Given that Robert Zemeckis, in his post-Forrest Gump mode, has a clear case of Oscaritis, and that the heaps of piety expended on this ambitious 1998 adaptation of Carl Sagan’s SF novel lead to traces of unintentional camp, this is still an adroit and compelling piece of storytelling, well worth anybody’s time. Jodie Foster plays a dedicated radio astronomer and atheist who receives the first message from extraterrestrials; Matthew McConaughey (one of the campier elements) portrays a sort of New Age Billy Graham and romantic hunk who helps to negotiate her dealings with Washington, not to mention spirituality and sexuality. Others in the cast include not only James Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, and Rob Lowe, but also a host of TV regulars (most of them CNN favorites) playing themselves: Bernard Shaw, Larry King, Bill Clinton (who seems to be taking over the Forrest Gump role), Jay Leno, etc. If indeed the view of reality is strictly CNN, the aesthetics (if not the politics) are strictly Ayn Rand; the otherworldliness manages to be both visually exciting and very southern California. James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg wrote the screenplay, though the late Sagan and his widow Ann Druyan both worked with Zemeckis on the adaptation. (JR)

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