Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett

It's prime time in outer space. Literally. In Contact, a plodding and uneven sci-fi drama with several redeeming moments of visual and emotional power, extraterrestrials use prime numbers to let earthlings know they're out there. This is not good news for those of us who spent math class reading novels under our desk. Fortunately, Foster's character, a gifted astronomer, picks up on the numerical sound signals right away. Soon, all the president's men (and women: Bassett plays a top aide), military brass and a New Age religious guru (McConaughey) are grilling Foster about whether to meet up with the mathematically inclined aliens some 26,000 light-years away.

Contact, based on the late Carl Sagan's bestselling 1985 novel of the same name, is no warm and fuzzy E. T. or comic Men in Black. It wants to be big and deep. As directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), the film sticks—well, sort of—to scientific possibility, but with a whole lot of spiritual questing thrown in. Which means Contact runs a very long, often saggy, 142 minutes. The movie is at its best when Foster is onscreen. All fierce conviction and intensity, she ably conveys how her character, an orphan, focuses on what's out there as a way of not having to look at her own emotional emptiness. Way less effective, only partly because his role is written so woodenly, is a stiff McConaughey as Foster's theological debating partner and love interest (though the two display zero chemistry onscreen).

One easy way to cut the film's running time would be to chop the non-stop references to CNN, a corporate sibling of Warner Bros., which made Contact (and a division of Time Warner, which also owns PEOPLE). It seems as if half of the film's plot developments are conveyed via news reports on CNN. What's next? Cartoon versions of ABC anchors Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer narrating Disney films? (PG)

Documentary

On a Sunday morning nearly 34 years ago, four black girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed when a bomb exploded in the basement of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala. "[When]...those four little girls were blasted and buried in the debris of the church, America understood the real nature of the hate that was preventing integration," ex-CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite recalls in Spike Lee's poignant new documentary about the girls' deaths. The killings (unsolved until 1977, when a local Ku Klux Klansman, Robert Cham-bliss, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison) galvanized the civil rights struggle and helped propel passage of 1964's Civil Rights Act—which is only token comfort to the still grieving parents and siblings interviewed here.

Lee does a solid job invoking the short lives of the girls, putting their shocking deaths in social and historical context and reminding us just how far we've come on race relations since 1963. And, with the recent burning of black churches very much in mind, how far we have to go. (Not rated)

Billy Zane, Gina Gershon, Sheryl Lee

Vamping about in sexy, wasp-waisted '50s dresses, Gershon (Face/Off) is I the only bright spot in this overheated movie in which director Michael Oblowitz confuses florid style with substance. Based on a 1955 story by Jim Thompson, This World, Then the Fireworks tells the sordid, plot-heavy tale of how Gershon's character and her twin bro (Zane, looking and acting as if he's made of paraffin) stop at nothing, including murder, to maintain their incestuous relationship. The twosome becomes a triangle when Zane begins wooing a lady cop (Lee) he's hoping to scam. His surefire come-on line: "Are you blonde all over or just where it shows?" At least it's more original than asking if she's an Aries. (R)

Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari

This Japanese drama is so well-acted that Western audiences should be able to penetrate its layer of culture-specific details to see the poignant story at its heart.

In Shall We Dance? the expressive Yakusho plays a Tokyo accountant—what the Japanese call a salary man and we would call a middle-aged workaholic—who is bored with his job and his suburban life. Riding the train home from work one night, he glimpses a melancholy young woman, a teacher at a ballroom dancing school, standing in a window, and he is instantly smitten.

She is played by Kusakari, a lithe ballerina with an Audrey Hepburn kind of graceful, if sexless, charm. That Yakusho signs up for lessons unbeknownst to his wife is the moving force of the plot, for writer-director Masayuki Suo uses the school to examine Japan's lack of communication between spouses (who rarely dance together). Yakusho and his wife, Hideko Hara, take alienation for granted.

While Suo dwells too much on the niceties of dance contests in Japan, he does build suspense as to whether Yakusho will ever dance with Kusakari. Yakusho and Kusakari make you care about the outcome. If nothing else, it's good to know the Japanese also have midlife crises. (PG)

>Sizing Up IMAX

THE BIG PICTURE

SINCE IT PREMIERED AT THE Smithsonian Museum in 1970, IMAX has been touted as film's Next Big Thing. It's inching toward realizing its huge—70-mm film projected onto 80-foot-high screens—potential at last. Over the past few years, the IMAX Corp. has built dozens of theaters, bringing its worldwide total to 153 (a number expected to double in five years). Of those, 27 show off IMAX's razzle-dazzle 3-D format. "That's what people want—the 'wow' factor," says industry consultant Glenn Berggren.

IMAX movies have tended to be museum-friendly documentaries or stomach-churners such as this summer's Thrill Ride, a virtual tour of real theme-park attractions. Though IMAX won an Oscar for technological achievement this year, Hollywood has shied away from its bulky cameras and undersize box office. (A top draw, Wings of Courage, Sony's 1995 3-D drama starring Val Kilmer, earned $12 million in domestic release.) Says Larry Gleason, president of distribution for MGM/UA: "Everybody loves MAX, but the economics don't add up." That may change. A 3-D Star Trek is in development at Paramount, and IMAX is at work on a dinosaur movie, a sci-fi flick and, for the holidays, a gargantuan version of The Nutcracker. Watch out for those six-story Sugar Plum Fairies.

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Jeffrey Wells.