SPOILER ALERT: This movie's plot does contain elements that you may not want to know about prior to watching (otherwise known as spoilers). If you'd like to watch this movie with a clean slate (something I recommend), please wait to read this review until after you've watched the film.
What are we here for? What does it all mean? To attempt to answer such heady questions, you need a lot of room. And so, we often look to the sky.
I was introduced to Contact by a college professor of mine. He said it was one of his favorite films, and that it had impacted him greatly when he was a doctoral student. I hadn't seen the film before, but I valued his recommendation. Little did I know what this movie had in store for me.
Contact begins with one of the most enthralling opening sequences I've seen. We are given a sense for the vastness of space. The camera begins at earth and continues to pull back as we see stars and galaxies fly by. We hear various radio signals until we are so far out in the expanse of the universe that there is just silence. We watch in awe as the magnitude of all that is out there sets in. We're overcome with the sense that we simply cannot fathom all that is out there.
This scene also sets the stage for one of the movie's great lines. It comes in the very next scene when our main character Ellie Arroway (played at first by Jena Malone then for the rest of the film by Jodie Foster) is talking with her father, Ted (David Morse).
Young Ellie: Dad, do you think there's people on other planets?
Ted Arroway: I don't know, Sparks. But I guess I'd say if it is just us... seems like an awful waste of space.
This movie is based upon the book of the same name written by the famed astronomer Carl Sagan, and it was directed by Robert Zemeckis and shot by Don Burgess. Burgess, I think, is especially worthy of praise. Later in this review, I'll discuss his work in a scene that is a throwback to one of the most famous sequences in science fiction film history.
Again, even off this first scene alone, one can't help but be fascinated by this movie. The visual cut from the opening sequence to the scene between Ellie and her father is fantastic - the worlds and galaxies merge into light reflected in the eye of young Ellie. We meet her as she is already preparing for her life's work - making contact. Her father is encouraging her as she uses a radio to speak to whomever is on the other end of the line. She makes her most remote contact yet - someone in Pensacola over a thousand miles away from her Wisconsin home. We learn that Ellie's mom is dead (she died in childbirth), and Ellie asks her dad if she'll ever have a transmitter powerful enough to talk to her mom again. Her father answers that she is tenacious enough that she just might be able to do it someday.
This little interaction is a nice piece of writing, because we learn a great deal about Ellie's character early on. She is tenacious, and it is her love of family that compels her to search out for contact. It also sets up the tender relationship between Ellie and her father. All of this is necessary for the film to work. We also are given another key line that will bear great importance over the remainder of the film.
One night while once again looking to the sky, Ellie's father dies of a heart attack. Ellie blames herself for not being able to get his heart medication in enough time.
We then see Ellie as an adult. She has now traded the small radio for much more impressive equipment. She is working as a researcher with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. It is there that she meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) and they have a short-lived fling. Despite Palmer's desire to begin a relationship, Ellie has her eyes forever towards the sky. She is too driven and tenacious. But tenacity isn't always enough.
She soon finds that her team's funding may be cut. Famed scientist David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) tells her that this branch of science is "nonsense" and she should use her talents for greater scientific achievement. Ellie is undettered. She and her team spend 18 months searching. Finally, they find their benefactor in the person of billionaire investor S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Due to this new funding, Ellie is able to continue her research at the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico.
It is here that Ellie makes contact. She hears a sound that may, in fact, be an extraterrestrial communication. It is a prime number pattern originating from the star Vega. Since their satellites are only pointed at Vega for a short time, Ellie begins to pull together members of the worldwide scientific community to record and interpret the signal.
As is often the case when more people are brought onto a project, things begin to get twisted and exploited. Drumlin attempts to take credit for Ellie's work while the observation has had enough impact to warrant a visit from the president's national security advisor, a man named Michael Kitz (James Woods). He is skeptical and only sees the military implications of the discovery. His is a character so often present in these types of films that it borders on cliche. But later, we will see just how necessary the Kitz character is to the movie's story.
Eventually, it is discovered that the message is a actually a blueprint. The nations of the world convene and decide that they will attempt a manned mission to meet these extraterrestrial beings. A group of scientists and world leaders come together to decide who will go on this mission. Conveniently, this group contains Ellie, Drumlin and Ellie's old friend Palmer Joss.
The character of Joss is one of the few flat notes in the film. Don't get me wrong, his character is a necessary part of the film's story. We have to have the viewpoint of someone who firmly believes in God. It is Joss who asks Ellie whether or not she believes in God. Ellie is not able to give a direct answer before the committee. We have to have this interaction for the movie to work. The problem is that we're never really given much of an idea of who Joss is or what he does. And yet, we're led to believe that he has been successful enough in the religious community to warrant his inclusion in this exclusive group that will make this decision of global importance. It's just hard to buy with the information we're given. His character needs more depth.
Still, as a Christian, I'm especially drawn to movies and storylines that attempt to investigate the spiritual nature of the human experience. Contact does this throughout, and it should be praised for doing so. To even attempt to navigate such heady terrain and existential questions is an impressive feat for a film. While Contact may not hit every note, the fact that it succeeds as much as it does makes it quite astounding.
Due in large part to Ellie's misstep on Joss's question about her belief in God, it is decided that Drumlin will man the mission. But an act of terrorism destroys the ship and the launchpad. It was carried out by a religious fanatic. While I initially balked at the portrayal, I realized that a nugget of truth resided there. Too often, especially when it comes to science, Christians have come prepared for battle.
But God is in science just as much as He is in any field. God created scientific laws. I believe that the more we investigate and seek to learn about our world and beyond, the more we will see God. Just as we should continue to investigate Scripture to learn about who God is, we should continue to look to the sky and look to the natural world to learn about Him. This movie is like that, in a way. The more you watch it, the more spiritual truths you find in it. Contact is a treasure.
Despite the setback, we find that there has been a second ship being constructed in Japan. Mr. Hadden - the world-dominating magnate that he is - couldn't just leave this monumental task to world leaders. So he always had a backup plan. I'll admit, I find this to be another false note. Not only is it too convenient, but it's hard for me to believe that all these people using state-of-the-art satellites throughout the film somehow missed the massive spaceship being built off the coast of Japan. This shouldn't have been framed as some big secret reveal. I can believe that the general public wouldn't know about the second ship, but it's too much to think that all these scientists and public officials would have no knowledge of it.
As it is, we're simply led to believe that Hadden successfully hid this monumental backup plan from everyone. He contacts Ellie from a Russian space station where he is living out the remainder of his life. He shows her the backup plan and tells her that they are looking for an American to be on the mission. Ellie lights up.
This brings us to the film's rousing conclusion. For any missteps the movie may have up to this point, its final act rights all the wrongs.
Ellie does go on the mission. Her space pod is to be dropped through the swirling hoops of the station. The idea is that she will somehow be transported to another dimension. Really, nobody knows what will happen. They are only following the extraterrestrial instructions.
The mission commences. Ellie's pod drops through the hoops and we watch as she is violently transported through some kind of portal. It is reminscent of the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is here that the cinematography of Burgess is at its best. He certainly owes much to the work of Douglas Trumbull (who was the DP on 2001 as well as Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). But the aural visuals that flash before our eyes during this sequence truly are astounding.
Ellie is taken to the star Vega where she glimpses the alien spaceship before being taken through the wormhole again. She sees an alien city. Then a final trip through the wormhole. This one is more violent - her pod shakes uncontrollably. The compass that Joss had given her shakes loose. She unstraps herself to jump out and reach for it. After she does so, her chair is ripped off from its moorings and Ellie floats inside the pod, holding onto the compass. She sees fantastically beautiful "celestial events." Finally, she is transported to what looks like a beach. Yet, overhead are galaxies and stars untold. Then, Ellie sees someone she did not expect.
Her father. Yet, not really her father. This alien race thought Ellie would have an easier time processing their meeting in a recognizable locale. So they brought her to "Pensacola" and took the form of her father. It is a touching sequence, with a thought-provoking interaction between the alien and Ellie.
Ellie Arroway: Is this some test?
Alien: No, no tests...
Alien: ...you have your mother's hands. You're an interesting species, an interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.
Ellie Arroway: What happens now?
Alien: [he stands up] Now, you go home.
Ellie Arroway: [she stands up] Home? But I have so many questions, do we get to come back?
Alien: This was just a first step. In time you'll take another.
Ellie Arroway: But other people need to see what I've seen, they need to see...
Alien: This is the way it's been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.
I love the writing, which ties in perfectly with the rest of the film. We can see threads that have been building on each other throughout. It's difficult not to tear up when he says "Small moves, Ellie. Small moves." But then, this movie takes another turn that truly vaults it into all-time great territory for me.
When Ellie returns to Earth, she is confronted with the fact that her space pod dropped straight through the hoops into the water. Cameras caught the entire "mission." Her onboard communication devices only picked up static. The drop lasted all of eight seconds. She is brought before a committee hearing, and this is where the character of Kitz gets his day. He has resigned from his position as national security advisor to lead these hearings. It is he who will interrogate Ellie. I present the scene below for you to view in all its glory.
After Ellie is taken out of the courtroom, we see a conversation between Kitz and his assistant Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett). She tells him that the video recording from Ellie's pod is what interests her. It, too, only recorded static. However, it recorded 18 hours of it.
We then see Ellie in later life. She has been given a grant to continue her work. As she gives a grade school class a tour of the VLA facility, a student asks her if there really is life on other planets. She responds, "If there isn't, then it'd be an awful waste of space."
This film is powerfully moving. Is it a perfect film? No, very few are. Contact has its flaws. But its strengths far outweigh those flaws. Here, we have a profound explanation of the relationship between doubt and faith. As a Christian especially, this movie impacts me on a deep level.
Do some of the beliefs of Christianity make sense? Can we figure out how a man would be born of a virgin, for instance? Can we figure out how a man would come back from the dead? There are so many opportunities to doubt. But we must wrestle with those doubts if we are ever to believe.
And I do believe.
Everything I know, everything I've experienced and felt makes me sure that I believe in a real God. Much like Ellie's experience, there are some aspects of Christianity that I can't prove. That is why I love that this scene takes place in a courtroom. This is a place where we demand proof beyond the shadow of a doubt. But there are some things that simply do not fit that mold. There are some areas where doubt will always lurk in the shadows. In those instances we must confront it and we must decide whether or not we will choose to believe even in the midst of doubt.
But there is hope. Just like with Ellie's experience, the proof is there if you will only look for it. The video caught 18 hours of static - the exact amount of time that Ellie testified she was gone. I believe that God wants to be known by us. He has left us traces of his presence in nature, in the Bible and in ourselves.
But we have to seek Him out.
In that seeking, there may be doubts. I know I've had my fair share. But I also know that God is real because I have gone to Him with those doubts. I've questioned. Though I haven't always found answers, I've found something far greater - a constant companion. I know God is real because I have experienced His presence. Not a bearded man coming down to talk to me in a booming voice. Rather, a still small voice. In the wind in the trees. In the words of Scripture. In my wife's smile. And in my inner conscience.
The fact that a movie could even begin to scratch the surface of that revelation is astounding. I will forever be grateful that my college professor introduced me to this film. And when I look to the sky, I may not know all that is out there. But that's okay. Because I know what I believe - rather, in Whom I believe. Whatever is out there, I know that all the far reaches of Space are not outside His knowledge.
And I trust that He hasn't wasted any of it.
Note on content: This is a very family-friendly movie. There is one scene that contains sexual content early on between Palmer Joss and Ellie Arroway. However, there is no nudity. There is minor profanity, and the act of terrorism is certainly jarring and even frightening. All in all, this is a very tender movie with far less objectionable content than most modern movies.