Culture > Movies

Film: Lost in the cosmos

Movies | Summer hits capture our alien nation's fixation on aliens

Issue: "The Man Behind the Duck," July 26, 1997

Space aliens make great wax noses. They reflect what we think of ourselves and our future; their depiction can soothe or reinforce our insecurities about ourselves. Right now humanity is being invaded with stories about visitors from other planets.

Contact is the late Carl Sagan's farewell gift to the universe. Star Jodie Foster plays a radioastronomer who finds signals coming from a planet billions and billions of miles away.

Naturally, since Mr. Sagan is involved, there's lots of dialogue about The Universe and the relation of religion and science. And a few cheap shots at Christians. The biggest is Rob Lowe's bit part as a Ralph Reed type who opposes the space flight because the aliens might not believe in God. Also, Ms. Foster's character faces public disapproval because of her agnosticism.

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Mr. Sagan's story, based on his novel, is one long lesson in scientism. The universe is all that is, but the stars are really awesome. It's the same secular theology as his Cosmos, but with a bigger budget.

While there are many great sequences and a masterful use of special effects, the overall picture is commercial corn. When Ms. Foster goes to meet the aliens, their representative appears as her dead father who rattles off something about how "The search for other life is really the search for ourselves." Too much time is spent making such mumbo-jumbo sound profound.

Where Mr. Sagan's swan song is downright solemn, Men in Black takes satirical shots at every UFO clich' imaginable. Tommy Lee Jones is a super secret agent who recruits all-American boy Will Smith to help keep the alien population in line. Every time something weird happens, they show up to fix things. Then they erase the memories of any civilians who happen to see too much. This is the stuff of a hundred paranoid internet newsgroups.

Most aliens aren't causing trouble. In fact, the agents' headquarters has become an airport and customs office for visitors from other planets, who move to New York City and take jobs as cabbies, pawn shop owners, pop stars, even a well-known politician. These guys are just another group of immigrants trying to make ends meet in the Big Apple. Any resemblance to current immigration patterns is purely deliberate. Unfortunately, all sorts of illegal aliens land on Earth too. That's where the Smith and Jones team comes in.

Mr. Jones is well cast as the tough-guy professional who has fought one too many a space monster. Mr. Smith, however, is in the wrong movie. He totally misses all the irony going on around him and plays his usual Fresh Prince character. Instead of being smart and hip, he is merely smart-aleck.

This film is still great fun to watch, but it could have been so much more. As in another film from this summer, The Fifth Element, our heroes are fighting to stop the Earth from being blown to smithereens. Yet neither film builds any suspense out of such great material.

On the other hand, John Woo's Face/Off never misses an opportunity to glue the audience to their seats. While there's nothing extraterrestrial going on here, the leads are aliens in their own world. John Travolta plays a special agent chasing terrorist Nicholas Cage. The two wind up swapping faces and identities. The good guy looks like the bad guy, and vice versa.

For an escapist action movie with a sci/fi twist, Mr. Woo amazingly uses Mr. Cage's and Mr. Travolta's versatility to make his characters into more than clich' cutouts. Each actor in effect plays two characters (and each other). While the hero is terrorized at losing his identity and being ripped away from his family, the-bad-guy-in-the-good-body relishes the idea of exploiting his enemy's job and catching the "terrorist" in the good guy's body. Of course, this all ends in the usual explosions and violence.

Despite the violence of his movies, Mr. Woo is a professing Christian (see sidebar). This film goes beyond the usual good-vs.-evil conflict to attempt to illustrate something more biblically ambitious: how in sinful human beings depravity lurks beneath the facade of goodness, and good and evil get mixed up in the complexity of the sinful human heart. There's some odd religious imagery as Mr. Cage's terrorist plants a bomb intended to unleash a "biblical plague" against L.A. while a choir sings the "Hallelujah Chorus," and there's a huge melee as Mr. Cage and Mr. Travolta square off in a Catholic church during a funeral. But unfortunately, the possible religious themes are not really worked out.

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