Contact is the story of a SETI astronomer, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), who manages to make contact with aliens? The reason there is a question mark is due to the ambiguity of said contact. Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, Contact deals more with the impact of establishing contact on the human race than it does with the aliens themselves.
The movie starts out with Ellie as child starting to get interested in science and astronomy, in particular with radios. She spends her time both looking up at the sky and listening. She keeps a map of all the places with people that she had listened to. When she asks her father how far away they can listen, and starts getting up to planets, you can definitely see her interest in life on other planets developing. While her father concedes that if you had a big enough radio, you could basically listen to any place in the universe, he is forced to stop his encouragement short when Ellie asks about contacting her deceased mother: “I don’t think even the biggest radio could reach that far.” When her father dies, she is not only dissatisfied with the explanation of the priest, but with her failure to contact her father with a radio. Ellie’s greatest strength and fatal flaw is exposed early on, she just doesn’t know when to stop.
In present day, Ellie is “listening for little green men” with the single largest radio telescope in the world at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Other scientists, namely Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), are mocking her left and right for spending her precious intellectual resources on such a hopeless area of research. What you find out about Drumlin though, is that he really is only interested in science when it yields something that he can take credit for and makes him look good. Drumlin eventually pulls her funding (he’s like the head of the National Science Foundation or something high up in the bureaucratic system, so he can do that), and Ellie is forced to relocate to the VLA (Very Large Array) in New Mexico.
Before she leaves Puerto Rico, she hooks up with this “man of the cloth without the cloth” guy named Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey). Despite their differences of opinion regarding science and religion, they seem to get along fairly well until Ellie leaves. He leaves him her phone number; she never calls.
Years pass, and the two go about their activities (separately). Palmer has written a book about religion and technology that has captured society’s attention. Meanwhile, Ellie embarks on a search for private funding, which she eventually secures with an impassioned speech that questions whether anybody believes in innovation or progress anymore. Somebody does, because Ellie gets her funding to buy telescope time from the government. In New Mexico with the government pulling her telescope time now, the unthinkable happens; she actually gets a signal that could mean aliens! They immediately approach the finding with skepticism, but you can tell they are really very excited that something has finally happened. Once they spread the word (because of the Earth’s rotation they need help from other telescopes to track the signal), the government descends upon them and conflicting viewpoints do what they do best: conflict.
This is really the heart of the film: how different people interpret the idea of having contact with other beings. It’s a pretty life-changing thing to deal with, and for most of the world, it happens all at once. One of the news broadcasts that Zemeckis uses quite often throughout the film to achieve a greater sense of realism announces that church attendance has risen dramatically. Once the signal has been deciphered, it is clear that someone is actually going to have to go into space and meet these guys. Opinions on who should go and why clash. Because the person going will be representing all of humanity, it’s a pretty important decision. There are many questions being asked, but the main one Sagan chooses to focus on in his story is faith. Of course, Ellie wants to go, and this question of faith is going to be a big problem for her.
While her main rival, Drumlin, is willing to basically say anything to get himself on that spacecraft, Ellie sticks to her beliefs because she thinks they are right. If she had just said during those committee examinations that she believed in God, she’d be home free (so to speak). Partially this is because she doesn’t want to lie, but it’s also because she can’t think of herself as someone who believes in something without proof. She does try to give her answer a little more polish in front of the committee, saying “I don’t believe there’s evidence either way” rather than flat out saying she doesn’t believe in God. She does hold some disdain for people who think this way, which probably the biggest obstacle in her relationship with Palmer. By the way, he’s a committee member. Talk about awkward. I didn’t see why they were making such a big deal about religion, until Palmer explained it. “I just couldn’t, in good conscious, vote for someone… who honestly thinks the other 99 percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion.” Even though I believe one person can represent something they don’t necessarily believe in, he does have a point. But all things considered, I think I’d stand on Ellie’s side. Going into outer space, I’d rather send a scientist than priest.
Ironically, Drumlin ends up not being able to go due to the fact that he becomes a victim of religious extremism. Karma anyone? Sorry, but I just did not like that guy at all. Ellie gets go in his place, and her experience in space leads her to come to a more healthy relationship with the inexplicable. She is able to acknowledge the existence of something that she can’t necessarily explain or prove adequately. But somehow, she keeps ending up in a position where not everybody takes her seriously. I suppose that happens to everyone.
Contact was released in the summer of ’97; it’s supposed to be sci-fi adventure type movie. If you’ve read the book, don’t expect it to be as deep or technical, and yes, the romance between Ellie and Palmer could be seen as forced. The special effects are pretty good for the ’90s, (the ending was the longest continuous CGI sequence at the time, a title which is now held by The Day After Tomorrow) but compared to what we have now they’re not that special. This was Zemeckis’ first film after Forrest Gump, and because he went with Alan Silvestri for the music again, it shows. It’s a very solid film, in my opinion, but I’m probably biased because I like the story so much. Some might not enjoy the constant science vs. religion debate, but if you have any interest in Sagan, aliens, or space, I would highly suggest checking out this film.
“‘That’s not a star, that’s a planet, that’s Venus…’ ‘And I thought, ‘This is it. I’m hooked.'”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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