Matt Dorey

A bird is sitting on the grass with a kite

Great movie double bills #6

Cover for movie double bill 6

This double bill matches up Aussie comedy The Dish with the Jodie Foster movie Contact. The former adapts real events during the moon landings in 1969 and the latter adapts a novel by Carl Sagan. Both films are about space exploration, one based in its past (and golden age) and the other based in its (possible) near future.

The Dish

[aesop_image imgwidth=”25%” img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Poster for The Dish” captionposition=”left”]

We watched The Dish recently because Ingrid's been a little homesick. We thought the scenery and the accents might ease this a little. It's a well made movie that did well at the box office for the scale of the production. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) is the only recognisable name but I'm sure I recognise faces and mannerisms of other Aussie actors and actresses from different films.

The story follows the astronomers at the Parkes radio telescope. The facility was tasked with handling the transmissions from Apollo 11 whenever the northern hemisphere stations were unable to maintain contact with the spacecraft.

Global events bringing the world's focus to a small Australian town provides most of the comic relief. The droopy Hendrix-obsessed school band are instructed to learn how to play the American national anthem. This made me think they'd end up emulating Hendrix's Woodstock rendition, but this did not happen until a month later in August 1969. Instead they play the theme to Hawaii Five-O at the Ambassador.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”100%” img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Scene from The Dish: playing cricket” captionposition=”left”]

Come the big day the weather takes a turn for the worse and there's a chance that the dish may not be able to relay the images after all. There's a lovely scene where the locals muse on why the trip to the moon is happening at all. We already knew more about the moon than the mission told us but we had to go in order to find out whether we could get there. As with most of life, the discovery is in the doing.

The film is unnecessarily bookended with scenes of Neill aged up, just to show the viewers how the dish looked thirty years later when the film was made. It's a beautiful building which is as worthy of celebration as the people who manned it in 1969.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”100%” img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”The Parkes Radio Telescope as it is today” captionposition=”left”]


[aesop_image imgwidth=”25%” img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Poster for Contact” captionposition=”left”]

Contact is an old-school science fiction movie and in my mind it's as important as Alien or 2001. It's high concept sci-fi dressed up as blockbuster entertainment. In McConaughey and Foster it has two leads with quality acting chops, and John Hurt also provides a quality cameo. The story seeks to understand what a realistic contact with an alien entity might be like and what its impact might be on the human race in general.

Jodie Foster plays Dr Arroway, a scientist obsessed with making contact with extraterrestrial life. We see early on in the film the reason for her obsession with making "contact". She manages to secure funding for work on the very large array. Eventually she manages to find a signal and establishes that they are alien in origin.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”100%” img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Jodie Foster as Dr Arroway in Contact” captionposition=”left”]

At first the signals are not so alien, the first images are a reflection of the first television broadcasts of Hitler opening the 1936 Munich Olympics. It's a brilliant and spine-tingling moment when the first image from the "aliens" is revealed to be Adolf – though surely there were earlier test signals for television or the aliens would pick up the radio transmissions made by Marconi first? A bit of dramatic license for sure.

In fact Contact requires that the viewer be sympathetic to dramatic license through most of its runtime – but it is science fiction!

I enjoy the little twists and turns of the plot every time I watch Contact. I get something new out of it each time. The scenes of people mocking and undermining scientists in meeting rooms with politicians are not so entertaining but Americans do enjoy bigging up their conservative and religious demagogues don't they?

I'm not going to reveal any details of the plot later into the film because I enjoyed it a lot when I watched it unspoiled. Let's just say that there are plenty of reasons why the comparison to 2001 is valid and that Contact also does a very good job of tying things up and leaving enough open-ended for you to ponder on. Because it's a work of fiction, the film makers are less constrained in how they end the story. In "The Dish" we're left with that weird wraparound story to give the film the necessary structure.

As a double bill

I think these films work together as they both tap into how space exploration and adventure affect us culturally. "The Dish" captures the spirit of the moon landing and manages to recast it in a way that makes you wonder what will happen next, even though you know the whole story already. (Apollo 13 also does well in this regard.)

Meanwhile "Contact" takes the next stage of the story and runs with it. What is out there beyond our own system? Is anybody out there and can we go there to meet them? Both films show that we have an incurable desire to know the answers to these questions.

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