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Earthlings Rush to Contact Aliens - on the Silver Screen

Comic creatures and theological issues boost science-fiction's appeal

Pathfinder is beaming snapshots from Mars, repairs are under way on the Mir space station, and the American military is again trying to squelch pesky stories about aliens at an Air Force base. Science is booming in real life, so is it surprising that science fiction is booming at the box office?

It's been that way all season, from the campy heroics of "The Fifth Element" to the faux paleontology of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." Even the heroes of "Batman & Robin" are equipped with as many high-tech doodads as a "Star Wars" spaceship.

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This reflects widespread interest in science-related enterprises - and if the media are as influential as many observers believe, such fascination with on-screen technology could encourage more political and financial support for actual science projects.

The ticket-selling champ of the current SF crop is "Men in Black," a comic look at spacepersons in our midst. But the most substantial entry is "Contact," directed by fantasy specialist Robert Zemeckis and based on a novel by Carl Sagan, whose "Cosmos" television show did for astronomy in the '80s what Zemeckis would like to do today. The film's mixture of scientific and religious elements is unusual and sometimes compelling, although its ideas are ultimately less venturesome than one might wish.

Jodie Foster plays Eleanor Arroway, an astronomer with a vision. Since childhood she's dreamed of probing distant galaxies with earthbound instruments, and as an adult she's traded academic prestige for a career of scanning the skies with telescopes. Her goal is to pick up a message from outer space, thus proving a lesson her father taught her: If there's nobody in the universe except us humans, that would be an awful waste of space.

Her wish comes true when a radio telescope picks up a purposeful signal from Vega, a star 26 light-years away. After much puzzling, pondering, and decoding, she and her colleagues piece together its meaning. Passed along to the government, this leads to construction of an unearthly machine designed to propel one individual into the reaches of space, toward a destiny only Vegans could foretell.

Other characters include Tom Skerritt as Eleanor's rival, James Woods as a national-security adviser who hones skepticism into a fine art, and John Hurt as a business magnate whose wit and wisdom keep the project going.

Most interesting is Matthew McConaughey as a young theologian who's made his reputation by reminding the world that scientific knowledge is no substitute for spiritual awareness. He becomes Eleanor's lover and confidant, engaging her - and the audience - in an ongoing discussion about the limitations of logic and the primacy of religion as a source of true insights and values.

As entertainment, "Contact" is a slow-going drama that would have more impact if it trimmed away unneeded characters and dropped some gimmicky video episodes. But special effects are superbly rendered in two major sequences, both involving the space-travel machine.

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Foster brings commendable passion to her role, ably supported by Hurt and William Fichtner as a blind astronomer with a great ear for interstellar transmissions. By contrast, McConaughey seems less interested in his dialogue than in flashing his increasingly famous smile.

As philosophy, "Contact" is more thoughtful than most Hollywood pictures, but not as bold or innovative as it could have been. For all the screenplay's talk about religious values, its ultimate message favors humanism over metaphysics, suggesting that faith must reside in the heart rather than the mind, and that people (of whatever planet or galaxy) have "only each other" to preserve them from utter loneliness in the universe.

Zemeckis's last picture, the hugely successful "Forrest Gump," was criticized by some family-friendly viewers for conveying the idea that intelligence and education are luxuries rather than necessities. Traditionally minded spectators may scold "Contact" for a similar tendency to substitute feel-good imaginings for earnest, practical thought about important issues.

Disguised as a comic-book knockoff in the dubious "Judge Dredd" and "Barb Wire" tradition, "Men in Black" brings a needed dose of hilarity to the SF scene by telling us something we've always suspected: Those people we meet who look, sound, and act like aliens really are aliens! Their aim is to infiltrate Earth by hiding in human bodies. Their problem is that the disguise doesn't work very well.

Who'll save us from this menace? The fabled Men in Black, ever on the lookout for creatures who don't follow the rules of intergalactic etiquette. The tools of their trade are high-energy blasters, cars faster than the Batmobile, and a handy gizmo that erases the confusing memories caused by close encounters of the third kind. Their main field of action is Manhattan.

"Men in Black" gets its comic momentum from three sources. One is the razor-sharp acting of Tommy Lee Jones, as a veteran MIB who can spot a space invader in the most motley crowd of New Yorkers, and Will Smith, as a new agent whose on-the-job training goes less smoothly than expected. Vincent D'Onofrio is superb as an alien whose human form is barely under control - his performance recalls Steve Martin in "All of Me" - and Rip Torn is his usual persuasive self as the MIB boss.

The film's second powerhouse is Ed Solomon's witty screenplay, full of zingy one-liners and outrageous story developments. The third and most important is Barry Sonnenfeld's ever-surprising directing style, alternating scenes of broadly physical slapstick with unexpectedly subtle gags relying on split-second timing.

The film's only major downside is a weakness for jokes aimed at people who seem "weird" or "different," echoed in the regrettable ad campaign, portraying Earth as a "gated community" staving off outsiders with every weapon they can find. A comedy this funny doesn't need xenophobic overtones to up its hilarity quotient.

* 'Contact' is rated PG, and 'Men in Black' is PG-13. For parental guidance, see the Family Movie Guide, Page 13.

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