Robert Zemeckis follows up his Forrest Gump Oscar success with this ambitious attempt to reconcile the age-old debate between Science and Religion. Jodie Foster stands on the side of Science as a lifelong SETI researcher, using long distance radiowaves to probe the outer reaches of the universe for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Matthew McConaughey plays the voice of Religion, as a Christian philosopher, and the two become romantically involved on a number of different occasions over the course of the film. When a signal is received, seemingly from somewhere in deep space, both sides collide, government forces and fundamentalist groups become involved, and Foster finds that her scientific beliefs threaten, ironically, to up-end her life’s work.
Packaged as a science fiction drama, Zemeckis’ film is really about Faith, about defending your right to believe in what you want, regardless of whether or not it can be proved in any tangible way. Zemeckis struggles with the material, too conservative to really pull apart the religious debate with any fervour, and all too often allows his sub-Spielbergian schmaltz to muddy the waters. Underneath the surface, and perhaps more evident in Carl Sagan’s source novel, is a more profound philosophical tale, but one which the film, solid though it is as an inquisitive mainstream drama, shies away from discussing in any profound way.