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Sunday August 19th 2018

Contact | 1997

Contact location: Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico
Contact location: the radio telescope: Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico | Photograph: iStockphoto / TexPhoto

Rational scientist Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is the recipient of apparent alien messages in this interesting but ultimately disappointing adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel.

There’s so much tricksy effects work in the film (after all, it’s directed by Robert Zemeckis who was responsible for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump), and it’s not confined to the sci-fi elements, that location spotting is a dodgy business.

The huge radio telescope is the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest single-dish site in the world. It’s not quite as pristine as it looks in the movie and had to be cleaned up with a little computer generated help. It’s operated by Cornell University, and if you want to visit, there is a visitor centre. You can see the telescope in Bond movie GoldenEye and in daft sci-fi Species.

The collection of telescopes is the imaginatively-named Very Large Array, 27 dishes arranged along three 13-mile arms on the San Augustin Plains at Socorro, New Mexico. The visitor centre is on Route 52, and there’s a walking tour of the site.

Don’t look for a nearby canyon rim to sit on and contemplate the universe, though. Despite appearances, the apparently neighbouring canyon is the spectacular Canyon de Chelly, a great gash running through Defiance Plateau, near Chinle in Arizona, previously featured in the epic Western MacKenna’s Gold. The dishes in the background were added later.

Similarly, though more obviously, tricked up is the vast machine designed to send Ellie Arroway through a wormhole in space. The CGI image was added to shots of the real Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The wild and wacky UFO encampment was also a good way away from the Array, this time at Victorville, a standard Hollywood desert location in the Mojave Desert, California. Also in California is the airport where Dr Arroway boards the private plane of SR Hadden (John Hurt, as the Carl Sagan character), which shot at Van Nuys Airport, Burbank, another favourite location dating back to Casablanca and before.

Young Ellie’s home is in Herndon, Virginia, a town just to the east of Dulles International Airport (though the interiors were filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles), which of course serves Washington DC.

Washington DC locations include the W Washington DC Hotel, 515 15th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW, site of the formal party – the hotel’s POV Rooftop Bar has spectacular views over the White House and the Mall. The hotel has also been featured in No Way Out, with Kevin Costner, John Grisham's The Firm, with Tom Cruise, and The Godfather Part II.

The finale, which was filmed, not at the Capitol Building as it appears, but on the steps of the more easily available Treasury Building, Pennsylvania Avenue NW at 15th Street. And, yes, that’s a computer generated image of the Capitol’s dome reflected in the car window to complete the illusion.

The tropical beach 'heaven' was filmed by a Second Unit in the Yasawa Islands in Fiji, a less commercialised part of the island group, popular with backpackers. It’s gorgeous, but be aware you won’t find any shops, banks or medical services on the islands.

Incidentally, the first European to sight the Yasawas was British navigator William Bligh in 1789, following the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty.