Do You Hear What I Hear?

IN Contact, PLAYING ASTRONOMER ELLIE Arroway, Jodie Foster looks haunted, driven. Behind the fierce intelligence of her eyes, you can see the hurt child who grew up motherless, and then lost her father when she was 9. Her drawn face hints at a lifetime spent hopefully, fruitlessly gazing at the stars, awaiting a signal. Ellie's conviction that we are not alone in the universe arises from a deep need. As Robert Zemeckis's movie makes clear, the contact she seeks from the heavens - and ultimately finds - is a recompense for the deep solitude she holds in her heart.

Foster brings a passionate conviction to this ambitious, 2i-hour adaptation of Carl Sagan's science-fiction best seller, which labors mightily to merge the personal and the cosmic in a resonant metaphor. Filled with lofty debates about the conflict between science and religion, more interested in stirring awe than whipping up action, ""Contact'' is being positioned as the ""thinking man's'' summer movie, an heir to ""2001'' and ""Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'' At its most seductive moments - the rousing sequence when Ellie and her team first pick up a signal from the star Vega at their New Mexico listening site, and the shocking visual image they decode on their monitors - we're drawn inside Ellie's passion, sharing her sense of wonder at the infinite possibilities Out There.

But Zemeckis's beautifully shot movie is frustratingly uneven. When it's good, it's very good. And when it's not, it can be as silly and self-important as a bad '50s sci-fi movie. Screenwriters Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart have written a terrific part for Foster, as a bruised, headstrong scientist battling a skeptical establishment, but their inspiration runs aground with the other characters.

The pressure to pump up a love story has resulted in Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a lapsed seminarian whose character is as improbable as his name. The Reverend Joss first appears, in hippieish garb, in Puerto Rico, where the novice Dr. Arroway is conducting her search for extraterrestrial intelligence. They share a night of love, which the emotionally skittish Ellie refuses to pursue. Some years later, when the signal from Vega has put her at the center of a national controversy, the now resplendently coiffed Joss, a bestselling New Age theologist, reappears as a most unlikely consultant to the president. Just about every scene with the philosophical reverend is a clinker, and he keeps popping up in implausible places to continue his debate with Ellie about the existence of God. It's a role that could make any actor look bad, and McConaughey, too young and too pretty for it, cuts a ludicrous figure.

As the sinister national-security adviser who is, of course, paranoid about the extraterrestrial's intents, James Woods brings his patented rancid malevolence, overstated but amusing. John Hurt turns up as a powerful, mysterious industrialist who funds Ellie's project before the government horns in on the act. Tom Skerritt is Ellie's spotlight-stealing scientific boss, and rather too old for the astronaut role he's asked to play. Even Bill Clinton gets shoehorned into the act: Zemeckis, using his ""Forrest Gump'' tricks, inserts actual Clinton press conferences into the story's context, a distracting device that doesn't quite feel kosher. Shouldn't the president have a say in whether he wants to be a bit player in a summer movie?

There are a few glimmers of the satirical Zemeckis of old, as the Vegan contact brings out every crackpot demonstrator from fundamentalist zealots to Elvis worshipers, but most of the time the director is in a reverent mode. It must be said that the great insight revealed at the end of Ellie's fantastic voyage isn't much more than a fortune-cookie platitude. The story finds a way to resolve its science-vs.-faith theme by having it both ways, with a little spiritual frosting atop its secular-humanist cake.

But if ""Contact'' is disappointingly soft in the head, it can also enthrall. Zemeckis is such a potent imagemaker that he is capable, for long stretches at a time, of sweeping you up in his vision. His intricate, virtuoso camera moves and elegant compositions often rise to the celestial occasion. At the heart of this unwieldy but intriguing entertainment is a primal sense of cosmic curiosity that all but the most cynical will find hard to resist. We've all gazed up at the stars and asked ourselves big, dumb questions about the meaning of it all. ""Contact'' can be forgiven its big, dumb answers.