Contact, the 1997 film based on Carl Sagan's one novel, has a lot of bad parts.
But the good parts are so good that I don't care. I even like it more than the book,
which feels almost like a betrayal to say because Carl Sagan is my hero and Cosmos
is the foundation stone of my brain. But Sagan's Contact is science fiction. It
is the work of a scientist trying to present the public with a plausible portrait of what
contact with an alien civilization might actually be like. The movie is fiction that
happens to contain a lot of science. It is about a girl hugging her knees to her chest
and looking at the sky.
And it certainly starts on a high note: Contact begins with the most magnificent
sequence I have ever seen. (It is so great that even though I have a general spoiler
warning on the "about this section" page, I am going to do that invisible ink trick so
as not to wreck it for you. Highlight the blank area to read the rest of this paragraph.)
It starts with a shot of the Earth, awash in the sounds of 1997
— I was disappointed to find that the DVD audio mix is different from that of the
theatrical version, undoubtedly due to rights issues — and then pulls back through
the solar system. And as we get farther from Earth, cruising through Saturn's rings and
such, the sounds we hear are from further back in the past: "Funkytown," "I'm not a crook,"
"Ask not what your country can do for you," "The only thing we have to fear," and then we
get into the 1930s and... silence. And we pull back and back and back, out of the Milky Way,
out of the Local Supercluster, and back and back and back... and all the universe is a dot of
light, and we pull back even farther and it's a dot of light in a girl's eye. It is the sort
of thing that does Cosmos proud, even if the time scales don't actually line up.
(Pluto is actually only about four light-hours from Earth.) Contact could have ended
right after we saw the girl and it would have been one of the greatest achievements in
What actually follows is a mixed bag. We learn that this
girl is Ellie Arroway, a child prodigy being raised by a widower father. I am a sucker
for father/daughter bonding, so I liked the scenes of Ellie's childhood — and very
much didn't like that by the end of the film they've been revealed to be mostly troves of
moments for later scenes to refer back to in the tiresome way these sorts of movies do.
We meet Palmer Joss, who represents religion to Ellie's science, also serves as the love
interest, and drags the movie down every moment he's onscreen. There's a lot of talk
about science vs. religion in this movie and it is not profound. Then as the movie
grinds onward the plot focuses on the politicking between Ellie and her ex-boss, and
the movie basically becomes CNN Presents: Contact, though I imagine that if we
ever do receive a message from outer space, CNN will forget all about it the minute some
girl in Kentucky goes missing.
There are still some awesome stretches in there, though. Contact manages to
wring a lot of drama out of moments that are a lot subtler than a bus exploding or
whatever. The sequence in which Ellie hears the message from space — which
manifests as pulses counting out prime numbers, one of Sagan's pet ideas and a very
cool one — is just dynamite even though it's mostly technobabble. Even more
impressive is that the filmmakers manage to get us hopping with excitement at the
news of Hadden Industries' acquisition of a Japanese subcontracting firm. A lot of
the scenes are constructed so that they end on a key line of dialogue; an example is
when a scientist is rattling off what each member of the team is focusing on, gamma
interferometry and the like, and stalls when he gets to Ellie. She's looking for...
"—little green men," she blurts out. Cut. Over and over this happens. "It'll
do." Cut. "Wanna take a ride?" Cut. It's overdone, but it usually works, so I
can't complain too much.
I'm generally not much for special effects, but I really liked the ones in Contact.
It helped that for once they weren't violent, though there is one really astounding scene
of a machine being destroyed that made my eyes pop the first time I saw it. A lot of the
effects are about entrancing, brilliant, opalescent light. They are neat. At the end of
the movie there's a sequence reminiscent of the journey beyond the infinite in 2001;
it might have even surpassed it had the filmmakers not made Ellie talk the whole way through.
But let's get down to what I really liked about this film. Sagan wrote Ellie as his
ideal scientist. Brilliant, inquisitive, independent, a bit of a hippie streak in
her past. Also perfectly stable, with great social skills, and 53 years old. The
discoveries in the book are made more by The Scientific Community than by Ellie,
and when it's time to take a trip to who knows where, an international group of
five scientists (three of whom have not previously appeared in the book) ends up
going. Sagan's book is about contact with extraterrestrial intelligence and how
it might be made.
This is not what Ellie is like in the movie. Ellie in the movie is a geek.
She talks in excited bursts, runs flat-out with no concern for whether she looks
suave doing it, storms out of rooms when things are going wrong and bursts into
meetings with little regard for protocol. In social situations her nerves make
her giddy, but that only lasts so long and then the shields go up. In the book
Ellie has a mother and a stepfather; in the movie she is orphaned at age nine.
In the book she has deep roots in the scientific community and a rich network of
friends and lovers; in the movie that's been pared down to a team of co-workers
with whom she has the sort of banter one has with one's co-workers, and not much
more. She's in her early 30s and she still lives in what is basically a dorm.
She spends most of her time alone in the desert listening to static. Humans
haven't worked out for her. She's resorted to waiting for the sky to tell her
that she isn't alone. This movie is not about contact with extraterrestrial
intelligence. It's about contact.
Ellie doesn't have any. Nothing meaningful, anyway. When it turns out that
the machine is a vessel designed for one person to ride in — just one, in
the movie, since five would undermine the theme — a lunky astronaut drops
out of the competition because he can't leave his kids. This isn't like a quick
jaunt to the moon; the twin paradox says that even if everything goes fine for
the traveler, by the time he or she returns, if he or she returns,
generations will have come and gone. But Ellie isn't like the astronaut. She
has nothing to leave, really. Palmer Joss tries to impress upon Ellie that
boarding the machine is tantamount to suicide. She knows. In a way, that's
kind of the point. And it leads to another of the great sequences in the film.
Under tight security, Ellie is escorted by a pair of blank-faced guards to her
seat in the vessel; for all practical purposes, she's going to the electric
chair. Sealed in the vessel, Ellie starts to lose her connection with the
command center, and as the energy ramps up and the machine starts to vibrate
violently, and the guy in charge takes steps to abort the mission, she insists,
"I'm okay to go! I'm okay to go!" By the time the power is at 90% she is
sobbing. "Okay to go, okay to go," she whimpers. She might as well be stuffing
pills into her mouth all the while. And that's a lot more interesting than any
idea in the novel. The premise of the novel is that an interstellar civilization
sends a message to the planet Earth, which sends a quintet of bland scientists to
discuss the philosophical implications of humankind's technological adolescence.
The premise of the movie is that an interstellar civilization sends a message to
the planet Earth, which sends the half-suicidal loner genius woman-child who'd been
listening for it to cross the galaxy and get a hug. This is a huge improvement.
When the laserdisc of Contact came out (yeah, somehow I ended up with a
laserdisc player) I listened to Jodie Foster's commentary track. "Why settle
for less on Earth?" she asks, explaining Ellie's point of view. "Human interactions
and relationships can be very messy — people die, they leave you, they hurt
you — so why not search out there for something that's purer?" I could
relate. In Contact, Ellie is reunited with a simulacrum of her dad; I
remember talking about it with Liza Daly in 1997 and telling her that, yeah, if I
knew that there were some means by which I could somehow meet even a holodeck
version of my sister, I'd be "okay to go," too. But a couple of years later
something much better happened: I met the love of my life. We met online and after
a few months she flew out to Seattle to spend the week with me, and since this was
back in the days when there was still a World Trade Center, I met her at the gate.
And as we walked through the terminal, I couldn't help but think — she
was just like Ellie Arroway. She was the same height, her hair was the
same color and length and style, she dressed the same, she spoke the same way,
she had the same sorts of expressions and the same fierce intelligence. She
turned out to be very different from Ellie in other ways, of course, but the
parallels were striking. It's actually why we ended up watching this: I
suggested in '99 that we watch Contact sometime, and we finally got
around to it six years later.
I think some of why the movie version of Contact worked better for me
is that its vision of contact is more in tune with mine than the novel's is.
I've spent most of my life like Ellie, basically cut off from everyone, finding
no connections in the usual places and instead looking unsuccessfully in the
unusual ones. It's a pretty miserable existence. The problem is, as I was
freshly reminded last week, I'm even more unhappy around large groups of people.
If I were in the scene from the novel with a small mob of scientists and an
equal number of aliens romping around on the beach, I'd be looking for a room
to hole up in. The movie gives us one earthling and one alien, and that's more
my speed. I'm a pair bonder. Some people need more contact than that. I
don't. As long as I've got my gal, I don't really feel inclined to ask for
anything more. I don't even need the rhythm or the music.
And the movie also distills the exchange with the aliens from a multi-page
bull session to a single message: in the vastness and space and the immensity
of time, the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. In
the movie theater I had to take that on faith. For the first 25 years of my
life... well, let me put it this way. There is a novella called "The Awakening"
about a woman who is being stifled by her family life and moves out —
scandalous in 1899. I don't remember it very well, but there's one passage that
has always stuck with me. It's in Chapter 24. Her husband is gone, her children
are gone, and at last, at long last, she's finally alone, truly alone. And then
she has the maid bring her her sandals. Buh? Ah, but the maid doesn't count,
you see. She's a maid. It's not like she's, y'know, a person or anything.
To someone like the protagonist of "The Awakening," maids aren't part of the visible
spectrum. And that was pretty much my life for 25 years. It's not just that no one
wanted to pair off with me — it's that they didn't see me as belonging to the
class of creatures one pairs off with. I wasn't part of their visible spectra. But
Jen doesn't limit herself to the visible. To Jen, the night sky isn't black —
it's mostly radio. When I was an invisible boy to everyone else, Jen could see me.
She was tuned into my frequency, just like Ellie was tuned into Vega's. And to
describe how much better the past six years have been than what came before, and to
describe how grateful I am to have someone like Jennifer Ann Earl in my life...
well, it's like Ellie says. They should've sent a poet.
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