Forget Stranger Things; if you want Steven Spielberg’s greatest hits shamelessly condensed into a swift 75 minute package, look no further than Making Contact (1985), an early entry in the career of German filmmaker Roland Emmerich. Emmerich is recognized for his work on sci-fi mega-hits Universal Soldier (1992); Stargate (1994); Independence Day (1996); and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) among others. Despite astronomical financial success, he maintains an uneven filmography littered with critical misfires, notably his misguided Godzilla (1998), and Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), a recent sequel that failed to capture the attention of the original’s fans. Throughout his career, Emmerich has maintained an enthusiasm for genre spectacle and Making Contact was his first serious attempt at invoking the dark children’s fantasy films that inspired him.
Making Contact didn’t make much of an initial impression upon release, but is occasionally recalled as a cherished nostalgic remnant by those who discovered it on VHS. Kino Lorber has given this little-known curiosity the Blu-ray treatment, so those who harbor a fondness for the film should be pleased that a high-definition version now exists. This release is the heavily cut 79 minute North American theatrical version, and though it’s a shame that the full 98 minute German/Austrian version entitled Joey failed to show up in this format, Kino has diligently provided a good looking and sounding product for fans and collectors. It’s the only option for high quality picture aside from an out-of-print 2-disc DVD full cut release by Anchor Bay in 2002.
After the death of his father, Joey (Joshua Morrell), a misfit nine year old boy, experiences strange phenomena. He receives calls through a toy telephone from an otherworldly presence claiming to be his father. Joey exhibits strange telekinetic abilities that may be precipitated by trauma. He uses his abilities in ways the viewer might expect, acting out against his grieving mother and putting school bullies in their places. He encounters a malicious animated ventriloquist’s dummy named Fletcher who warns Joey that the spirit he’s been communicating with is not his father at all, but a dead magician who practiced dark arts and seeks to commit evil deeds through Joey. A team of researchers try to make sense of the events while the children of the community are left to deal with extraordinary happenings resulting from Joey’s gifts. Joey must battle the supernatural force manifesting through him by entering its evil realm.
Making Contact exhibits potential as a coming-of-age film utilizing fantasy to address issues of loss. Unfortunately, Emmerich and his team aren’t interested in developing the inherent themes. It’s a convoluted, unfocused effort, most likely the result of having at least four screenwriters (including Emmerich) take a pass at the script, all of whom obviously love Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but can’t blend their influences cohesively. Structurally, the film meanders without an identify, trying too hard to hit all the notes of its forebears like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Firestarter (1984); and especially Poltergeist (1982), the film to which it owes most of its DNA. The result is a haphazard collection of set pieces designed to thrill, but lacking any emotional resonance. A huge problem is that Emmerich shows his hand too early, Joey experiencing supernatural anomalies almost immediately after the opening funeral scene. There is little time to set the appropriate tone, nor is there an effort to cultivate any semblance of mystery or child-like wonder so necessary for viewer connection. The biggest obstacle to overcome is the lack of emotional core, and though the film moves swiftly without much exposition, the pace is at the expense of developing ideas. It’s possible these are the elements that are missing from the theatrical cut, but no deleted scenes appear on the disc to compare.
To say the film is constructed as pastiche is an understatement, for almost every scene has some recognizable element from the aforementioned films. For instance, much of the supernatural activity emanates from Joey’s closet where his toys come to life; a team of researchers besiege Joey’s home to study the phenomena, and the image of white-coat scientists traipsing around borrows heavily from E.T. and Poltergeist; every moment where Joey’s mother Laura (Eva Kryll) experiences Joey’s powers can be traced back to Diane and Carol Anne Freeling including the preternaturally-propelled household objects and appearance of a strangely bent spoon. Hell, there’s even a literal appearance by Darth Vader! This imagery is too blatantly on-the-nose to be considered reverent homage, and too weak to stand on its own merit.
Despite these flaws, the film offers some charms. Many of the visual effects are well done if not overly impressive. Imagery includes swarms of flying, chattering toys that at first enchant but then become a menace; Joey’s chirping charismatic robot (heavily modeled after R2-D2) is an entertaining sidekick; Fletcher is an effectively articulated dummy and a creepy nemesis for Joey; these are constructs that, though derivative, provide the film some much-needed personality. The film is nicely photographed by Egon Werdin (Mute Witness (1995)) who does a credible job simulating the styles being referenced. The photography, in fact, is one of the film’s strongest suits, and Kino does a commendable job with a sharp 1080p transfer rendered in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The only extra features are a few trailers, but having a version that looks and sounds this good is probably well enough for most fans.
Making Contact falls very short of Spielberg’s or Joe Dante’s standard of storytelling, but those who enthusiastically consume goofy knock-offs like Munchies (1987) or Mac and Me (1988) will likely appreciate Emmerich’s chaotic audacity in honoring his influences. The film exhibits many of the components that would eventually make Emmerich one of the most bankable Hollywood directors later in his career, particularly the fast-paced barrage of unfettered action. Though he may never be cited alongside his heroes, Emmerich has earned a place in the pantheon of high concept fantasy; Making Contact was solid enough to garner attention, and as we chart his development, we find a filmmaker who continues to channel an inner child with a multi-million dollar check for the toy store.