"Contact" is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith. Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together. In the film, an alien intelligence transmits an image of three pages of encrypted symbols. It is clear where the corners of each page are. It is also clear that the three corners are intended to come together in some way to make single image. Scientists are baffled in their attempts to bring the pages together. The solution, when we see it, provides an Eureka Moment. It is so simple, and yet so difficult to conceive of. It may be intended as a sort of intelligence test.
Watching the film again after 14 years, I was startled by how bold it is. Its heroine is a radio astronomer named Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), who is an atheist. In the film she forms a cautious relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a believer in God who writes about science. Key roles are played by science advisors to the President, who see aliens, God and messages from space all in cynical political terms. They justify their politics with the catch-all motive of "national defense."
When the movie was released in July 1997 I had more or less the same beliefs I have now about the existence of God and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Yet reading my review I find the movie didn't seem as brave to me then as it does now. Perhaps that's because I've since become involved in so much discussion about Creationism, another topic that stands at the intersection of science, politics and faith. Hollywood treats movies like a polite dinner party: Don't bring up religion or politics.
The encrypted signal, when opened, contains plans for the manufacture of an enormous machine, apparently a space craft of some sort, which will presumably take 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.
A key element of the film involves Congressional hearings to determine who should be the astronaut aboard the ship. Although an international team of candidates has been selected, the cost of the ship has mostly been paid by the U. S., and for political reasons the astronaut will be American. Ellie, whose team received the message, is one of the candidates. At a late point in the hearings, Palmer Joss blindsides Ellie by asking her if she believes in God. She answers honestly. This raises a question: Should the first human to meet an alien believe in God? Ellie loses the prize to her boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), an opportunist who has taken credit for her pioneering work in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). That she eventually ends up making the trip owes something to the actions of another true believer.
The movie is based on a novel by Carl Sagan, who told us with such joy that there are "billions and billions of stars up there." As a child fascinated by the stars, Ellie asks her father (David Morse) if there are humans on other planets, and he tells her: "If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space." The quote is often attributed to Sagan. Despite her disbelief in an afterlife, Ellie has always yearned to meet her mother, who died in childbirth, and perhaps that was what drew her eyes to the sky as a small girl. Later, as an honored academic, she turns down a teaching post at Harvard to work on a SETI project in Puerto Rico. Funding for that search is withdrawn by the hypocritical David Drumlin, who doesn't approve of pure research and believes science should provide "practical results."
"Contact" was directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose work often employs daring technical methods. Remember his mixture of animation and live action in the pre-CGI days of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988). Look at the way he embedded Forrest Gump (1994) amid real people. Look at the way he used motion capture in "The Polar Express" (2004), "Beowulf" (2007) and "Disney's A Christmas Carol" (2009). In "Contact" he startled his audiences by using real CNN anchors to cover the story in the movie, and embedding an obviously real President Bill Clinton.
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