The oldest question of all time: are we alone? Contact starts off by revealing how incredibly vast space is. Visually the opening scene is designed to bring home the message which is also the tag-line of the film: “If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.” Indeed.
This film is an adaptation of the book by Carl Sagan (1934-1996), astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author. Sagan is best known for his scientific contributions to the search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI). He is the man who put together the first ever message sent into space which might be understood by E.T. intelligence. In fact, Sagan firmly believed that scientists should study the UFO/alien abduction phenomenon, even though he rejected E.T. involvement.
Sagan, as a scientist, also had an incredibly intelligent opinion on the question of God:
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual
It is this balanced view that comes across most strongly in the movie as scientist, atheist and SETI researcher, Dr Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is put through her paces. The film follows her personal and professional journey of discovery, as well as her struggle against the politics surrounding it. She is faced with being overlooked, not because she is a woman – there was no particular feminist agenda – but because she is a scientist. Once the politicians get involved they have their own agenda, which in this case is power.
There are three themes in Contact: spirituality, politics and science. Visually and symbolically the only way to reach E.T. is to put three pages of alien gibberish together in order to make contact. Once this is achieved the breakthrough happens and the key to interpreting the alien language is revealed. I feel Sagan was far too clever for this to be a coincidence and, given his beliefs, his story holds its own hidden language: if we can unite spirituality, politics and science we might have a chance of discovering some great and wonderful things that none of them can do alone.
The climax of the film is the exciting visuals of space travel and wonderful alien landscapes which the heroine, Dr Arroway, finally succeeds in realising. In some respects, I would have loved for the film to end at this point. It’s not often a film blows me away and moves me to tears, but I could actually sense how incredibly awestruck the experience was and Foster conveys this emotion beautifully.
However, there is a very good reason the film has to continue beyond this as Dr Arroway is forced to re-evaluate her closed atheist mindset and accept that some things simply cannot be proven through science alone, but must be experienced. Ultimately, then, the film concludes with a step forward for the representatives of science, faith and politics as each in their own way is forced to concede that they do not have all the answers. It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.