Contact (review)

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Ya Gotta Have Faith

[Spoilers spoken here.]

Contact opens with one of the most beautiful sequences ever created on film. We get a perspective of Earth from orbit, slowly rotating in the sunshine, and at full blare we hear what the universe hears of Earth: radio and television, a multitude of channels, all jumbled together and beamed into space. As we pull away from Earth, first past gorgeous renderings of Mars and the asteroids, then Jupiter and Saturn and the outer planets, we hear older and older broadcasts: disco, Nixon, Kennedy, The Beatles, then World War II, flapper tunes… As we leave our solar system and pull out through our galaxy, the earliest radio experiments finally give way to silence. Dead silence. And we keep moving — out of the galaxy, beyond the local group of galaxies, into the gulf between galaxies, to the very edge of the universe, all the long while in total silence.

It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone. Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke. While it’s hardly a perfect movie, Robert Zemeckis‘s Contact is one of the most “religious” science fiction movies ever made.
Jodie Foster is Ellie Arroway, a SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researcher whose efforts finally pay off when she intercepts a message from beyond Earth. Matthew McConaughey is Palmer Joss, “a man of the cloth without the cloth.” Their debate between science and religion is Contact‘s main source of tension, and although the debate never rises above the most simplistic level, it’s one that doesn’t often get heard.

When nine-year-old Ellie’s father (David Morse) dies of a heart attack, a priest tries to console her by saying, “We aren’t always meant to know the reasons why things happen.” But Ellie knows her father could have been saved if his medication had been closer at hand, and she glares at the priest with disdain — she won’t be comforted by superstition and wishful thinking (in other words, religion).

But for all of Ellie’s logic and realism, she’s also an idealist. She is rational and fair, and is constantly disappointed when others aren’t. National science advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who is also her former teacher, cancels her SETI program “for her own good” because he believes she’s throwing her career away on a foolhardy idea. Later, when he takes credit for her discovery of the alien message, her dismay is heartbreaking. She is likewise blindsided by Palmer Joss when she asks for proof that God exists — he sidesteps the question and counters with the request that she prove she loved her father. Ask for proof that her father existed — that would have been a fairer request.

When the message reveals itself to be plans for building a transport for one person to who-knows-where, a selection process is instituted to choose the traveler. Ellie’s hopes of being selected are derailed by both Joss, who forces her to acknowledge publicly that she doesn’t believe in God, and Drumlin, who contrasts himself with Ellie by capitalizing on the worldwide religious frenzy the message has set off and puts on a God-bless-us-everyone act.

Drumlin never makes it off-planet — he’s killed by an antiscience fanatic (Jake Busey). And now it’s Ellie’s turn. She takes her magic carpet ride and meets an alien who reveals that the universe is overflowing with different races of beings. “The only thing we found that makes the emptiness unbearable,” the alien tells Ellie, “is each other.”

I’m not a religious person — in fact, the only faith I have is the one I share with Ellie. I don’t believe humans are alone in the universe. I have no doubt there are other intelligent creatures on some distant planet. (I don’t believe, however, that they are regularly buzzing Earth, mutilating cattle, or creating crop circles.)

But for all the faithful who saw anti-God sentiment in Contact, I wish they would understand this: religious and scientific people are looking for the same thing — a sense of something larger than ourselves, a reason not to feel alone. We only find it in different places.

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