“Contact: Less Like Science, More Like Science Fiction” by Philip Burkhard

Philip Burkhard

Prof. Jason Ellis

ENG 2420  E575

May 20, 2020

Contact: Less Like Science, More Like Science Fiction

Director Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 film adaptation of the 1985 Carl Sagan novel Contact is, at its core, a story about how modern day humans would contend with their first contact with extraterrestrial, intelligent life. The film is set in a world identical to our own – one with the same technological capabilities, same conflicting ambitions of political and personal interests and same familiar dissonance between what seem to be adversarial camps of religion and science. It envisions a world no different than our current one, but for the addition of a single variable, the detection of a radio signal that is determined to be extraterrestrial in origin. Contact, therefore, is a work of science fiction because it presents us with an imagined future where human beings struggle to find a way forward in a world augmented by the discovery of new technology and the prospect of meeting an alien race for the first time.

Contact revolves around the life of Dr. Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, an astronomy post-doc working for the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The film presents Arroway as a born explorer and critical thinker. As a girl of nine years old, Arroway tinkers with her hand radio in her bedroom after dark, mapping out the farthest points of contact she reaches on her bulletin board map of the United States as she converses with strangers over the airwaves. Arroway’s character is curious, persistent, skeptical and honest. Even as a young girl, she is a natural scientist that is not easily deterred by discouragement or low probabilities of success.

When Arroway’s father dies suddenly of a heart attack while she is upstairs in her bedroom, we see a foreshadowing of the adult scientist she is to grow into. A priest attempts to calm a young Ellie’s distress with words that are meant to be spiritually comforting: “We aren’t always meant to understand. Sometimes we just have to accept it as god’s will.” Ellie, all but ignoring the priest, replies: “I should have kept some medicine in the downstairs bathroom – then I could have gotten to it sooner” (Zemeckis “Contact”). Arroway, as an adult scientist, is no different from her younger self. She believes her destiny is in her own hands, that logic is king, and that events should attempt to be understood empirically, and not with guesswork or blind faith. In that way, the story grounds the viewer in the reality of the world of the protagonist, who is a true scientist, and presents her in contrast to the “fantasies” of the supernatural and the unexplained.

Ellie eventually becomes Dr. Arroway, a driven astronomy post-doc, with degrees from MIT and Caltech, who turned down a lucrative teaching job at Harvard in order to join the SETI Institute’s research program. The SETI Institute is a real-life, privately funded research organization that originally used grant money to search for narrow-band radio transmissions that would “betray the existence of technically competent beings elsewhere in the galaxy” (SETI). It now performs its research along multiple avenues of discovery. In the film, the bulk of SETI’s funding came from government sources. With the majority of Dr. Arroway’s time on the SETI project spent “listening” (with software programs and her ears) for radio waves that might be of extraterrestrial, intelligent origin, her research is largely ridiculed by her superiors, who dismiss it as a waste of government funding and a distraction from potentially more profitable alternative projects. In this way, the story grounds the viewer in the real-life obstacles facing scientific researchers and the limitations they face given our current body of scientific knowledge, which is relatively small when compared with those of future interplanetary societies depicted in many, more imaginative science fiction narratives. In an argument between Arroway and her supervisor David Drumlin, played by Tom Skeritt, Drumlin embodies the skeptic’s view of the search for alien life, further grounding the viewer in the hard science and probability that serve to make the science fiction narrative seem at best unlikely, and at worst, silly.

“There’s 400 billion stars – and only two probabilities. One, there is intelligent life out there, but it’s so far away you’ll never contact it in your lifetime, and two… there’s nothing out there but noble gases and carbon compounds, and you’re wasting your time. In the meantime, you won’t be published, you won’t be taken seriously, and your career will be over before it’s begun.” (Zemeckis “Contact”)

            Throughout the film, the viewer is repeatedly reminded of the unlikely nature of Arroway’s ultimate discovery, both with facts and with the current state of the art. These reminders serve to frame Arroway’s discovery of the extraterrestrial signal in the limitations of our current reality. In this way, Contact might be considered a work of “Hard Science Fiction” (or “Hard SF”). A subgenre of science fiction, Hard SF has been described as “the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone” (Nicholls). When Arroway and her team of researchers eventually lose funding for their SETI project, she is forced to pitch her proposals to private sources of funds, foundations and private companies with an interest in technological discovery. In her final meeting with the board of directors of “Hadden Industries,” the corporate conglomerate that eventually funds Arroway’s continuing research, one of the board members ridicules Arroway’s proposal with a not-so-subtle nod to what might be a criticism of more fantastic forms of the genre: “We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.” Arroway responds, “Science fiction. Well, you’re right, it’s crazy. In fact, it’s even worse than that, it’s nuts” (Zemeckis “Contact”). This may have been a moment of self-deprecation for the screenwriters.

            After Arroway successfully procures funding for a new privately-backed research endeavor, she, along with her team, begins to lease the use of the “Very Large Array” (VLA), which is a real-life radio telescope consisting of a constellation of 27 massive radio antennae located in New Mexico. It is with the power of the VLA that Arroway picks up on a strong, repeating signal that the team determines must be coming from deep space. In their determination that the signal is of intelligent origin, it is explained that the pattern of the signal’s pulse sequence matches the sequence of prime numbers from 1 to 101, a sure sign of intelligence. The signal is found to be layered and matching that of a visual transmission. Eventually the team determines the signal to be a transmission of Aldolf Hitler’s opening speech at the 1936 Olympic Games. At the same time that they determine the celestial origin of the signal, the Vega star system, Arroway deduces that the content of the transmission was not important, but that this transmission was simply the first signal originating from earth that was strong enough to be interstellar, and that here it was being reflected back to us. The explanation for why they would be receiving such a signal at that time: it was determined by the time it took for the signal to arrive at Vega and be reflected back to us on Earth; a receipt notice from an intelligent life form.

As the film progresses, the plot supplies explanations that render the story scientifically plausible, one of the distinctions separating science fiction from “fantasy,” loosely described by the seminal science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) as “weird stories or horror stories or tales of the supernatural.” He continues, “The best definition of s-f [science fiction] that I know of is, indeed almost sociological in its gravity…Science-fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings” (Asimov 148). While the carefully placed scientific detail in Contact’s screenplay serves to distinguish the film from more imaginary genres of fiction, it also serves to provide an air of plausibility, one of the five conditions set forth by the influential science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) in his consideration of what defined a work as belonging to the genre. In 1947, he wrote:

Let’s gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story: 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the “plot”—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible [emphasis added] and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts… (Heinlein 17)

As Arroway and her team begin to process the gravity of this new discovery, the role of Arroway’s love interest Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey, along with the human problem referred to by Heinlein, begin to take shape. As a writer and spiritual advisor of sorts, Joss makes a fleeting appearance at the start of the film as a reporter insistent on getting an on-record interview with Arroway’s boss Drumlin. Joss’s character is presented as an agnostic theologian who believes that the enormous amount of funds and time spent on scientific pursuits is clouding our ability to maintain a relationship with a higher power – that searching for explanations scientifically is interfering with our capacity for spiritual growth, as it were. Joss’s exact religion and goals are not made definite in the film, positioning Joss as the representation of all religions and therefore religion itself, which has historically been viewed in contrast rather than in complement to science. After Arroway’s team discovers the signal, Joss reintroduces himself to Arroway as the spiritual advisor on the President of the United States’s task force set up to deal with the implications of the alien signal. The human problem of the story – how we as a human race should respond to receiving this new technology and how that decision should be determined – begins to come into focus.

In Arroway’s presentation of the research team’s findings to the task force, she discloses an additional discovery. The signal itself contained a key, a “primer” that allowed them to deduce the meaning of the patterns embedded in the signal. They determined that the signal was in fact a set of instructions, much like an engineering schematic. A debate ensues about what the meaning of these instructions could be. When it is suggested by Arroway that the instructions could be for the construction of a machine, potentially some kind of transportation device, there is dissent in the room about what the intentions of these aliens might be. Projecting our own human capacity for pillaging and war onto the unknown, the military and legislative advisors are alarmed by the prospect that the instructions could be for a machine that is itself a kind of “Trojan horse,” that we would dutifully build whatever it is the instructions directed, and that out would pour an army of aliens or a weapon of some kind. The skepticism of the electorate is apparently reflected in the polls, and an advisor warns Arroway: “We know nothing of these creatures’ values. The fact of the matter is we don’t even know whether they believe in god” (Zemeckis “Contact”). Arroway attempts to assure the task force that the discovery is not of religious concern: “The message was written in the language of science. If it had been religious in nature, it should have taken on the form of a burning bush or a big booming voice from the sky.” As the representation of religion and spirituality in the story, Joss interrupts: “But a voice from the sky is exactly what you found, Dr. Arroway” (Ibid). Here we see revisited themes that were foundational to the emergence of science fiction. As early works were formed in part as a response to and in light of the Scientific Revolution that was catalyst for the onset of the Age of Enlightenment, we see that the struggle between the “dark” and the “light,” between the superstitious & dogmatic and the reasonable & logical, still exists and is in fact at the forefront of our concerns when we encounter a discovery of such existential importance. Contact reminds us that, despite all of the modern technology that we take for granted and have been able to incorporate seamlessly into our individual and varied belief systems, none of it had revealed our deepest existential concerns until we felt truly threatened by an external intelligent force. Therefore, the film might be making the point that it is not science that the spiritual is at odds with, but rather fear, the unknown, and in this case the prospect of being conquered. In a New York Times review of the film, contemporary with its 1997 release, film critic John Noble Wilford remarked on how, notwithstanding the adherence to hard scientific principle that bridges the gap between the “here and now” and a future where we’ve been “contacted,” perhaps the most implausible part of this science fiction film is how we might react as a society to being contacted.

Astronomers who have seen the movie are impressed by how, on a scientific level, it is remarkably faithful to the spirit, strategy and techniques of the quest known by another acronym: SETI, for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. They give the film high marks for authenticity, at least in its first half. When it shifts to the frantic public and political reaction to the discovery and the launching of an intergalactic spaceship built to alien instructions, the movie becomes far more speculative. (Wilford) [Note that the Vega star system is not in another galaxy, and therefore the “spaceship” is not necessarily “intergalactic”]

After it is confirmed that the signal is in fact a set of instructions for a transportation device of some kind, a conflict ensues over who first should test the vehicle, that is, who should be the representative of the human race to an unknown intelligent species. Arroway’s discovery of the signal, and therefore the new technology contained therein, makes her a shoe-in to be the world’s first interstellar traveler. However, concerns develop about how the human race would be represented if a scientist were to be sent. Should the traveler be one that believes in a higher power, as most of humanity does? Is this an important attribute for the introduction of ourselves as a race? When Arroway refuses to betray her reason, stating that while she does not believe that there is no god, she acknowledges that there is a lack of evidence to support one’s existence, she is passed over by the selection committee in favor of her former boss, David Drumlin, who is willing to pander to the committee’s concerns. The conflict within the story’s human problem, that “impact of scientific advance on human beings,” comes to a climax when a religious fanatic posing as an engineer blows himself up on the premises of the machine, destroying it and killing Drumlin. This serves as a strong metaphor for the relentless adversary that religion has posed to scientific discovery over the ages. Theologian Bryan Stone, writing for the Journal of Religion and Film, believes that while the film attempted to destroy the notion of a permanent incompatibility between religion and science, it ultimately served to dismiss religion as an obstacle to be overcome.

At a number of points in the film, the audience is sent the message that a positive relationship is possible between faith and science. Indeed, the two are often treated as similar to one another in basic structure and, perhaps, even in need of one another. Implicitly, however, at the level of standard filmic conventions, Contact offers no clear and compelling vision of religious faith and ultimately the relationship between faith and science breaks down as the former is reduced to a caricature. (Stone 2016)

After the destruction of the vehicle, Arroway, having not been near the explosion, is sent out on a backup mission in a second vehicle, which had been secretly built by her benefactor at Hadden Industries. In Arroway’s perception, she is jettisoned through a worm hole to a distant solar system, where she makes contact with an alien being, who takes the form of her late father. The entity explains: “We thought it would be easier for you this way” (Zemeckis “Contact”). Upon her “return” to Earth, Arroway is met with the explanation that her vessel never even left the planet, and that her perceived 18-hour journey was in fact a failed mission wherein her vehicle fell into the ocean in a matter of seconds instead of taking off. While Arroway refuses to deny what she experienced on her journey, she remains true to her scientific principles, acknowledging that it is possible that what she had gone through was a hallucination or an episode of psychosis. At the conclusion of the movie, two government officials, in discussion over a secured line, reveal that while Arroway’s personal video recording device did not provide any proof of her supposed journey, it did in fact contain 18 hours of static.

            It is never revealed to Arroway that the length of her journey is confirmed by the data on her recording device. After the trial of the vehicle is completed and Arroway is debriefed by Congress about mundane matters such as the funds that were “wasted” in the fruitless endeavor and whether or not the signal was in fact a hoax created by the industrialists paid to build the vehicle, it is as though the journey never happened at all. For the viewer, there is no resolution to the suspense of what might happen when two worlds merge or when the secrets of the universe are revealed. We are instead left only with the debris from the impact of a scientific advancement that human beings were not ready for.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. “Other Worlds to Conquer.” The Writer 64.5 (May 1951): 148-151. Print.

Heinlein, Robert. “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science-Fiction Writing. Ed. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. Reading, PA: Fantasy Press, 1947. 11-19. Print

Nicholls, Peter. “Hard SF.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight. Gollancz, 19 Mar. 2019. Web. 21 May 2020. <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/hard_sf>

SETI. SETI Institute, www.seti.org/seti-institute/Search-Extraterrestrial-Intelligence

Stone, Bryan. “Religious Faith and Science in Contact.” Journal of Religion & Film, vol. 2, no. 2, 18 Dec. 2016, p. 1. Digital Commons, https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1854&context=jrf.

Zemeckis, Robert, director. Contact. Warner Bros., 1997.

Wilford, John Noble. “In ‘Contact,’ Science and Fiction Nudge Close Together.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/20/movies/in-contact-science-and-fiction-nudge-close-together.html.