The Pentagon is finally acknowledging the existence of “unidentified aerial phenomena,” and China recently reported one of its radio telescopes may have picked up signals from a galaxy far, far away. In 1987, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote Contacta novel about how the world might react to a similar situation, and in July 1997, Robert Zemeckis‘adaption of Sagan’s novel hit the big screen. While not an atheist, Sagan repeatedly stressed that he saw no evidence for the existence of God, so on this 25th anniversary of Zemeckis’ science fiction masterpiece, it’s interesting to look at a film that it at its core is really a religious story cloaked under the veil of science.
Contact begins with what is arguably one of the most impressive opening sequences ever put on celluloid. Earth hovers in space while a cacophony of radio signals – music, news reports, commercial jingles – blast through the void. As the camera pulls away and our planet gets smaller, the music, news, and jingles become more dated and more quiet. Viewers are literally brought back in time as they’re transported to the edge of the galaxy. Silence takes over, and as the screen goes dark, that darkness is revealed to be a young girl’s eye pupil. Within just three minutes, one could argue that Zemeckis establishes an underlying theme that all things are made from God and humankind is one with God.
The film’s protagonist, young Ellie Arroway (Jenna Malone), loses her father (David Morse) to a sudden heart attack, and turns her back on her faith. As an adult (Jodie Foster), singularly devotes herself to science and the pursuit of extraterrestrial life. Ellie is guided not by the divine, but by binary numbers and data blips. Religion reenters her life when she enjoys a tryst with a young preacher she meets in the Puerto Rican jungle named Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). It’s like Eve being tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but in this case, the serpent is the temptation of a spiritual life. Ellie rejects the temptation and flees the garden.
There’s a pivotal scene where Ellie pleads for funding for her research from the men with the money at Hadden Industries. Just as things look hopeless, an executive takes a phone call from someone unknown, then tells Ellie she has her funding. SR Hadden (John Hurt), the head of the company, had been watching Ellie’s presentation remotely. He neither seen nor heard, but his presence is known, and like God, he answers Ellie’s prayer. She looks up at the ceiling and says “thank you” to the invisible presence. For the first time in the film, Ellie acknowledges a higher power.
Because she does not believe in God, Ellie is rejected by a government committee to pilot a space capsule that will take her to the Vega star. Her former boss (Tom Skerritt), a self-proclaimed man of faith, gets the job instead. Ironically, he meets his demise when another man of faith, a crazed religious zealot (Jake Busey), blows up the entire space station. When it seems the movie’s tone is abandoning spirituality in favor of science, Ellie’s prayers are once again answered by her God-like figure, Hadden. This time, Hadden is seen literally floating in space in a spacecraft of his own, still overseeing Ellie from above, informing her that there’s a whole separate Vega space station on the other side of the world waiting for her. The film refocuses on faith; Ellie’s dreams have come true not because of her disciplined focus on data, facts, and figures, but because a “supreme being” has intervened.
As Ellie begins her frenetic journey to Vega, she repeatedly says, “I’m okay to go.” She’s not just telling ground control she’s prepared and ready for her odyssey; she’s telling herself that she’s letting go and letting the fates call the shots. As Ellie is catapulted through wormholes and brilliant displays of light in a sequence both frightening and awesome, a cheap Cracker Jack compass gifted to her by Joss slips from her grasp. She releases herself from her pilot’s seat to retrieve it, and when she does, the seat becomes unhinged and smashes into the top of the capsule. Ellie’s life has been saved by a symbol of divine guidance.
Minutes later, Ellie finds herself on a celestial, kaleidoscopic beach with lush palm trees and sand grains that shimmer like white diamonds beneath a star-covered firmament. Could it be heaven? When an ethereal being approaches her in the form of her late father, Ellie is filled with the genuine, unconditional love and comfort that has eluded her since her childhood in Pensacola. She’s home.
Violently thrust back to Earth without a shred of data or evidence to support her otherworldly experience, Ellie sits before a skeptical congressional committee, unable to get anyone to believe her story, not unlike Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate’s court. In an emotional monologue, Ellie says, “I was given something that changed me forever; a vision of the universe … that tells us we belong to something that is greater than ourselves.” The tables have turned, with Ellie now forced to make a case for faith over facts. As she exits the hearing, she’s greeted by a throng of supporters – disciples, if you will – and finally realizes her ultimate calling as a modern day prophet.
In one of the movie’s final scenes, Ellie is back on familiar turf at her desert compound of giant mammoth satellite dishes that serve as ears to the universe. While leading a tour for a group of school children, one of them asks if there are other people in the universe. Ellie’s response, “If it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space,” indicates her surrender to the unknown and the possibilities that await us if we simply have faith.
The final scene of the movie shows Ellie sitting silently on a bluff, contemplating the vast expanse before her. Her posture in the film’s conclusion is significant. In earlier scenes, Ellie is often positioned like a moth in a cocoon, legs drawn to her chest, face resting on her knees. Now she’s sitting straight up, legs extended, no longer closed off to the unknown, but open to whatever may come as she continues her odyssey on this planet.
Sagan was a brilliant astronomer who encouraged people to consider what might lie within the universe’s “billions and billions of stars,” so perhaps his intention with Contact was indeed to provoke interest in something beyond the blips, beeps, and computer coding; something spiritual that science alone can not explain. It appears Zemeckis saw it that way, because the spiritual message of Contact continues to resonate 25 years later.