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A Star Is Borne

Because he often seemed less interested in studying the stars than becoming one himself, the late astronomer-author Carl Sagan had his detractors. Real scientists, they said, don't have booking agents or worry about trading quips with Johnny Carson. Still, this tireless proponent of science for the masses exerted an influence no mere lab geek could ever imagine: Half a billion people around the world have seen the TV series Cosmos, and millions more have read Sagan's breezy bestsellers.

His reach, I suspect, is about to be vastly extended. Combine director Robert Zemeckis, whose mega-hits include Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, multiple-Oscar winner Jodie Foster and the pop cosmology of Sagan, and summer-movie folk are bound to storm the multiplexes. Especially as the millennium approaches. Little matter that Sagan's turgid 1985 novel Contact reveals him as a far less gifted fictioneer than a dreamer: Book and movie are stuffed with all the Big Issues that Sagan always seemed somehow able to make manageable.

Who are we? Are we alone in the universe? Can science and religion co-exist? Theologians, philosophers and stargazers have been asking these questions for centuries. Zemeckis, following Sagan's lead, acts like he just invented them. There are enough awestruck looks, lightbulbs going off inside heads and have-you-heard-this-about-the-galaxy? declarations in Contact to furnish half a dozen Spielberg fantasies. But they all have that homey Sagan touch.

Should moviegoers feel insulted at being told they were born yesterday? In this case, I don't think so. To begin with, Contact is a nicely crafted, beautifully paced entertainment in which the eye-popping special effects--swirling tunnels of light, a couple of terrific catastrophes and a shimmering, blue-green night on the beach that is literally out of this world--illustrate Sagan's big ideas far better than he could by way of his room-temperature prose. There's a serviceable plot, about an long-orphaned astronomer, who's been fighting doubters all her life in the search for (what else?) Truth--and a fulfillment she can't quite put her finger on. There's a huge space-transport machine that costs half a trillion bucks to build (woe be to that balanced-budget talk), even absent any fees from its designer, who hails from a place called Vega.

Best of all, there's a lot of highly topical, highly charged debate among the forces who all want a piece of the action when an unmistakable message from another planet reaches Earth at last and the messengers ask a single Earthling to come pay a visit. The feeding frenzy that erupts among scientists, generals, politicians, the religious right, zillionaire investors, the media and assorted new-age gurus is the most engaging part of this otherwise rather conventional take on cosmic journeys and close encounters.

Meanwhile, trust Zemeckis, the fellow who morphed JFK into the same shot with Tom Hanks, to open his trick bag wide once again. Pop-ins by Jay Leno, Larry King and the talking hairdos from CNN are nothing new in big-budget summer movies. But when, thanks to a little laboratory magic, Bill Clinton himself shows up to comment on these intergalactic goings-on, part of the big audience I screened the picture with gasped, the other part tittered. Go figure.

The dramatis personae here rate out a couple of points higher than the usual action-movie stick figures, but let's not go overboard. Foster's heroine, Dr. Ellie Arrowood, is the kind of whip-smart, MIT-educated, hard-driven visionary who's been anchoring sci-fi epics for decades, although Foster is a much more effective actress than most. Even the flashback scenes in which nine-year-old Ellie, encouraged by her sainted father (David Morse), tries to reach alien civilizations via shortwave radio might have come off hokey in another movie. Foster gives them real sweetness and a sense of wonder.

Matthew McConaughey is Palmer Joss, a touchy-feely new-age theologian whose worldview is never quite made clear, and William Fichtner is Kent, Ellie's ever-faithful blind colleague who sticks with her through funding losses, criticism and tribulation. John Hurt comes by as S.R. Hadden, a Howard Hughesian eccentric who lives aloft in his LearJet and, before he leaves this Earth, wouldn't mind blowing a wad making contact with the Vegans.

Villains? Get out your cardboard and scissors. Tom Skerritt is Drumlin, a national science advisor with soaring ambitions, the kind of guy who steals credit without a pang of conscience and eats pure-hearted idealists for lunch. James Woods, one of the movies' great leerers, plays Kitz, an evil government security chief and rock-ribbed cynic, to a fare-thee-well. Ex-Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed is thinly disguised (by Rob Lowe) as "Richard Rank."

And let's not forget that's Angela Bassett as the President's savvy spin doctor. It's a nice turn in a small part.

Once Dr. Ellie gets The Message and it's laboriously decoded and the space transporter is built, the movie's question--and that of its advertising campaign--is: Who Gets to Go? Amid millennial value clashes, atheists and poets need not apply. But fate has its way. We've known all along that the star of the show will take the big plunge, and Zemeckis makes the trip worth her while--and ours. Neither Stanley Kubrick nor George Lucas nor Stephen Spielberg had quite this much technical know-how available when they made their landmark space epics; Zemeckis sets a new standard.

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