Recently, while speaking at the Cannes Film Festival, actor and director Jodie Foster spoke of how, in recent years, it's become more and more difficult to fund adult-driven dramas like her latest film, Money Monster. “I think it’s still possible to make those movies, [but] I don’t think it’s possible to make those movies financed by a major studio,” she said, according to Deadline. Foster has a point — but the same seems to be true of the sci-fi genre. Nowadays, sci-fi films seem to revolve only around how many explosions there are, how many superheroes are involved, or how big they can be, rather than what kind of science can be explored or human questions can be asked. It's a shame, because in the past, a few sci-fi dramas — like Foster's 1997 flick Contact — highlighted just how good the genre could truly be.
I'm a female fan of science fiction, and yet there are only a few movies that feature women in prominent roles that I consider great additions to the genre. Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise is probably the most iconic, though she brings up issues of the male gaze. There is also Sarah Connor from the Terminator films, whose wilting flower vulnerability in the first film turned to gun-toting badassery by the second. Jupiter of Jupiter Ascending is a recent favorite, too, but one of my favorite films of all time, and one of my favorite instances of women in sci-fi, is Contact. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Contact isn't the kind of science fiction film that gets made anymore, namely because it features a female lead, and prefers to pose intellectual conundrums rather than explosive action.
Based on the novel by famed astrophysicist and astronomer Carl Sagan and his Cosmos co-writer Ann Druyan, Contact tells the story of Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist who makes a world-altering discovery. She finds and analyzes an alien signal coming from a star system 26 light years away and brings humanity to the verge of contact with extraterrestrial life. When her analysis includes plans to build a machine that would allow the humans of Earth their first encounter with aliens from another planet, a dramatic conflict unfolds, highlighting how humanity's differences might actually better bring them together.
Contact presents many interesting scientific, ethical, and religious questions throughout its story, but like any good piece of science fiction, it manages to do so without resorting to stereotypes. Even in 2016, it's rare to see any major movie with a female lead, let alone a science fiction film. A 2014 study of the all-time top 100 domestic grossing sci-fi and fantasy films by Lee & Low concluded that only 12% had a female protagonist. The sentiment that women can't open movies, it seems, is as pervasive in the sci-fi genre as it is in others, if not more so when you consider the sexism present in sci-fi toy marketing (remember the Rey controversy?). The fact that, in 1997, a then-35-year-old Jodie Foster was given the lead role in a major sci-fi drama is something that seems unlikely to happen in today's environment, which, sadly, caters to male stars and male interests.
Yet the landscape of 2016 makes re-watching Contact even more worthwhile. While films like Alien and Terminator put their female characters in the midst of action-heavy conflicts where they need to use great physical strength to overpower their adversaries, Contact keeps its story in the realm of intelligent adult drama (the only recent film that I can think of that taps into a similar style is Alex Garland's Ex Machina, which also features a woman in the lead role and explores the idea of artificial intelligence). Though there are indeed scenes of action, suspense, and yes even an explosion in Contact, the movie's main focus is on the conversations had and decisions made by the human beings faced with such otherworldly events. Unlike films like the Star Wars series, say, Contact's drama stems not from cartoon violence, crumbling cities, or unbelievable fight scenes, but from the very human mistakes our species can make, and the lengths we'll go to for what we believe in.
As the film industry grows more and more enveloped by the idea that science fiction can only be presented in the Marvel Universe or Star Wars's massive, explosion-heavy ways, looking back at Contact offers a refreshing alternative to the modern-day interpretation of the genre. The film explores ethical, moral, and scientific dilemmas that come from humanity interacting with other species in thought-provoking ways, and the fact that it features an intelligent, emotional, complex woman at its center is the cherry on top.
Images: Warner Bros., Giphy