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Jodie Foster is great, and Zemeckis knows how to use film technology without compromising a story’s humanity, but the real star of Contact is its author, Carl Sagan.

Contact is a smart movie. It is a science fiction movie without being an action movie. Instead of laser blasts, chases and grunting, it offers questions, dilemmas, and discussion. It is science fiction from the perspective of a scientist, not from that of a studio with too much money and gunpowder.

Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a Sagan-like scientist working for SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Faced with a government bureaucracy unwilling to pay for pure research, it is Ellie’s determination alone that keeps her in her job.

Her determination pays off when she hears a repeating signal coming from a nearby star. As Ellie starts decoding the cryptic message, the world watches, frets, and prays. As the message becomes clearer and clearer to Ellie, the world’s reaction becomes more and more muddled. Ellie learns that the message is a blueprint for a kind of spaceship, while humanity argues over the aliens’ intentions, legitimacy, and divinity.

The blueprints are ultimately realized through the funding of a worldwide coalition of nations, and a representative is chosen to be the first ambassador to our new neighbors.

Contact is a great tribute to Sagan. Ellie has all of Sagan’s curiosity, morality, and rationality. She repeats a probabilistic argument for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence that Sagan used in his Cosmos. Ellie is a rational atheist who’s interested in religious discussion, like Sagan. And when she says “billion” you can almost hear his voice.

Beyond the character of Ellie, the movie itself honors Sagan. It asks relevant questions about religion and science without taking sides, it recognizes the humanity of even the bad guys (though James Woods’ portrayal was a little prickly). Most of all, it values human curiosity — that inexplicable force that makes scientists like Ellie and Sagan so determined.

Zemeckis proves his ability right from the start. The opening shot of the movie is absolutely beautiful, and the richly layered soundtrack gives meaning to that beauty (kudos to supervising sound editor Phil Benson). The second sequence of shots foreshadows Ellie’s future: young Ellie makes radio contact with distant life forms from a thousand miles away.

Finally, Zemeckis and editor Arthur Schmidt really heap on the tension when, toward the end, our ambassador is ready to be sent. Lately, movie tension has been less than subtle: consider the bus-over-the-cliff scene in The Lost World or the paranoia of homicidal prisoners in Con Air. In Contact, the tension is just as taut, but more complex. There is a chance for death, but other factors gnaw at the characters and at the audience: the anticipation of meeting an alien race, the uncertainty of using technology we don’t understand, the fear of aborting a mission so close to completion.

Still, all of this talent could have been spent on a less deserving story. It is a tribute to the producers (other than Sagan and Ann Druyan, his wife) and Zemeckis that they took a chance on a smart, human science fiction movie, instead of buying explosions and space battles.