Contact: 25 years later and still the best science fiction
The creation of Contact began in 1979, when world-renowned cosmologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, set out to write a science fiction novel. The book finally came to fruition in 1986, and it would be over a decade before it hit the big screen. Directed by the legendary Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, the premise of an advanced alien civilization making contact with us takes audiences on a journey of discovery, giving us a glimpse into a universe of endless possibilities.
Contact does more than offer the classic “adventure of a lifetime” storyline. It asks questions about how humanity would act and react to the reality that we are not alone in the universe. Moreover, it delves into our psychological response to knowing that aliens are also much more advanced than us mere humans. It robs humans of the sense that we are at the top of the tree, inviting us to step forward into uncertain territory as we decide how to respond confidently to an encounter with an advanced civilization.
There have been other films that have played with the same storyline, such as Spielberg’s Dating of the Third Kind and HEYand more recently that of Denis Villeneuve Arrival. These films, as well as Contact, differ from the usual alien blockbuster, by portraying advanced aliens as non-aggressive in their approach to humanity. However, Contact goes the extra mile, dealing with the religious questioning of science versus God, displaying the collective human reaction, inherently woven throughout its plot.
The story centers on radio astronomer Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), who is searching for her own meaning in life after her father’s death. She believes in pure science and is agnostic when it comes to religion and the existence of God. When Ellie meets the theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), he challenges her to rethink her spiritual position, to be open to the possibility of a higher power. After devoting her scientific career to the search for life outside our galaxy, Ellie comes across a signal sent by Vega, a bright star only twenty-five light years from Earth. Embedded in the signal are plans to build a transport, for a human to visit intergalactic beings.
Reports are cleverly interspersed throughout the story, with examples of radical ideals from all corners of society coming to the surface. This contrasts with the character of Ellie representing the more stable, rational, if not pragmatic, approach to dealing with the issues at hand. Politicians are not spared the frailties of human nature, and between reasoning and some attempts to be sensible, the positioning of power sees Ellie scrambling to be heard and relevant in an unfair game world.
Although Ellie has discovered the signal, life continues to target her, with the journey of a lifetime snatched by Science Foundation director David Drumlin, who is chosen to represent humanity on the mission to Vega. But with the machine destroyed in an act of terror by a religious fanatic, Ellie finds a second chance with the eccentric billionaire, SR Hadden, who has secretly built another machine to transport a single occupant. As she begins her journey to Vega, she encounters an advanced being, who represents himself in the form of her long-lost father. Through the brief interaction with the ‘Higher Power’, Ellie gets a glimpse of the vastness of life throughout the universe and is assured that she is not alone and that ‘the only thing that makes the emptiness of bearable space is the other’.
With her transport pod appearing not to have left Earth at all, Ellie’s story of encountering the alien species is met with disbelief. A committee is tasked with questioning the validity of Ellie’s story, but without proof, they are asked if they should just take her story, “on faith”. The juxtaposition of the contradictory ideas of science and faith is abruptly brought to the surface, having been planted with strong patterns earlier.
At the end of Contactit is obvious that at all levels the story is one of optimism, insofar as we can manage the truth of finding an advanced civilization and hopefully learn from it. However, the essence of the story is that we can learn and find the answers to life, all on our own. It also highlights a sensible conclusion that God can exist simultaneously with the existence of another civilization in the universe.
With the help of Carl Sagan supervising the film, Robert Zemeckis and his team were able to make it the ultimate “advanced humans-meets-aliens”. At the end of Contact, like Ellie, we also feel we have gained important insight into our own place in the universe. And that no matter what life throws at us, we are never alone.