For his follow-up to Forrest Gump, director Robert Zemeckis selected the epic story of humankind's first contact with alien life, based on Carl Sagan's novel. The result is an uneven and often pedantic film, boasting A-list Hollywood talent and production values in support of an eccentric lesson-adventure not so different, in essence, from Gump.
There's a little more going on here than in that earlier, overrated film, enough to recommend it for more than the obligatory, spectacular summer special effects. Jodie Foster plays the Cassandra-like researcher doggedly listening for a return phone call from outer space. When it comes, all hell breaks loose as the U.S. government (represented by James Woods, Angela Bassett and, well, Bill Clinton) decides how to respond and, ultimately, whom to send to meet them. A recurring factor in all this is a pop spiritualist played by Matthew McConaughey, who pursues Foster romantically and is a trusted advisor to the president.
For good stretches, the film is engrossing, intelligent, and credible in its depiction of the events which might surround first contact, and the emotions which would inevitably flare. But every 20 minutes or so, something ridiculous happens or someone ridiculous appears (like John Hurt's unfortunately overdrawn millionaire businessman), and the film simply runs off the rails. It doesn't help that Zemeckis obsessively crams real-life personalities (like Clinton and just about everyone on CNN) into the edges of the narrative; instead of building credibility, Zemeckis reminds us we're watching a movie. It's a diverting ride with the power to inspire awe, and it deserves credit for instilling philosophy into a summer film. It may, however, try too hard to be too much, without fulfilling its promise of depth.