Fiction, astronomy and extraterrestrial communication
DVD, various streaming services, I found on Netflix. (Time 2 hrs. 29 min.)
How had I missed this one in 1997? What was I doing that I managed to miss this film in the theater, which I would normally do for outer space pics. Don’t know, but I only just saw it on Netflix and watched. This was fortunate timing, what with the March of the Scientists happening on April 22, 2017. This issues explored in the movie about the role of science, the conflicts of religion and politics against science. Contact, starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, David Morse, James Woods, John Hurt, Angela Basset, Rob Lowe, features MAJOR star power and is directed by Robert Zemeckis to boot. This is the story of Dr. Eleanor Arroway (excellent name!), an astronomer who turned down a professorship at Harvard to work for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She meets Palmer Joss, a theologian who writes about science and what it means in our complicated world, asking if we are any better off with science and what certain technologies are doing to the Third World.
Ellie, with her own political and funding conflicts, lucks into being the one of her SETI team to receive a message from Vega, a distant star 26 light years away from earth. She determines that math in the form of prime numbers is the language being used, and she then interprets the encrypted pages of data. These give the engineering plan for building a spacecraft machine, which will take one human to a meeting with the aliens on a planet circling Vega. This becomes an international project to see whose representative will go, but the U.S. has the most money and power to decide. Ellie is one of the ten candidates, but Palmer Joss, as a religious leader/author on the team, eliminates her because she doesn’t believe in God. Ellie’s boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) ever lobbying with the powers in government to dismiss science but nevertheless taking credit for Ellie’s SETI work, is chosen to make the trip. Unfortunately, a crazy evangelist sabotages the launch—how was that security failure even possible when we had seen the man publically condemning science and worshiping creationism? A huge explosion incinerates Drumlin and the machine.
Then we see Dr. Hadden, an off-beat pioneer of science and millionaire, literally floating in the Russian Mir Space Station because he has cancer and space travel will slow his decline. He was the secret sponsor of Ellie’s work, and now he finagled to have a second spacecraft built and hidden away. With the cost being a third of trillion dollars to build one machine, this too is completely amazing. Although it was his money, somehow it seems the U.S. team will help with the launch. Just the antics of that crazy scientist! Thus it ends up that Ellie will get to go on the incredible journey after all.
Even as a child, Ellie had loved the skies and radio communications. Her mother died at Ellie’s childbirth and then her father died of a heart attack when she was nine, so the girl is a true orphan. Although a declared atheist, she is a believer in intelligent life out there. Her father had always said, “If we are alone in the universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.” The quote is attributed to Carl Sagan, who indeed is the author of the novel on which this film is based. Director Robert Zemeckis, whose films have employed interesting mixes of animation and live action (Who Framed Robert Rabbit) and embedded his fictional character Forrest Gump amid real life people, here used real CNN anchors to cover the news stories and even embedded the real President Clinton! Clinton didn’t act in the movie, but his speeches could be about anything (ha, isn’t this a sad state of affairs for nearly all politicians!) I found this a fun element in the movie, although there was some controversy about the ethics of the CNN anchors acting in the movie.
Thus Ellie is launched into outer space supposedly to go to Vega, to be gone four years in her travel time at the speed of light, but fifty years in earth time. Palmer suspects she will probably not return, and even though they do not agree about their religion and science, they do love each other. She has his toy campus, something they hand back and forth to each other in their encounters and separations. There is great drama in this launch, considering what happened the first time, and even Ellie keeps feeling something is wrong. She intends to verbally record her journey and does so, despite being cut off from the ground team almost immediately. The movie sends Ellie through bizarre colors, wormholes, electromagnetic changes, translucent light. At one point Ellie describes seeing the Vega landscape as poetry, a celestial event. Even though her secure chair breaks loose in the violent buffeting, somehow Ellie floats down and lands on a shore that seems hospitable. Her father walks toward her and he tells her she is seeing what is comfortable to her, but the message is that the humans are not alone and they need to know that. It is a message of love and reaching out from the alien intelligence.
Suddenly she is back. The team says there was a malfunction and she never went anywhere. She reports being gone for eighteen hours and tell of her experience. The earthlings think it is a joke played by the playful Hadden. Ellie’s account is dismissed as a delusion, that she had visions of God. There is talk of the Einstein-Rosen bridge issue, the wormhole and black holes. How could she be gone one minute on earth time but think she had been gone for eighteen hours and experience all she thinks she experienced?
This is an intelligent and thought provoking movie, which I think handled the issues more effectively than the more current movie, Arrival. I might still think the older Interstellar (2014) tops all, even though I’d have to get a degree to understand the science of it. Contact is direct in its message that “they” are out there and they are not our enemies. It represents the science, religion and politics that revolve around the event of the alien communication. Despite a couple unlikely plot details, I still found this an excellent movie.