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"Contact" on DVD

Special Edition packs lots of punch

by Jim Bray

Robert Zemeckis has not only made his share of good movies over the years, he's also   planted himself firmly on the leading edge of movie making technology. Films like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," the "Back to the Future" trilogy, and "Forrest Gump" (the latter of which cleaned up at the Academy Awards) have seen him consistently pushing the state-of-the-movie-art in new directions.

"Contact," his adaptation of the late Carl Sagan's novel about a scientist's successful work on the SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) project, not only continues this trend, but accelerates it. There's so much computerized moviemaking in this film you won't believe it until you listen to the DVD's extra soundtracks. Think only the opening shot, the machine scenes, and "the ride" are the only memorable effects scenes? Think again.

Jodie Foster and her really big radio antennaIt's these extra soundtracks that make "Contact" such a terrific experience on DVD,  such a great value, and a "must have" tool for students of the moviemaking art or movie buffs in general.  There are three separate soundtracks (besides the usual other language tracks found on most DVD's), in which people intimately involved in the production sit back and reminisce as they watch the film. You get commentaries by Jodie Foster, director Zemeckis and Producer Steve Starkey, and yet another one by special effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum.


I was positively enthralled by the commentaries, though other members of my family didn't seem to understand why I'd sit through the entire movie multiple times merely to hear the pontifications of "Hollywood people." But I learned about the problems of lighting the big dish at Arecibo for night shots, how Zemeckis' crew used computers to blend outdoor location shots into soundstage set pieces, and of course how many of the special effects were created. I highly recommend these extra sessions; you'll find fascinating information about movie making that may help put into perspective just how difficult the whole process can be - especially on a big, state-of-the-art film like this one.

The "Contact" DVD is a terrific example of this home video technology, except for one thing: they only included a widescreen version. Now, if they had to choose between widescreen and pan-and-scan, I'm glad they went the way they did. However, there's a whole side of the disc that's unused that could have been used to include the pan-and-scan version for those who prefer that format.

Sketch of the "Machine"That single oversight doesn't outweigh the benefits of this DVD, however - unless you're a confirmed pan-and-scan fan.  That's because the picture quality is nothing short of superb, with the rich and vibrant colours we've come to expect from DVD, and of course the movie's English audio soundtrack is in Dolby Digital surround sound (the French soundtrack is in regular Dolby Pro-logic, which is still fine).

You also get an abundance of chapter stops (thoughtfully listed on the DVD's sleeve) you can access randomly a la laserdisc, something we'd like to see on all DVD releases; you can also jump to scenes via the menu screen, which many may find more satisfying because that way you can see screen shots of the chapters, instead of having to remember labels like "Three months notice."  Both methods work well and I'm glad to see Warner Brothers including them both.

Other extras include production notes, special effects concepts, multilingual subtitles, and theatrical trailers. The production notes etc. are pretty sparse, but when you consider what you're getting on the audio tracks, it's more than made up for.

"Contact" and all its  DVD extras makes the movie too long to fit on a single layer of the disc's side, so they've used DVD's dual layer technology to keep the whole thing on one side. The package warns that there could be a slight pause when the laser changes layers, but we never noticed it at all and still have no idea where the change happens. We're most impressed by this feature, which means a movie that required 3 sides on laserdisc can still be enjoyed on DVD with no interruption.


Despite its being mostly overlooked by the Oscar people, "Contact" was one of the best films of 1997. Its intelligent posing of some of the biggest questions ever asked in a movie, combined with Jodie Foster's Oscar-calibre performances (the rest of the cast is no slouch, either), and production values and techniques worthy of honours, make it a tremendously satisfying movie experience.

And Warner Brothers' use of the DVD format to make the movie even more interesting should be commended - and encouraged. 

So when you take into consideration the superb quality of the DVD medium itself, all the extras in this "special edition," and the comparative affordability of DVD's when compared with videocassettes and laserdiscs, you have one heck of a value.

Wanna take a ride?

"Contact." A Robert Zemeckis Film. From Warner Home Video.


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Updated May 13, 2006