Endless Summer

Why the story makes no sense.
Sept. 20 1997 3:30 AM

Endless Summer

From Con Air to Contact, absurdity reigned.

(Note: "Plot Holes" is an occasional series assessing the narrative logic of movies.)

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It was a busy summer for the Logic Squad. The assaults on plausibility began in the first frames of Con Air, as Nicolas Cage's character returned home from Operation Desert Storm in a tugboat, and did not subside until Sam Neill mutated into some kind of space devil at the end of Event Horizon, whereupon his face inexplicably broke out in a crosshatched design that made him look like a slab of grilled ahi tuna.

None of this should be surprising. Summer is the season of action movies, and in Hollywood velocity has always been a greater virtue than coherence. One of the most damning things that can be said about a script is that it is "episodic," meaning that it dawdles when it should accelerate, that the writer is less interested in the ruthless propulsion of the story than in leisurely details of tone and character. As long as a movie is kept at a high enough idle, the thinking goes, the viewer won't mind an engine knock or two when it comes to credibility.

Sometimes this theory works, as in Air Force One. Though the movie asked us to believe that the president of the United States was a superhuman jungle warrior of unyielding principle, it didn't significantly insult our intelligence further. And it's probably unsporting to take a movie like Face/Off to task for issues of verisimilitude. John Woo, its director, has long demonstrated a rousing indifference to mere reality, and this movie--in which the characters routinely somersault through the air firing guns from both hands--is just his latest salute to impossible, operatic violence. (Still, haunting questions linger. I'm happy to buy the notion that John Travolta and Nicolas Cage were able to swap faces--after all, they were aided by a "state-of-the-art morpho-genetic template"--but I never quite understood how Cage, who is as lean as a rattlesnake, and Travolta, who has the sort of gentlemanly proportions that inspired relaxed-fit jeans, managed to trade bodies as well.)

It is certainly worth a passing mention that Nicolas Cage gets shot in the same arm in both Face/Off and Con Air, though neither wound interferes with his ability to hang from firetruck ladders or leap from speeding boats. These two movies, along with the incomparable Speed 2, make up what film historians may one day deem the improbability trilogy of all time. Though there is not enough room in cyberspace to catalog all the ways in which these films part company with reality, special mention must be made of Speed 2's villain, who, as richly embodied by Willem Dafoe, is a buzzing hive of befuddlement. When he steps onto a cruise ship carrying a set of explosive golf clubs and a jar of leeches, when he murmurs to the leeches in the bathtub as he applies them to his skin ("You take care of me, and I'll take care of the ship"), we know we have entered a world that the light of reason will never penetrate.

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C > ontact was supposed to be an antidote to all this summer nonsense, a passionate think piece about the possibility of alien life and the existence of God. It is to be applauded for trying to make us think instead of just react, but sometimes too many brain waves are just as bad as too few. I first suspected that Contact's logic circuits might be fried when, early in the movie, Matthew McConaughey, as a roving Christian Zen master named Palmer Joss, strolls through a Costa Rican palapa nibbling from a box of Cracker Jack. While it is certainly possible that a box of Cracker Jack might be for sale in a remote Central American jungle, I submit that the chances of finding one are no greater than stumbling upon, say, a Zagnut bar. (To be fair, though, I did believe it when McConaughey's callow, mushy character is later hired by the Clinton White House as a spiritual adviser.)

Contact's central premise is intriguing: A radio astronomer, played by Jodie Foster, receives a blizzard of binary mathematical data from a civilization in distant space. The task of decrypting these data stymies the most brilliant minds on earth, but when the puzzle is finally solved the scientists behold a set of blueprints for building a highly unconventional space transport. For all its earnest credibility about radio astronomy, Contact is breezy in the extreme when it comes to almost everything else. We are asked to believe not only that President Clinton (shanghaied by the filmmakers into a notorious cameo) could inspire the nation to spend trillions of dollars on this machine without even a raised eyebrow from George Will, but also that a cross-eyed, homicidal doomsday prophet would be hired to put the finishing touches on it; and that after he sabotages the whole project in the name of Jesus, it would be rebuilt at a secret location on the island of Hokkaido by a zillionaire eccentric who floats around in orbit aboard his own custom-made Mir.

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E ven more troubling are the cryptic motives of the aliens. When Jodie Foster finally sets forth in the transport--read no further if you don't want to hear the movie's ending--she lands on a peaceful tropical beach thoughtfully provided by the aliens to cushion her culture shock. The aliens themselves take the form of her beloved dead father, who holds the weeping earthling in his arms and tells her she'll never walk alone. Incredibly, the aliens don't have much more to say than that, and she can't seem to think of much more to ask. She's traveled halfway across the universe to be patted on the head and told to run on home. And another thing: If these aliens are so adept at replicating the many moods of our planet, if they can speak English, how come they had to communicate with us in the first place through a byzantine binary code? That's like God deciding to communicate to us via that cinnamon bun shaped like Mother Teresa: way too coy.

Stephen Harrigan is a screenwriter, novelist, and contributing editor to Texas Monthly.

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