Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Book and movie: 'Contact' (1985 and 1997) (Revised)

I finally finished reading 'Contact'. It took ages and was cursed by an incredibly long interruption due to life, Minecraft and the prevailing problem I have with the book. It's a good book, with a strong single narrative centred on a single character and how she progresses through the tale. It's solid science fiction, with realistic political shenanigans and a solid basis in science. It is in all respects solid, reliable and at times vast but what it isn't is gripping. As narratives go it sits there and if you go away you don't mind, and if you come back it's take it or leave it. Perhaps I've been prematurely coloured by the movie from Robert Zemeckis, which has its own problems but a rather more gripping story which is somehow less prosaic. Yes, prosaic is a good word.

'prosaic: Overly plain or simple, to the point of being boring; humdrum.'

Now, the story of the novel is not prosaic but the way it is told IS prosaic. Romantic subplots are thrown in and left to fade, characters move in and out with no rhyme nor reason, and betrayals occur with no payback nor repercussions. It's like real life, and real life is already dull enough without reading more of it, even if it's backlit by a mammoth science-fiction story.

The movie 'Contact' on the other hand is rather grandiose in nature, an epic but somehow small-scale science fiction movie with a warm human core. It streamlines a lot of errant happenings and downsizes the cast so that remaining characters are given more to do, and it does so with an excellent cast. Even Matthew McConaughey, who a lot of people seem to loathe is serviceable if a little vacant. Director Robert Zemeckis has tended to be story-driven in the past and the revisions that occur under him and the screenwriters really serve to bring the centre of the story into much more of a focus, with a far more human story at its centre. It takes more of a 'snapshots through time' method of narrative than the novel's more continuous structure, which is probably necessary as the main bulk of the novel takes place over more than a decade!

Writing a comparative piece can be tough at times. You can lose focus, ramble on at length on trivia and even drift off into whole other topics such as vegetables and the quest for peace. Let's knuckle down to plot. The novel and movie revolve around Dr Eleanor Arroway, an astronomer on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the consequences of a signal from outer space and the instructions therein. Overlayed onto that there are political repercussions, religious contemplation, and romance. It's a giant epic. Ellie moves through the story on a mission to the stars, alone in the movie and as part of a team of five in the novel and ultimately comes to terms with parts of her life she hadn't known were out of order. Against this backdrop of a cosmic trip we have political shenanigans and cover ups, theological discourse on the nature of faith versus science and family drama as Ellie struggles to comes to terms with the loss of her long-dead father. That last is given even more weight in the novel but ends up diluting the rest of narrative while the movie simplifies and amplifies it. Zemeckis has made an excellent movie in that it at times gripping over its two and a half hour running time, gripping more than the source novel. I hope that I'm not conveying a bad impression of this novel; it was simply less than engrossing to me, despite a cosmic aspect.

'The Music Man' is playing in the background. Go, Harold Hill, go! Gosh, Robert Preston was amazing.

Thinking further about the movie in contrast to the novel, it does feel as if the narrative structure is simply stronger than the novel while the science fiction is stronger in the book at the expense of characters. Of course, when you have Jodie Foster in the lead role there's almost no way for the movie to be deficient in character, especially when you add Tom Skeritt, Angela Basset, James Woods and even Bill Clinton in an integrated stock footage appearance that the White House did not react well to. Still, it works in the movie and that's what counts.

Summing up, whether it's an above average science-fiction novel or a sterling political science fiction epic with a twist of heart 'Contact' does satisfy. If you don't care about meeting aliens you might want to go water the greenhouse plants instead.


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