Roger Ebert has a very good series of essays he calls “The Great Movies.” In it, he writes about movies he personally considers the greatest films ever made.
Most of his choices are fairly indisputable. Films like Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca are, if not universally loved, at least universally respected. He does make rather controversial choices, though, and his latest is one of those.
This week, he posted an article about the 1997 film Contact. My immediate response was “Great film? Really?”
In fact, I watched Contact earlier this year and wrote an essay about it. Here’s What I wrote:
I see a lot of movies. Shocking revelation, I know.
I can’t say that I remember the first time I watched most of them. I mean, I might be able to tell you the theatre if I saw it in the last couple of years but then the memories are lost to the super important stuff like what I’m going to prepare for dinner this evening.
Contact is notable, then, for being a movie about which I have a very vivid memory of my first viewing.
I watched it at the Mall of America with Christopher Morlock who was, at the time, one of my better friends. I can’t say that I know why we picked that film on that particular day but we did and I don’t believe either one of us entered with much of an opinion about what we were about to see.
The theatre was pretty empty that day. We were in one of the larger auditoriums and there were probably no more than ten other people there with us.
When the movie was over, we both sat in our seats for a long while and talked about it. We talked about the philosophy, the science and the impact.
We talked until the credits were over, the theatre was empty and the employees were cleaning up the popcorn. As we got up to leave, one of the cleaners asked us if we enjoyed the film and we both said yes and that it had sparked a lot of conversation.
“Yeah,” he said, “I can’t remember another movie that has had more people who are still talking about it at this point.”
He told us that a few groups were left in the theatre after every performance, doing just what we’d been doing.
I remember that story when I watch this film because my first response is that it isn’t that good.
I like it a lot but I’ve seen much better movies that didn’t inspire me to sit in my seat and talk about it the way this one did. I would imagine the difference is the intellectual impact versus the emotional impact.
Contact gets you thinking. No wonder given that it was based on a novel by Carl Sagan, who was a great thinker. The weaknesses of the film have more to do with its rather lackluster romantic angles than it does with the hard, intelligent science that makes up the bulk of the story.
The movie asks the viewer to think about the response to a message from space. How would we react to the message that we weren’t alone? There isn’t one simple answer because responses would be as varied as people are to begin with.
Alien contact in this film doesn’t mean destruction and death – it just means…contact. Instead of looking at that idea with fear, it looks at it through the eyes of someone who really wants to know if we are alone.
And it gets you talking about it.
At least it got me talking about it.
So few movies inspire that kind of spirited conversation. I guess that is why I remember the first time I watched it so vividly.
It made me think. And once I thought about it, I wanted to talk about it. Any movie that can do that is worth watching.
In reading Ebert’s essay about the film, I think he was drawn to most of the same things that I was. As an artistic achievement, the movie may or may not truly be great. As an intellectual achievement, it approaches greatness because it challenges us with some of the biggest questions we humans ask ourselves.
As an atheist, I am used to the fact that I don’t see people who think like me shown in film all that often. Ellie is rare in that she is an atheist who, for once, is like most of us. She has weighed the evidence for god and found it lacking. She doesn’t hate people of faith but she also doesn’t understand them.
That has always drawn me to the film. I want to see people like myself on the screen, just like everyone else. Seeing someone who believes as I believe makes a difference. It acknowledges the existence of people like myself.
The film is not about atheism. It is about the question of whether we are alone in the universe and one possible way we could discover that we are not.
But that big idea is interconnected with other big ideas and Contact doesn’t shy away from them. Maybe it is better than I think.