A few nights back I watched the movie, “Contact” starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. It tells the story of humans’ first contact with extra terrestrial intelligence. I’ve seen it before and remembered some things about it that I wanted to revisit. The premise is that a female radio astronomer (Foster) discovers a radio signal from a distant galaxy. She works for the S.E.T.I. program (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). The signal, which begins by broadcasting prime numbers is followed by a video of Adolf Hitler opening the 1936 Olympics. It is suggested that that broadcast was the first one with enough power to travel into space and the aliens were sending it back as proof that they had discovered us. Hidden messages within the radio signal send plans for building a machine, presumably to use to make contact with them.
Before discovering the signal the U.S. President’s science advisor tries to pull SETI’s funding. He feels that it is a waste of time and money searching for “little green men.” Foster’s character (Ellie) secures private funding and continues the search by renting time on government owned radio telescopes. As soon as the signal is discovered, The science advisor swoops in to take over and be the face of the project. It’s interesting how his attitude completely changes once a signal is discovered.
Reactions vary widely. The President’s security advisor thinks the aliens mean us harm and wants to militarize the whole thing. Religious groups have mixed reactions from casual interest to fanatical. It’s interesting to watch it all unfold. Should they build the machine? Who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to be involved? Who’s going to get the credit? And ultimately, who gets to take the trip on the machine to meet the aliens?
One strong theme in the movie is religion. Ellie’s friend/love interest is Palmer (played by McConaughey). He is a Catholic theologian and Ellie is a religious skeptic. During one scene Ellie tells Palmer that she cannot believe in God without proof. Palmer asks her if she loved her father, who died when she was nine years old. She says “Of course I did”. He says, “Prove it”. The question becomes, how do you prove something that you have no proof of. Palmer would have to take it on faith that she loved her father because proving that would be impossible after he died. She couldn’t “prove” it, he would just have to believe her. This is his way of showing her how he believes in God. He has faith that God exists.
Ellie is ultimately not chosen to go on the machine because the deciding panel believes that a person of faith and science should represent the human race because the majority of humans believe in some type of God. A religious fanatic blows up the completed machine and the project is off. Ellie is then contacted by the billionaire who funded the SETI project and told that a second machine has been built and she can be the one to go.
Ellie goes on the trip (through wormholes in space) and meets the alien intelligence which takes the form of her father. She’s told that this is the easiest way for her to understand and that further contact will happen in the future. When she returns she’s told that the capsule of the machine which she was in, didn’t actually go anywhere. Recording devises didn’t record any of the things that she saw and while it seemed like hours that she was gone, she really didn’t go anywhere. Without any proof of what happened, the government asks why they should just “take it on faith” that any of it actually took place. She asks that they do, but they refuse. The government then accuses the billionaire (who has since died of cancer) of creating the whole thing as a hoax. Palmer, her religious friend/lover is the only one who believes her.
The central theme of the story is not contact with alien intelligence, knowing that we are not alone in the universe, but faith. We ask that others have faith in us or in an idea but we find it hard to have faith ourselves. Sometimes we find it impossible to have faith while still asking that others have faith in us. I find these ideas endlessly fascinating. Philosophy is a favorite study area for me. How do we think, why do we think, and why do we think the things that we do? Why do we believe, in the face of little or no proof? Why do we need proof? Why don’t we need it? It gives one a lot to think about.
The story was written by the astronomer Carl Sagan. I recommend this movie because it’s very thought provoking. How people handle the proof of existence of life in the universe is very interesting and makes me wonder how I would deal with it. And how do we deal with faith in a secular or religious context? The juxtaposition of ideas presented give rise to even more ideas and food for thought. I think you should see it!