25 Years Ago A Sci-Fi Blockbuster With Incredible Visual Trick Came Out

It was from the director of the Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump.

Contact was released in cinemas on July 11, 1997 and starred Jodie Foster as a scientist who discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life and then fights to be the chosen person to make first contact with extraterrestrials.

Directed by special effects genius Robert Zemeckis (the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, who framed Roger Rabbit), it begins with a panoramic scene of Earth, before taking viewers through the solar system and the Milky way up in deep space.

Its climax is even more spectacular, showing – spoilers – its main character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, being transported through an alien transport system of wormholes. This is before she lands on a beach built from her literal dreams by kind aliens in an effort to make her feel comfortable.

That said, arguably Contact’s most jaw-dropping moment of visual awe occurs amidst a more everyday, albeit tragic, storyline. In a flashback to Ellie as a child (where she is played by Jena Malone), we are shown the moment her character discovered her father (David Morse) dying.

In a seemingly unbroken tracking shot, we see the young girl frantically running up the stairs to the bathroom to retrieve her father’s medicine in an effort to save him.

However – as seen in the clip below – as she reaches the bathroom, it looks like what we saw throughout the scene was actually already a reflection in a closet mirror.

Still, that can’t be the case because you wouldn’t have been able to see her in the mirror walking up the stairs.

Clip via Velhasili Kelam

So how did the team working on Contact pull off the trick? Well, on the Contact DVD, there’s a commentary with Ken Ralston, the film’s senior visual effects supervisor, in which he talks about the sequence.

Ralston explains that there was no mirror within the mirror, the whole scene being constructed through inventive composition.

“Bob [Robert Zemeckis] was trying to find a creative way to represent [Ellie’s] torments and all the different things that go through his mind at death,” he said.

“She runs up the stairs. She starts going slower and slower with a device that slows down the film.”

As Ellie walks closer to the bathroom, this shot of her running is transposed onto a blue screen instead of the mirror and perfectly combined with another shot of Ellie reaching for the mirror, giving the illusion of a unbroken plane.

“She opens the mirror – which is entirely fake. She’s masked in blue in the foreground so we can match her beautifully,” adds Ralston.

In order to accomplish the perfect transition, the special effects artists even had to “paint” a cameraman’s shoulder at some point in the sequence.

Besides impressing everyone who saw it, the scene is a great example of why Contact stands out from other similar movies in its genre.

Based on a novel by scientist Carl Sagan, this is a movie that features plenty of jaw-dropping sci-fi spectacle. Yet what really makes these moments resonate is that we believe in the people who are at the center of them.

In fact, most of Contact’s big blockbuster moments are actually held back until its final act, with the film using that time to establish Ellie’s character.

After the death of her science-enthusiast father, she lost any religious faith she might have had, instead devoting her life to the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life – deep down hoping to find a way to contact her father.

It’s this – along with Ellie’s struggles as a woman in the male-dominated realm, where her adversaries include characters played by James Woods, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Skerritt – that makes the climax visually stunning but extremely emotional all the stronger, neatly tying an arc about the character’s journey, as well as the film’s story and themes.

That said, this emphasis on character over blockbusters may have hurt Contact slightly upon release.

The film holds a score of 67% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed around $170 million at the box office on a budget of $90 million – both results perhaps slightly disappointing for a director whose previous film was the smash hit and Best Picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump.

However, Contact now seems to be a favorite among many sci-fi fans, with an impressive 7.5 rating on IMDB among audiences.

In recent years, it’s also been cited as a precursor to later clever but emotional blockbusters like Ad Astra, Arrival, and Interstellar.

For me, the reappraisal of Contact is deserved looking back on it today, the fact that Hollywood has ignited a film on such a massive scale that, while featuring sci-fi moments, is primarily a drama about heartbreak and the clash between faith and science feels like a miracle.

Briana R. Cross