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by Richard Schwartz

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With his latest release "Contact," director Robert Zemeckis returns to the screen with another feelgood summer movie and, in the process, provides a reminder of everything we disliked about "Forrest Gump."

Based on a story by the late Carl Sagan, "Contact" stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Anoway, an astronomer who receives a radio signal from a life form in a far-away galaxy. After years of having her research ignored and belittled by government bureaucrats, Anoway becomes caught in the middle as shiftless politicians, private entrepreneurs and evangelical consultants, among others, struggle to position themselves on the cusp of such an historical breakthrough.

"Contact" raises some sophisticated questions about reason vs. faith and the search for truth. Forcing a summer movie audience to exercise its brain is surely an intelligent risk, but "Contact" comes up a bit short by projecting its moral message onto the entire film, even less subtly so than Zemeckis had done in the neo-conservative "Gump." The message here? Not only that "God is Good," but also that Anoway's initial agnosticism is firmly dismissed and James Woods' National Security Advisor is made to appear a buffoon when he makes a fairly logical deduction in a pivotal final scene. There's nothing wrong with taking such a dogged ideological stance; however, one leaves "Contact" with the somewhat unkosher feeling that one's been subject to full-scale emotional manipulation.

This trend extends beyond the theme to recurring attempts to yank stubborn heartstrings by playing the exploitative angle of family tragedy. Zemeckis provides a healthy dose of character background early, sufficient enough to give the audience a suitable read on how life experiences have shaped Anoway's personality. After that, however, the flashbacks are excessive.

Another complaint, perhaps more nit-picky but still notable, is the Gumpian reliance on news bulletins, headlines, etc. as narrative devices. Such hackneyed tools are most effective when spottily employed, but Zemeckis bombards us with information overload in this vein. Initially, the use of CNN broadcasts and Bill Clinton press conferences lends a sense of reality to "Contact." Yet Zemeckis never lets up with the multimedia pastiche and soon the audience even begins to forget that the star of the screen is Jodie Foster and not Bobbie Battista. It's difficult to believe that Carl Sagan left such a weak narrative that it needed these predictable plot mechanisms to plug the holes.

There are certain redeeming aspects of "Contact." Foster, as usual, turns in yeoman work as a complicated woman struggling with her job, background, gender and entire belief system. And the film succeeds when it pokes fun at the influence of metaphysical quacks in today's society, reaching all the way to the Oval Office. A memorable Cabinet meeting is dominated by an evangelical leader (Matthew MacConaughey) and a Ralph Reed carbon copy (an expectedly smarmy Rob Lowe).

Professional scene-stealer Woods again delights as an uptight fast-talking politico, and young Jake Busey (in a minor role) proves himself a worthy heir to his wacko father's familiar title of resident maniac.

As well, the film's special effects are up to par with this summer's best. A mammoth transport mechanism constructed from alien blueprints is quite convincing, and the film's climax is visually stunning.

Still, "Contact" suffers from an overdose of cheaply manipulative Zemeckian plot devices that unfortunately cloud a potentially thoughtful debate on science and faith.

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