Back in the realm of science-fiction here as I take a look at this wonderful and underated film. The book is also extrodinary, but its been too long since I read it for me to offer any decent review.
The story is one of humanities first contact with aliens. This is not the normal "invasion of earth" or X-Files paranoia type of story that is so common in popular SF. It is instead a much more cerbral tale more in line with Arthur C Clarke's 2001.
The film deviates from the book in a number of points, in particular the past history of Ellie as a child. Similarly there are parts of the story that are realised better in the book than the film (and indeed vice versa). Both are classy and they compliment each other very well, this may be due to the inolvement of Carl Sagan in the film making process. Ultimately, the film does an excellent job of preserving the ethos of the book.
As a film this is criminally underated. I can only think that this is because of the presence of Matthew McConaughey because other than that the film is a virtually flawless bit of SF. The discovery of the aliens signal is one of the most exciting bits of cinema I have ever seen. Even on repeated viewings I still get chills as Ellie picks up the signal on her headphones and starts the process of confirming what she is hearing. That whole sequence to me is far superior to the nearest Hollywood equivilent (contact in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The irony of the signal being a recording of Hitler is an excellent touch working in the story as a moment of disqueit for the characters and working for the audience as a reason for why we may not yet have had first contact.
This sequence is complimented (although not bettered) later in the film in the sequence leading up to Ellie being "launched". The point of "Contact" itself was never going to be able to live up to the equivilent in the book. The book was able to make more of it because of the more complex backstory that Ellie had and because of other scientific and theological concerns dealt with in the novel. In the film it is boiled down to a bunch of 2001/stargate stylie effects and a more simplistic examination of the films themes. That being said the effects are genuinely beautiful and support the moment of Contact as far as any purely visual technique can.
A word too for Jodie Foster. Jodie tends to be excellent in just about everything she does, even when the parts/films are not worthy of her talent. Here she gives an outstanding performance, literally carrying the scenes with the aforementioned McConaughey. The casting of McConaughey is the films one weak spot. The Palmer Joss of the book has gravity, humility and a drive comparable to Ellie's. The Palmer Joss of the film gives the impression of being laid back to the point of being horizontal. More of a drop out surfer dude than a man of the cloth.
If you like your SF in the escapist/trashy Independence Day mould, then this won't be for you. But if you want an examination of the relationship between faith and reason or thoughtful speculation on what the effect of First Contact might be, or if you just want a little slice of wonder, then this is essential viewing.