in the kitchen downstairs from the heart attack that kills him, Ellie runs down to find him lying across the floor amid the bowl of popcorn he’s dropped.
Malone turns to run upstairs to get his medicine and the camera moves back at the same pace, making her seem to follow us all the way up the stairs into the bathroom.
When she reaches it we’re treated to a unique illusion you probably won’t even notice until it’s pointed out to you. Ellie reaches for the handle of a cupboard that appears in the frame and as she open the cabinet to reveal the plastic bottles and medicine cabinet clutter behind it we realise we’re watching her mirror image in the glass mirror door.
The door swings slowly back to reveal the scene in the bathroom, including a shelf with a photo of Ellie and her Dad right before the end of the shot. The whole sequence lasts 36 seconds before it starts to fade out to white and is the result of two seamlessly blended clips.
First is that of a bathroom cabinet. The camera pans out to reveal the door and the handle Malone’s hand comes in to pull open. The entire second shot is of Malone running from the ground floor up the stairs and into the bathroom where she’ll reach for the handle from in front of the camera.
That entire second sequence (up the stairs and down the hall) is superimposed over the space the glass of the mirror door would occupy. If you look very closely Malone’s arm and hand aren’t doing exactly the same thing in each shot so when we see Ellie reaching for the mirror and her mirror image doing the same the two don’t perfectly match.
When the cabinet door swings closed, two subsequent clips comprise the view into the bathroom in the mirror. One is of the picture of Ellie and her Dad swinging slowly into view, and the second is the same image but at an angle as it would appear in the beveled edge of the mirror.