Contact

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Contact is a nobly intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying adaptation of Carl Sagan’s only novel. It details the circumstances surrounding the first clear sign of intelligent life in outer space and their effects on the life of a young and idealistic radio astronomer named Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster).

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We first meet Ellie at the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, where she is part of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project. Her research is quickly killed, however, by her highly political boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerrit), who disdains “pure research” in favor of science with “commercial” applications.

She goes in search of private funding and is turned down at every step until she pitches her project to a corporation run by the mysterious S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Then, with that money just about to finally dry up, Ellie is sitting out in the desert near the Very Large Array in New Mexico when she hears over her headphones a very powerful pulsing radio signal. In the movie’s most exciting and believable sequence, Ellie and her coworkers determine that the signal has to be coming from the star Vega.

At first the signal appears to be just sequences of prime numbers, then it turns out to be a TV signal of the 1936 Berlin Olympics bounced back to Earth from 50 years before. Further decoding, with Hadden’s help, reveals another layer to message, containing detailed plans for a massive and complex machine.

It appears that the machine is a transport that will allow one person to travel to the aliens’ home world. Of course, the big question becomes “Who gets to ride it?” (right after “Who’s gonna pay for this thing?”).

There is a lot to like about Contact so I will highlight those points first. Ellie Arroway is a well-rounded character portrayed by one of the best actresses currently working. Neither the character nor the performance has the same depth as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, but that’s a tough standard to meet.

Ellie is interesting in that she is woman defined by a strange array of father figures. Her real father (David Morse) is an idealized movie Dad who does nothing in the film but love his daughter unconditionally. Drumlin comes across as a distant stepfather to whom Ellie is like an irritating teenager who wants to use his toys to get into trouble. Hadden obviously has affection for Ellie, but in the end he seems to see her as his creation, nothing more than his favorite piece on the chess board. Even Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), Ellie’s love interest, takes a paternalistic interest in Ellie, seeing her as a misguided person who needs protection from her own impulses.

The film is technically impressive, especially in the scenes where the message is first received and during the destruction of the first machine. The part of the film dealing with the message has the best presentation of real science in a film since The Andromeda Strain.

The film falls apart when dealing with its central theme, the dichotomy between science and religion. This is a very real debate but Contact boils it down to a simplistic level that never really touches on the actual issues involved.

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The film presents science pretty well (until the end) so the real problem stems from it presentation of religious faith. Religious people are presented as shallow caricatures. Rob Lowe plays a Ralph Reed clone named Richard Rank (very subtle, guys), the voice of the religious right. Another religious figure is the fanatic who blows up the first machine (Jake Busey).

The only really fleshed-out religious person, Palmer Joss, is supposed to be a minister of some sort, but his actual faith is left pretty vague. I can’t even say for certain that he was supposed to be a Christian. All we know is that he dropped out of the seminary and obviously has no qualms about pre-marital sex.

The film drops the science ball at the very end, when Ellie appears to assert that there are some things even scientists must take on faith. In a day and age when the theory of evolution is denounced by the religion right as an atheist “religious” doctrine, this is exactly the wrong message to send. In a movie dealing with issues of science and faith, the last thing you want your scientist character to do is abandon the principle of scientific skepticism.

What Ellie should have said was, “You shouldn’t believe me. Not without evidence, and I don’t have the evidence. I know what happened but you shouldn’t take my word alone.” That is the voice of science speaking.

The character of David Drumlin is another problem with this film. His attitudes toward pure research project seem out of place for a person in his position. Also, his profession of “faith” before the selection committee is so nakedly and transparently insincere that only a pack of idiots should have fallen for it.

The last big problem is with the use of real personalities in various roles. The media figures, such as Bernard Shaw and Jay Leno aren’t so bad, in as much as their participation was voluntary. The use of Bill Clinton, however, should give anyone pause. First of all, lifting the image of a sitting head of state and inserting him into a fictional story line, thus using his words outside of the context in which they were spoken, is just plain creepy. Also, using the real president places this film between 1993 and 2001, forever dating it. People watching this film in the future will say, “Hey, this never took place during Clinton’s term.” This bit of unreality will jar people out of their suspension of disbelief. Also, the technology portrayed in the film is too advanced for it to take place before the next decade of this century. Better to have had a fictitious president played by an actor or no president at all.

The film does raise an interesting question, although it never develops it in a satisfying way.

If we were picking an emissary to send to an alien culture, would an atheist be automatically disqualified just because ninety percent of the population of the world professes a belief in God, or at least some form of supernatural creator?

Personally, I would hope not, since religion is basically an opinion, another form of ideology, and I would not want any form of ideological test for such an important task.

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