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🎬 #76 The Gravitational Pull of Mystery.
One of the most compelling story structures or even genre is the mystery. Something happens that prompts someone to go on a journey to find the answer. This kind of story lends itself so well to narrative storytelling - as human’s we love a mystery, because I think it allows us to ask big ‘What if’ questions. They inspire the imagination and are a place to find the solace of hope. And as people who live here on earth there are two giant mysteries that each of us has to contend with - what exactly happens when we die? And are we alone in the universe? This week’s films both tackle these huge mysteries in their own way.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: CONTACT
1997 Dir Robert Zemeckis
Based on the book by Carl Sagan, Zemeckis’ film kind of combines both of the mysteries I mentioned above. Jodie Foster’s character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, works for the SETI Institute [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] and is, as you can imagine, obsessed with the idea of finding evidence of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. But she is also driven by something else and the two semi-converge in the film’s third act.
You can feel Ellie’s steadfast conviction come through in every moment - nothing to her is more important than finding the answers she’s searching for. And she is very literally searching for them - aided by huge radio telescope arrays. This is kind of what sets Contact apart for me in terms of other ‘first contact’ films. At the centre is science and there’s an overwhelming practical, engineering feel about it. This is seldom explored in other films that deal with the same subject matter. It’s one of the reasons why I loved Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival so much, it dealt with the practical question of communication. Ok great if an alien intelligence shows up, but how can we share info. How can we say ‘hello.’
It’s exactly the same case here in Contact, ok amazing if contact is made, but how can we transverse the huge distance that separates us? Engineering and science brings us closer to this central mystery of the universe. But there is a huge and conflicting thematic element of faith, embodied in McConaughey’s character Palmer Joss - who’s a Christian philosopher. The faith to embrace the unknown, the faith to trust in someone who believes something extraordinary - and it is in the clash of scientific faith and religious faith where Contact really finds itself in very interesting territory. Faith, whether in the scientific method or something else is key to giving us meaning and directing us towards the answers to life’s greatest mysteries.
Contact is packed with Zemeckis’ obsessions with technology and humanity. And when combined, he continues to show that they can take us to extraordinary places and reveal incredible truths. He also uses his unique ability to use filmmaking technology to construct shots that feel almost impossible on first viewing - but they never appear showy or just for the sake of it - they are appropriate to convey the feeling he wants the moment to illicit.
TL;DR Encounter the engineering difficulties of dealing with an extraterrestrial civilisation in Zemeckis’ ode to the mystery of life here on Earth and far beyond.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, Google and YouTube in the US/UK.
Fact: All three acts of this movie begin with a zoomed out shot of a celestial body, immediately followed by a tight shot of Ellie's eyes. This echoes Carl Sagan's opinion that humans are a way for the universe to experience itself.
FILM TWO: MEMORIA
2021 Dir Apichatpong Weerasethakul
This is director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film set outside his native Thailand, and his first with a Western lead. Like his other films, including Palm Do’r Winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, he establishes a dream-like atmosphere of mystery, even foreboding very early on. Perfect for this search for an unknown sound, what exactly it is and where it’s coming from, or even if it’s real - or a hallucination of Tilda Swinton’s character Jessica. He constructs this eeriness from a combination of the canny and the uncanny, the contrast of the ordinary and the potentially extraordinary.
Whereas Zemekis’ film is firmly constructed within the science fiction thriller mould, this ponderous, meditative film walks its own glacial path to a place that kind of defies expectations. Again Apichatpong takes his time to really let the audience feel what Jessica feels, playing most scenes out, locked-off and with minimal edits. He lets us observe, sometimes minutes at a time the place that she finds herself in, a foreign land, searching for meaning in the sound that she repeatedly hears at random intervals. Even as reality falls away, the film hooks us in with its central mystery and makes us wonder what the implications of what we’ve just witnessed are.
TL;DR Watch a compellingly slow, methodical mystery unfold across the cities and jungles of Colombia.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, Google and YouTube in the UK but unfortunately not available in the US.
Fact: This was Colombia’s official entry to the Best International Film category at the Oscars in 2022.
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