Nearly everything lyrical, well-meaning, and unfashionably sincere in Robert Zemeckis' Contact (Warner Bros.) is previewed in the blink of an eye, literally, in the opening sequence. Streamlining the late astronomer Carl Sagan's soulful, if unwieldy, 1985 best-seller about the interrelated searches for God, scientific truth, and extraterrestrial intelligence, Zemeckis starts with a shot of something quickly identifiable as the southern contours of America on the curved surface of Earth. Then he zooms out, past other planets, past the Milky Way, and into deepest, computer-generated space.
The trip feels at once speedy and almost hokily long, and as the scenery whooshes by, an aural din swells and subsides static, music, sound bites of pop culture (''I am not a crook'') giving way to vacuum-deep silence. Then Zemeckis pulls back still more, and ultimately the cosmos compacts into a gleam in the eye of a little girl, who grows up to be Jodie Foster playing Dr. Ellie Arroway, a solitary, self-contained scientist with a passion to prove that she is not alone in the universe.
If you sign on, disarmed of irony, for her trip I did you'll be rewarded with a rare thing that may in itself prove the existence of a Higher Power: a Hollywood entertainment that makes you consider deep thoughts.
Contact arrives hard on the heels of the jokey Men in Black, in the shadow of The X-Files-fueled media blither going on about Roswell, N.M., and just weeks after transmission of the first spectacular high-resolution pictures from Mars. In other words, it's dangerously situated for scrutiny, particularly from Forrest Gump lovers and haters curious about the latest project from that film's protean, hyper-inventive director. Well, Contact isn't jokey. It doesn't perceive extraterrestrials as cuddly or childlike. It'll be compared most closely with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but that's only because it treats grand-scale scientific inquiry with some respect. In fact, Contact is something new on the sci-semi-fi horizon.
I give nothing away by reporting that Ellie does in fact detect distant signs of intelligence (and the discovery sequence is thrilling). The clues she receives crack open a universe of questions, posed in an admirably accessible screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg: How can a scientist believe in God or not believe? Is faith in the unproved existence of other life forms any different from faith in the unproved existence of God? Do we search the heavens because we feel lost without spiritual faith? What if science reveals that God never existed? And must the ambassador we send to a distant star be a spiritual person? At no point does anyone mention phoning home.
There are few actresses better suited to the lead role than Jodie Foster, whose rigorous intelligence radiates not only from her cool eyes but practically from her capable fingertips themselves. She grabs the part with an intensity that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. And Zemeckis is smart enough, and secure enough, to get out of her way when she lets rip, urging the camera to follow Foster wherever she wants to go up stairs, through rooms, into hyperspace.
That's the bracing news. The goo-goo stuff in Contact, for the most part, has to do with big-movie excess. The computer-patched presence of President Bill Clinton as himself unnecessarily brings to mind Tom Hanks' Gumpish intrusions into news footage. Too, as in Gump, Zemeckis stages overelaborate scenes of Americans exhibiting their inalienable right to clownish freedom of assembly. The movie is lousy with cameos from CNN on-air talent including Larry King, Bernard Shaw, and Bobbi Batista. (Did Warner Bros. get a group rate on hiring its new Turner colleagues?)
And, inevitably, the ''radically'' lofty philosophizing has been sweetened with manufactured sex appeal, most calculatedly with an undercooked performance from A Time to Kill's Matthew McConaughey as a religious scholar who has a brief fling with Ellie and spends the rest of the story with stars in his eyes. (Of the rest of the attractive supporting cast, James Woods, following his exuberant voice-over work in Hercules, punches up the presence of a skeptical national security adviser and provides some tonic astringency.)
At one point, as she tries to describe the unfathomable universe she has glimpsed, Ellie runs out of words. ''They should have sent a poet,'' she whispers. On the summer screen, this sometimes clumsy, always thoughtful, touchingly big-spirited production is as close to poetry as Hollywood allows itself to get. B+