Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

An admirable attempt to examine the moral, political, social and religious implications of mankind's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, via the unyielding character of fiercely dedicated scientist Ellie Arraway (Jodie Foster), for

whom the pursuit of knowledge is a holy quest. The message from space Ellie intercepts includes blueprints for a mysterious machine that sends the world into an uproar -- to build or not to build? Nations squabble, religious leaders bicker, policy makers rant and scientists jockey for position,

while at the heart of the turmoil lies an age-old question: Are we happier putting our faith in God or science? One memorable scene has Arraway's remote research facility resembling the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert, crawling with saucer nuts, apocalyptic preachers, New Age flakes and

curiosity-seekers (shades of both the excoriating ACE IN THE HOLE and the smart-alecky MARS ATTACKS!), all looking for an answer from above. But this film is no exception to the rule that philosophical debate seldom spawns compelling cinema. Golden-boy Matthew McConnaughey's forgettable presence

notwithstanding, it's really all about Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she's utterly convincing as a researcher who's subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately, that adds up to a rather remote protagonist, and Ellie

is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types: arrogant military adviser (James Woods); icily efficient presidential aide (Angela Bassett); oily, self-righteous Christian leader (Rob Lowe); mysterious magnate (John Hurt, looking uncannily like Gate of Heaven leader Marshall

Applewhite); psycho cult leader (Jake Busey); opportunistic glad-hander (Tom Skeritt). The result is a film far too cold-blooded for summer audiences; the idea that it's competing for sci-fi box office with the glib, thoroughly entertaining MEN IN BLACK is almost farcical.