As an undergraduate in college, I learned that I needed an elective course to fill my schedule. While looking through the catalog, I found that I could take an astronomy survey course. I already knew quite a bit from books I had read and from having watched numerous television shows and I had also purchased the complete Cosmos on VHS. I figured that the course would be a snap. It was.
One of the assignments the professor required was that we were to choose a book from a list provided by him. Included on that list was Contact by Carl Sagan, which is what I chose to read. It wasn’t long after that I learned that Contact was being made into a movie, which of course excited me.
I saw the film in the theater; I bought the VHS, then the DVD, and finally the BluRay as they became available.
While watching a game and tweeting with a fellow football fan, I noticed that another friend on Twitter, Rich Piechowski (@Piech42) was tweeting quotes and quips under the hashtag #CarlSaganDay. Carl Sagan, astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences was born on November 9, 1934. So in honor of Carl Sagan Day, I decided to rewatch the film Contact based on the novel of the same title.
Contact opens with a fantastic and realistic view of Earth apparently from low earth orbit. There is lots of “noise” on the soundtrack that sounds like transmissions from radio, television, and telecommunications. The camera begins to pull away from the earth and travels out of the solar system, out of the galaxy, and finally to the edge of the universe, and for most of the time the sound fades and ends as the camera passes Vega, a star in our northern sky that is about 25 light years distant from earth. As the camera continues to pull back, we find ourselves focused on the eye of a young girl sitting at a short wave radio set sending out a CQ (seek you – armature radio speak for “if anyone is listening, please respond”). We meet a young Ellie Arroway and her dad who is encouraging her in scientific pursuits.
The scene shifts to the Aricibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico where the now Dr. Arroway is involved in the dubious SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project. Ellie and her partner Dr. Fitchner learn from Dr Drumlin, Science Advisor to the President of the United States, that their project is no longer going to be funded because it has been determined that it is a frivolous and futile activity. Soon after, Arroway meets Palmer Joss, a renowned Christian philosopher with whom Ellie becomes romantically involved. With her government funding pulled, Ellie goes on a quest to find private sources of funding to buy telescope time elsewhere.
In a flashback scene, Ellie’s dad dies from a heart attack while the two are preparing to watch a meteor shower. Ellie blames herself for this because she believes that she was not able to get his medicine on time.
Ellie has been on a quest for funding for 13 months when she makes a presentation to a panel of three people with Haddin Industries. She is apparently about to be turned down when a phone call is received by the head of the panel. After the phone call is over, Ellie is informed that she will be granted her funding. She buys time on the VLA (Very Large Array) radio telescope facility in New Mexico. While conducting their research, the team learns that Dr. Drumlin is again going to shut their research down. Ellie argues that they cannot yank her funding, but Dr. Fitchner informs her that since the VLA is owned by the U.S. government, they have control over who will be allocated time on the array, no matter where the funding for time comes from. Ellie believes that this is more of a personal vendetta on the part of Drumlin. Upset and discouraged, Ellie goes into the desert with her listening equipment to brood. While re-aiming her dishes on the array, she stumbles on to a very strong signal coming from the area of Vega. Excited, Ellie heads back to the facility and determines that this is indeed an authentic SETI signal and immediately sends word around the globe for all facilities to focus their dishes on this signal.
Very soon after Ellie’s discovery, Drumlin, National Security Advisor Michael Kitz, and a contingent of soldiers arrive on the scene in an attempt to take over operations. Ellie’s team discovers that there is a video signal couched inside the main signal and when it is rendered, we see that the extra-terrestrials have sent back a transmission of the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Summer Olympics that were presided over by none other than Adolph Hitler. Kitz immediately sees this as a malevolent threat and orders the facility secured and accuses Ellie of a breach of national security for blasting information over the globe. Drumlin and Ellie explain that since the Hitler broadcast was sent, it took 26 years to arrive at Vega, and that the return signal would take another 26 years to return, therefore Hitler would mean nothing to the people returning the signal.
It is soon discovered that the message from Vega was a schematic with instructions on how to build a massive machine that would presumably transport a single astronaut to Vega to make contact with whatever civilization may exist there. Of course, Kitz presents the idea that perhaps once the machine is built, an invading army might emerge to wreak havoc. After due consideration it was decided to build the machine and an astronaut was to be selected. Ellie is on the list, and Drumlin resigns his position as Science Advisor to get his name in for consideration also. They become the two top people for taking the ride, but Ellie has a slight edge.
During a final interview by an international panel to determine who the final candidate will be, Ellie is confronted with the question of what her spiritual beliefs are by Palmer Joss, who had since become a religious advisor to the president. Ellie, an avowed atheist, explains that spiritual beliefs should not be a consideration for the selection because the Vegans contacted the people of the earth through scientific language. A member of the panel explains that 95% of the world’s population believes in a deity of some kind, and that it would be unreasonable to send a representative to make first contact who doesn’t reflect that aspect of the majority of the population. Drumlin, of course proclaims himself a devout believer in God and subsequently selected to take the ride.
The machine gets built and begins undergoing tests. Under the supervision of Drumlin, the machine is started up with a dummy pilot. During that final test, Ellie is in mission control monitoring the progress when she sees a religious fanatic on a monitor disguised as a technician and wearing an explosive vest. Ellie tries to warn Drumlin just as the fanatic detonates his vest and destroys the machine killing Drumlin and many others.
When Ellie returns to her room, she finds a satellite telephone system over which she is contacted by S.R. Haddin who informers her that a duplicate machine was built on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Soon, Ellie is strapped into the seat in the duplicate machine. Her pod is dropped and she takes a truly fantastic voyage through wormholes and winds up in a place near the center of the galaxy and is contacted by an alien in the person of her father. The alien entity informs Ellie that humanity is indeed not alone. Ellie says that she has many questions and if after this first contact, there will be further contact. The entity answers that it will be far in the future before further contact takes place again. Ellie is sent back to earth. From her point of view, she has been away for over eighteen hours. But from the point of view of everyone else, nothing really happened except that the pod simply dropped through the machine.
The scene moves to a congressional hearing where Ellie is trying to describe her experience, but she is confronted by Kitz who claims that it was all a hoax perpetrated by S.R. Haddin for the purpose of securing government contracts. The hearing ends in an impasse that reaches no conclusions and Ellie and Palmer leave. In a conversation between Kitz and his assistant, we learn that recording devices that were sent with Ellie recorded nothing but static, but it was over eighteen hours of static.
Contact is the story of a driven scientist who is willing to do whatever it takes to do what scientists are supposed to do; seek the truth of things. Jodie Foster does an effective job of acting as someone who will not allow herself to be deterred from her pursuits very passionately. Her performance is very convincing. The script was very well written and I can actually hear Sagan’s voice coming through Ellie as she reads her lines for the film. She is a character that one can really care about. I found myself empathizing with her as Drumlin seemed to make it his personal mission to up-stage her at every turn and every time she had an opportunity to shine as an independent scientist trying to come into her own. I also admired her as she steadfastly fought Kitz to keep her research from becoming something that the military might pervert into a national defense imperative.
The BluRay version of the film that I have has many special features that include how the opening sequence was achieved. It took hours and hours of video rendering to put those first three minutes together and in itself was amazing to watch.
One of the most remarkable parts of the movie was the film score. It fit very well with the action that was taking place on the film and didn’t distract.
Probably the most tragic aspect of the film project is that Carl Sagan never got to see his story unfold on the screen as he passed away mere months before the release date. At the end of the film, there appears a star field and at the bottom right of the screen appear the words “For Carl.” This last before the credits run never fails to bring tears to my eyes even now after so many years.
Contact is a good film that is called science fiction, but to me it is more in the realm of speculative fiction because it is a story from Carl Sagan as he speculates on whether we are alone in the universe, how people might react if we did discover that we are not alone, and how politics and industry influence our views on the search for scientific truth.
It is difficult to describe how much Dr. Sagan spoke to me through his work, especially that of the series Cosmos. To me, he is an iconic figure who helped me shape my philosophy on how I think about many things. I still miss him today and am thankful for those who picked up the torch he left behind to teach us about our universe and our place in it. People such as Lawrence Krauss, Neil Tyson, and Stephen Hawking carry on the Sagan legacy. While they are to be credited, they still fall well short of the legacy. Carl was the ultimate communicator on science.
Happy Birthday Carl.
Well, there it is…