“Contact” is a film about the intersection of science, politics, and faith. This is a contact review and movie synopsis.
“Contact” is a film about the intersection of science, politics, and faith. Those are three topics that don’t always go together well. An alien intelligence transmits an image of three pages of encrypted symbols in the film. Each page’s corners are clearly marked.
It is also clear that the three corners are meant to be joined in some way to form a single image. Scientists are stumped in their attempts to connect the pages. When we see the solution, we have a eureka moment. It’s so simple, yet so difficult to imagine. It could be used as a kind of intelligence test.
After 14 years, I was taken aback by how daring the film is. Its heroine is an atheist radio astronomer named Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster). In the film, she develops a cautious relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a God-fearing science writer.
Science advisors to the President play critical roles, viewing aliens, God, and messages from space through cynical political lenses. They justify their policies under the umbrella of “national defense.”
I had similar beliefs about the existence of God and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe when the film was released in July 1997. However, after reading my review, I realized that the film did not strike me as brave at the time.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve become involved in discussions about Creationism, another topic that intersects science, politics, and faith. Hollywood treats movies like a polite dinner party: no religion or politics are allowed.
When the encrypted signal is opened, it contains blueprints for the construction of a massive machine, presumably a spacecraft of some kind, that will transport a single human to a meeting with the alien intelligence on a planet circling Vega, the fifth brightest star in the night sky, about 25 light years away from Earth.
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The film includes Congressional hearings to determine who will be the astronaut aboard the ship. Although an international team of candidates was chosen, the ship’s cost was mostly covered by the United States, and the astronaut will be American for political reasons.
Ellie is one of the candidates whose team received the message. Palmer Joss surprises Ellie late in the hearings by asking if she believes in God.
She responds truthfully. This raises the question of whether the first human to meet an alien should believe in God. Ellie is defeated by her boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), an opportunist who has claimed credit for her groundbreaking work in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The fact that she eventually decides to make the trip is due in part to the actions of another true believer.
The film is based on Carl Sagan’s novel, in which he tells us with delight that there are “billions and billions of stars up there.” Ellie, a child fascinated by the stars, asks her father (David Morse) if there are humans on other planets, and he responds, “If we are alone in the Universe, it sure appears to be an awful waste of space.”
The quotation is frequently attributed to Sagan. Despite her disbelief in the afterlife, Ellie has always wished to meet her mother, who died in childbirth, and it is possible that this is what drew her to the sky as a child.
Later, as a distinguished academic, she declines a teaching position at Harvard to work on a SETI project in Puerto Rico. The search’s funding has been withdrawn by the hypocritical David Drumlin, who opposes pure research and believes science should produce “practical results.”
Robert Zemeckis directed “Contact Review,” which frequently employs daring technical methods. Remember his pre-CGI mix of animation and live-action in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988). Consider how he placed Forrest Gump (1994) among real people.
Consider how he used motion capture in “The Polar Express” (2004), “Beowulf” (2007), and “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” (2010). (2009). He surprised his audiences in “Contact” by using real CNN anchors to cover the story and embedding an obviously real President Bill Clinton.
Clinton did not appear in the film (his scenes sound appropriate but could be about anything). But those were genuine CNN employees. Was it appropriate for journalists to play themselves in fiction? Network president Tom Johnson stated at the time that the experiment was a bad idea that would not be repeated; however, that memo appears to have gone unread. What worked as a joke in “Gump” fell flat in the greater realism of “Contact.”
I was particularly taken with the conversations between Ellie and Palmer, the atheist and the believer, in “Contact Review.” They like each other; they even go to bed together once, but their love is cut short because Ellie can do the math and realizes that if she gets to travel on the alien machine, the logic of moving at light speed means no one she knows will be alive when she returns—including Palmer and their children if any.
Nonetheless, he adores her, and much is made of a small plastic toy he discovers in a Cracker Jack box—a compass. However, if the woman he loves does not believe in God, she should not accompany him on the journey. (It’s possible that the astronaut candidates believe in different Gods, but that’s just a minor detail.)
I won’t go into detail about what happens to Ellie after she takes the trip. There was much debate at the time about whether she ever left Earth, but a line of dialogue about 18 hours of static appears to be significant.
The more you consider the logic involved, the more intriguing the film becomes. The first television signal ever broadcast on Earth was received from space, and because we know when that was, we know how long it would have taken to make the round trip.
That implies, at the very least, an alien program searching for such signals and returning them with code for a series of prime numbers, a universal indicator of intelligence. What else does it imply? Is it true that the aliens are still alive, or is it just their program?
What would the machine’s function be? Actual physical space travel, or an experience similar to that of “2001”‘s hero, who finds himself in an environment that appears to have been created by information in his own mind? What does she gain from the aliens that is useful? What lessons could be taught?
Ellie Arroway would be a perfect fit for Jodie Foster. She explains that the purpose of Science is to discover Truth, wherever it may be. That is where scientists differ from Creationists, who believe they already know the Truth and that the purpose of science is to discover the Truth. You can see how that might make you wary of pure research; the risk is that you’ll learn something you don’t want to know.
Although Matthew McConaughey’s character is a good and sincere man, I was perplexed by his ability to appear anywhere. Why is he mysteriously invited to every high-level meeting and given so much power simply because he has written books on science and religion? Another problematic character is Joseph (Jake Busey), an evangelist who is strangely immune to routine security procedures.
“Contact Review” strength lies in the way it addresses issues that are still relevant today but are rarely addressed in films. Consider the opposition to stem cell research, which is “pure research” in some ways. Consider the politicians who advocate for church-state separation.
When Congress asked Ellie if she believed in God, the proper response would have been, “that is none of your business.” That would have been any American’s correct response, whether they believed in God or not.