"Contact" Film Review
Copyright (c) 1997 by Larry Klaes (email@example.com
Several years ago, I first learned that Hollywood was going to turn Carl Sagan's only
science fiction novel, Contact, into a major motion picture. I was deeply
interested to see if we would be given a masterpiece equal to the 1985 novel. I
equally feared a flawed attempt (or worse) to depict one possible way humanity might
receive a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and our reactions to such a
I was heartened to know that Sagan himself was supervising very closely how the science was presented in the film, not to mention his philosophies on the main theme. Hollywood is notorious for throwing physics and other forms of reality out the window when it comes to most of their science fiction films. A rare exception was Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also dealt with alien contact. Another exception to the rule was The Andromeda Strain, released in 1971.
The usual excuses are as follows:
While I have no illusions that many folks see films primarily to be entertained and moved emotionally, it is also a sad but true fact that many of these same people receive most of their science "education" from films, consciously or otherwise. Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, were wise in using this medium to reach the widest audience possible to give the public something far beyond mere light fantasy. Sagan also used this very method in publishing science articles in Parade magazine, a supplement to many Sunday newspapers, and with his wonderful series Cosmos on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television in 1980.
Somewhere along the way while most people are attaining adulthood, they either lose their natural childhood curiosity in the sciences and the world around them, or they never obtain it. Reading science journals or even watching documentaries is not among their pastimes.
Most television programs and films are not obliged to impart much in the way of scientific information, if at all. As a result, the general public tends not only to be ignorant of many aspects of the physical world, but they also lack the tools to discriminate between what is real and what is the result of human psychological factors. Witness the numbers who believe in astrology and blindly follow cult leaders to their deaths, as just two such examples.
Carl Sagan tried to counter this degrading trend with the previously mentioned methods.
Sagan also used his incredible skills at explaining science to the masses with Contact,
published as a novel in 1985 and turned into a film in 1997. You could hear Sagan's
voice in so much of the work, even though it was primarily through a fictional woman named
Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway.
Sure, some of the novel was dated: The references to the Soviet Union still existing in 1999 (1), two "American-French-Soviet" rovers exploring the planet Mars and taking pictures of the surface (2), and a comment that the Internet was not far enough along for every scientist to have immediate access to other researchers and their data.
Even more important, the Project Argus depicted with its group of 137 massive radio telescopes is much more like the Project Cyclops design conceived in 1971 than the same one advocated today by The SETI League and Bob Dixon of the Ohio State University (OSU). In the early 1980s, few in the field could envision the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) being conducted on a private level. Even today, with our advanced technologies and renewed drive, will we be able to find proof of life beyond Earth by 1999? I am not entirely certain if we will, but I gladly accept being proven wrong in this regard.
Nevertheless, there is certainly nothing wrong with making optimistic predictions about
the future. Besides, the true goal of Contact was to relay to the reading public
how humanity might react to knowing We Are Not Alone in the Cosmos and what this would
mean for us as a species and a society.
Contact premiered at a very auspicious time in July of 1997. A number of major space milestones (or should this be kilometerstones now?) and related events took place right before the film was released. The timing was ironic, for some of the events would have thrilled Carl Sagan and brought praise from him, while others were exactly what he spent years fighting against.
On June 27, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) unmanned probe flew by the Main Belt planetoid 253 Mathilde on its way to orbit and study the elongated minor planet 433 Eros in 1999. While this event did not exactly make the media headlines (as it should have), it was a fascinating look at a celestial body never before seen by humanity and only the third space probe visit to a planetoid in history. The other two were Gaspra and Ida in 1991 and 1993, respectively, both by the Galileo probe on its way to orbit and study Jupiter. NEAR revealed that Mathilde is a very dark rock with huge craters having taken major chunks out of this relatively small planetoid. Scientists wondered how Mathilde could absorb such massive impacts by other minor bodies and remained intact.
The next major event in Sol system exploration did capture all the headlines. The Mars Pathfinder lander craft and its robot rover Sojourner successfully touched down (bounced down is more like it) on the planet Mars on the United States' Independence Day, July 4. We finally had a presence on the Red Planet again since the landing of the two American Viking craft in 1976. The next day, Mars Pathfinder was officially christened the Dr. Carl Sagan Memorial Station! My only regret is that Sagan did not live to see Pathfinder reach Mars and return all the incredible images and data it has sent. Mars was always Sagan's favorite planet (next to Earth), and one he held high hopes for having some form of life on it, either now or in its distant past when the world was more Earthlike. This warmer and wetter world view was given an even stronger boost by the findings of the Sagan Station.
There were other space and even alien events which were not what one might call wonderful, but they had an impact on the atmosphere surrounding Contact nonetheless. Comet Hale-Bopp became quite prominent in the sky in the early part of 1997. I followed its progress from late February through the middle of May almost every clear night. Of the five comets I have witnessed so far in my life, Hale-Bopp by far was the most impressive.
The downside with this comet came not from the ancient ball of ice itself, but from how certain members of the human race reacted to its presence. One amateur astronomer declared that he saw a huge alien spaceship following close behind Hale-Bopp as it swung in towards the Sun. No amount of reasoning could convince him that what he really saw was just a distant star that only appeared to be near the comet. Even worse, an obscure cult called Heaven's Gate took the arrival of Hale-Bopp and the spaceship rumors as a sign that the end of the world was coming. They decided it was time for them to depart this "level" of existence by "spiritually" climbing aboard that alleged starcraft. In late March, thirty-nine members committed mass suicide in the California mansion they owned and operated their cult from.
Contact briefly mentioned the Heaven's Gate incident in relation to the extreme reactions of some groups to the discovery of the ETI. The producers were apparently trying to make Contact as timely as possible.
For centuries, comets were considered to be signs of impending omens. One wonders when humanity will finally come to accept the fact that they are actually rather small remnants of ice and rock from the formation of our solar system five billion years ago. Their passages by Earth result from neighboring gravitational forces, not some mystical way of sending us messages.
On June 25, I celebrated my birth in 1963. I was also saddened to learn of the death of oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau in Paris, France at age 87. I consider him to have been the Carl Sagan of the seas.
In space, the unmanned Russian Progress M-34 cargo vessel slammed into the recently added Spektr module of the Mir space station. The module was rendered useless. The impact briefly threatened the lives of cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin and astronaut Michael Foale onboard.
Mir was having problems before, including a rather serious fire in February, but this event is the one that brought the only currently functioning station in Earth orbit to the forefront of public attention. Many Americans, some perhaps lacking the pioneering spirit and the risks it entails, wanted no more of their astronaut citizens living on this foreign station, which was now eleven years old. Some even wanted Mir abandoned completely and deorbited safely.
While I am not ignoring the dangers present, I think Mir has done quite well for a Soviet/Russian space vessel meant to last only five years. Since it would be foolish to expect that no technical or human problems will ever occur on future space missions, Mir is providing us with a relatively safe way to deal with space emergencies where the crew is only a short trip from Earth should things go really wrong. Better to be just a few hundred kilometers above the home planet than halfway to Mars with no immediate way to turn back.
I find it unfortunate that the general public and the popular media ignore most regular space activities unless they have a negative slant or element of danger to them. Perhaps if they understood all that goes on over their heads, they would find the Universe to be a much more enthralling place to explore and wonder about on its own merits.
Right around the time that Mars Pathfinder landed on the Red Planet and began exploring that alien world, an alien event of a much less noble and serious nature was taking place in a small town in New Mexico: The fiftieth anniversary celebration of the so-called Roswell Incident. (3)
The story goes that a spaceship of alien origin crashed on a ranch during a lightning storm in 1947. The United States military went to great lengths to cover up the evidence. One alleged reason for this action was to keep any advanced alien technology from falling into the hands of rival nations, such as the Soviet Union. Another reason was to protect the general public from culture shock over the discovery of an intelligent species superior to humans.
Despite the many claims and conflicting stories over the ensuing decades, it now seems that a vehicle may indeed have crashed on a farmer's ranch in New Mexico just two years after the end of World War Two. However, it may have been something entirely terrestrial in nature. A 1994 government report states the vehicle was an instrumented balloon from Project Mogul. This top secret program was designed to spy on the Soviet Union with special high-altitude balloons (Earth satellites were ten years in the future) to detect the detonations of nuclear devices. One of these Mogul balloons apparently came down unexpectedly on a New Mexico ranch and thus began the Roswell Incident with its fifty years of growing legends.
Sometimes the Cold War's need for secrecy played right into the hands of those who wanted to believe that every strange airship, light, and incident had to be the work of extraterrestrial intelligences. As I have stated elsewhere in this article, many humans have "modernized" the works of the gods into crediting aliens with these tasks. (4)
My general course of action when it comes to reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) and other mysterious phenomena is to first consider that it is likely the product of either a natural event we may or may not be aware of, or that human beings are somehow involved. Most UFOs wind up in this category.
But this certainly did not stop some fifty thousand "believers", thrill-seekers, and hucksters from descending upon Roswell to see if "the truth is out there" and either make or lose a buck in the process. I was not pleased to see the media lumping in this carnival with the very real and productive Sagan Station mission on Mars. UFOs are not (or should not be) synonymous with alien space vessels, and the Roswell Incident is no exception. This kind of thing only reduces the credibility of the SETI science field as just another hunt for "little green men".
The United States Air Force (USAF) made another attempt shortly before the anniversary date to give even more evidence as to why whatever was found in that New Mexico field was terrestrial in origin. I refer you to their document at this Web site URL: http://www.af.mil/lib/roswell/
Nevertheless, it seems that those who want to believe in the more exciting possibility of alien spacecraft debris and bodies hidden away from the rest of the world will never accept anything else. It is little wonder, then, that the public far more often associates microwave and optical searches for ETI with UFO investigations and alien abductions than serious scientists scanning the skies for telltale signals from distant star systems. This is one paradigm that Contact can hopefully put a few holes in, or at least some serious dents.
Contact was not the only mainstream Hollywood film about aliens premiering in the summer of 1997. Just days before Contact was released to the public, the science fiction comedy Men in Black arrived. It told the story of a very secret organization that keeps in line the many aliens that secretly live among us for a variety of reasons. While it was made quite clear that Men in Black was not to be taken seriously, I have no doubt that many who saw the film (and those who did not but knew about its plot) were vindicated that some aliens do dwell on Earth. Naturally, the governments know full well about these non-terrestrial residents, but they refuse to relay this information to the public. Even some members of the media interviewed the film's producers and actors to seriously ask them their views on ETI. I doubt that anyone on the set was of the same caliber as Sagan to answer such questions with any real credence. Of course none of this kept moviegoers from making Men in Black one of the most popular films and biggest box office grosses of the year.
I contend that films such as Men in Black, the Roswell celebration, and even television series like The X-Files did some damage to Contact's reputation and level of popularity. While Contact was certainly not your typical film dealing with humanity's encounter with extraterrestrials, the advertisements for it may not have entirely gotten the message across. Much of the undiscriminating public may have viewed Contact as just another alien film in an industry that is already glutted with strange visitors from other worlds plotting who-knows-what for Earth and its inhabitants. Usually such aliens are presented as ridiculous cartoons, evil monsters, or angelic beings. As for first contact with ETI, almost invariably a disk-shaped spaceship hovering over a city or extinct volcano core is the first Hollywood sign of their existence. Far less often is a signal the first indication that we are not alone. Contact avoided all three stereotypes of science fiction and Hollywood.
Still, people may have been fed up with all the alien story lines, especially since they are not likely to make any major efforts to distinguish one plot from another. Of course there are many who folks who did see Contact and did comprehend its messages. Perhaps sometimes it only takes a certain number of the right people to appreciate the important aspects in life and being about the necessary changes for the betterment of all.
If Contact had come out in another time of the year or even a decade earlier,
would it have been hailed differently? I think what matters now is that the film was
completed and released to the public. Many filmgoers who might never read a science
publication or previously gave any thought to the ideas and questions raised in Contact
now have their minds stirred in a positive direction. Sagan knew where he had to bring his
concepts and scientific knowledge to the general public. Contact will remain one
of his most valuable legacies and gifts to the human species.
As I drove to see Contact on the afternoon of Sunday, July 13, the two main questions I had for the film were these:
The answer for me for both questions was yes -- and no.
Let the record show that I was deeply moved by Contact from the moment it
began to the very end. Indeed, even the previews before the film helped to set the
contrasting mood between a film like Contact and what Hollywood generally drops
upon us. Of the six previews shown on my theater screen, only one did not focus on people
trying to kill each other with cars, guns, and bombs (nuclear in one case): A comedy
called In and Out. Not surprisingly, it received the best reaction from the
The preview makers tried hard to have these films seem suspenseful and exciting, but for me they were mostly numbing and only enhanced my desire to get to the main event. And this is coming from someone who loves a good film preview, if it is done just right.
You may be wondering why I am spending precious text on the film trailers, which have nothing directly to do with Contact. It is because the reaction (or lack thereof) they provoked from the audience proved to me that many people are tired of the same old brainless action "thrillers" from Hollywood. Many of the themes in those films were simultaneously violent and repulsive to varying degrees and trivial in the grander scheme of things shown in Contact.
Not only am I still moved when I think or read about Contact, but for days after seeing the film, I found so much that human culture thinks is important to be the trouble of little microbes living on a single dust speck. I have certainly felt this way many times before in my life from my knowledge of astronomy and how tremendously vast the Universe is. Contact brought it home for me in the way that only the audiovisual medium of a great motion picture viewed in a theater can.
The previews also served to contrast and heighten the impact of Contact's
opening moments. For long minutes we were bombarded with the sights and sounds of actors
screaming, shooting, crashing, and blowing up fellow actors with various props on numerous
sets. Then they mercifully drifted away and Contact began: A silent darkness,
broken only by the simple opening credits. Then Earth appears as seen from several hundred
kilometers distant, still enveloped in the ultimate quiet that only the Cosmos can elicit.
The audience became equally as silent, waiting for the next moment. Silence really does
have a power all its own.
Then wham! A flood of microwave noise blasts our ears as the numerous audio squabblings of a young civilization on the planet below spray out into the Milky Way galaxy in all directions. An unintendedly ironic parallel to the blurring babble and sounds we were subjected to from the previews. Slowly but steadily we move away from Earth into the depths of the Sol system, following the microwave streams as they travel in both space and time. As we move farther and farther from home, we note that the broadcasts become less convoluted and hail from years in the past.
Both light and radio waves are governed by the 300,000 kilometers per second speed limit imposed by nature. While this is incredibly fast, the immense distances between the stars means they take many years to travel between them. Therefore, beings on a planet circling Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own at 4.3 light years distant (one light year equals about ten trillion kilometers, or six trillion miles), see our Sun not as we do now -- just eight light minutes old (150 million kilometers, or 93 million miles) -- but as it appeared over four years ago. If we send the Centaurians a microwave transmission in 1997, it will not reach them until the year 2001.
A "shell" of microwave noise surrounds our solar system roughly one century old, stemming from the earliest days since the invention of radio. Of course as Contact showed so masterfully, the transmissions become weaker and fainter as one heads into interstellar space, until they are lost as we move well beyond the radio noise sphere roughly 100 light years across. Now the film did not show exactly where the microwave broadcasts would truly lie in space in relation to their age, but this is one instance where I forgive the lack of complete accuracy. To do so would have ruined the smooth flow of what Contact was trying to convey to its audience in a matter of real-time minutes. I do not think I have seen many instances where an aspect of our existence on the cosmic scale was portrayed with such visual elegance and a minimum of explanation.
I was also reminded of Carl Sagan journeying across the Universe in his Spaceship of the Imagination in the first (and many other) episodes of Cosmos. He could not portray such an immense voyage while obeying the speed of light and keep each episode to one hour in length. To a lesser degree, it is the same as "forgiving" Star Trek for having its starships zip around the galaxy using a faster-than-light warp drive to allow the characters to explore "strange new worlds" and "seek out new life and new civilizations" much more rapidly than would otherwise be allowed by the reality of physics. I would prefer that science fiction stop using warp and hyperdrives as convenient cop-outs to getting around the speed of light limit, but that is another matter for discussion.
To return to my original point, I was deeply moved by Contact. The last time I remember being strongly moved by a film was in 1991 with Dances with Wolves. (5) Contact hit me on an even deeper and more personal level. So much of what was said and shown matched my views of existence that it bordered on sheer astonishment. Even seemingly minor and frivolous scenes in the film resonated with me. For example, there is a scene just before the Message (as the transmission from Vega is called in the novel) is first detected where two of Ellie's assistants, Fisher and Willie, are on duty at the Very Large Array (VLA) monitoring the galactic frequencies. They are also busy carving pumpkins, so I guess we can assume the reception of the Message from Vega took place either on or around Halloween, October 31. Willie, with his face behind a pumpkin, asks Fisher what kind of person he thinks would have the best kind of lifestyle and career to be an astronomer. When Fisher says he doesn't know, Willie ducks out from behind the round orange vegetable and shouts "Vampires!" while flashing a set of plastic fangs.
When I saw Interview with the Vampire (6) at its
release in 1994, I remember thinking on the way home from the theater how vampires would
indeed make wonderful astronomers. Staying up all night is certainly not a problem (it's a
must!), and once you've gotten a quick bite to eat, the rest of the evening is free for
observation. Please note I am not condoning vampirism; I am merely using the
aforementioned scene as an example of how Contact resonated with me from the
largest to the smallest levels of my philosophies and other modes of thought.
"There are people who unknowingly shape you, whose chosen paths in life and work you recognize and lay claim to as your own. There are film-makers whose voices you look to while discovering your own personal obsessions. Their stories are your stories; inside their images you catch your own face." -- Jodie Foster
Did Contact get across Sagan's ideas on the Cosmos? Overall, yes, it did. Sagan's strongest contention was always that finding intelligent life beyond Earth will be the most important and significant event in human history and will change us forever, hopefully for the better.
To quote the man: "In a very real sense this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future - in a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of." (Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Carl Sagan, Editor, 1973, MIT Press, "Introduction", pp. ix-x)
It is a true shame Sagan neither lived to learn if there really is intelligent life elsewhere, nor see Contact come to fruition as a film. Born on November 9, 1934, he died on December 20, 1996 from pneumonia brought on by the disease myelodysplasia. At least Sagan survived his illness long enough to see several of the "smoking guns" for the existence of ETI: The discovery of exoplanets (worlds orbiting other stars) and the possibility that life once existed on Mars from the evidence of microfossils in several Martian meteorites. Contact did make it to the big screen after almost two decades of development. And no one would contest that Sagan led a rich, full, and wonderful life made all the better by the sharing of his knowledge and talents with the rest of the human species, as he liked to call us.
Ellie Arroway certainly embodied that view, devoting her whole life and even willing to risk that life to find the answer to that question. Many of her comments came right from Sagan's mind, and Ann Druyan confirmed that what was said did indeed sound like her husband.
I really love Contact, if love can be ascribed to a film. Perhaps what I loved
best about it was seeing a serious attempt by Hollywood at portraying the discovery of
extraterrestrial intelligence and the consequences from this for humanity. I also loved
seeing and hearing some real astronomy and science on the big screen for a change.
However, as with any serious relationship, or the testing of a scientific hypothesis, one
also has to be honest about the flaws in the object of such attentions to eventually find
the truth and grow with the results. Here I shall detail where I felt that Contact
did not connect with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and Sagan's
The greatest flaw I found with Contact was the Message itself. Even when I read the novel I felt that this is not how a real message from an alien civilization will be received by humanity. Of course you may rightly be thinking, how would I know what an ETI transmission will tell us? The answer is I cannot be certain by any means. But I have studied the concept for a long time and I suppose my ideas can be as valid as anyone else's on the subject, considering what little hard evidence we have at present. However, there are laws of physics, biology, logic, and even psychology that do dictate some parameters in this Universe. They are what I base my ideas on this subject.
My disagreement with the Message is not in how it was sent to Earth. Many scientists have long considered radio waves to be the way we will likely first learn of ETI. The idea goes back to the earliest days from the invention of radio. In 1959, a paper published in Nature magazine by Philip Morrison and Guiseppe Cocconi kicked off the modern SETI era. These two Cornell University scientists proclaimed that we might detect signals from another civilization in the Milky Way galaxy by examining the neutral hydrogen line of the radio frequency spectrum, 1420 megahertz (21 centimeters). Here the Universe is a relatively quiet place, should one desire to either broadcast or listen for artificial transmissions in that region. Hydrogen is also the simplest and most abundant element in existence.
Morrison and Cocconi assumed that any intelligent beings familiar with radio astronomy would know this region. Thus, any technological civilizations communicating with microwaves across the galaxy might do so through the hydrogen band like a Cosmic Water Hole. Radio is indeed a relatively simple and inexpensive way to communicate through interstellar space. Anyone wanting to talk from one star system to another would prefer to do so through bands that have far less natural microwave noise than others. It is also far easier to search a few potentially rich regions than the entire radio spectrum.
As a counterpoint, there are those who think we would have better luck (and receive much more information) by looking not in the microwave region but in the optical wavelengths. Dr. Stuart Kingsley of Columbus, Ohio, contends that a truly advanced culture would not use primitive radio waves but rather sophisticated laser (visible or infrared) beams. My readers are invited to explore Dr. Kingsley's Columbus Optical SETI Observatory Web site at the URL http://www.coseti.org for more information on the subject. Advanced ETI could also send messages using directed gamma ray bursts, neutrino beams, and other methods which we might have no way of detecting at our present technological level.
For now, though, microwave SETI dominates the field as it has done for decades. When most people think of searching for intelligent beings other than via spaceships, a radio telescope is the usual image and symbol that comes to mind. I would say that since we have rather limited ideas on how ETI might be signaling us -- or inadvertently sending us their technological "leakage" as we do -- it would be prudent to search for them with as many methods as reasonable and feasible at our disposal.
In the film version, the Message was sent on the hydrogen line at 4.4623 gigahertz, a frequency which equals the hydrogen line frequency times the value of pi (in the novel, it was broadcast at 9.24176684 gigahertz and also on the 1667 megahertz hydroxyl (water) line). One thing the film skipped on that was in the culmination of the novel was the significance of pi, a transcendental number (3.14159...) representing the ratio of the circumference of the diameter of a circle. The ETI said there were clues to the actual "creators" of the Universe buried deep within this infinite number, which the characters began to find after some intense computer number-crunching at the end of the novel. This entire concept is skipped in the film, thus I wonder why the frequency was times pi, other than if an intelligent civilization was deliberately trying to get our attention with a beacon, then the stronger the signal the better. Besides, the film more than made up for discussing God and Creation all over the place in the plot, so who needed a little cosmic supernatural "wink and nudge" at the end?
Since I will say up front that I do not think the Universe as a whole was created by any particular intelligence, I was always somewhat surprised and bothered by Sagan actually saying there was a message from "God" in the value of pi. Even if he meant that a highly advanced, non-supernatural race did the actual construction job, I could not believe he was falling into the ranks of those who feel such a vast and complex structure as the Universe could not have come into existence without some intelligent help. Perhaps I am the one who is too conservative here, but I find it beyond credulity that every minute to immense aspect of existence came from a single or even multiple creators. The first questions to ask of this proposition are, where did they come from and how were they brought into being?
As if to answer my question, the September, 1997 issue of Astronomy magazine (7) contains an article on the theory that "baby universes" could someday be created in the laboratory of our very advanced descendants. Needless to say, this is highly theoretical and not a new concept, but it does make one wonder that if we could conceive of such an idea, could it be that our Universe is the result of some lab experiment from another universe? If so, then Sagan's creator theory at least has some tentative solid ground to stand on. Nevertheless, call me unimaginative if you will, but I still hold with the view that the Universe came into existence on its own without any "helping hands" or other appendages, until the day there is evidence to the contrary, if ever.
It should also be noted that the Astronomy article's baby universes were immediately
cut off from our Universe after they were created, with no information as to their fates
or any way for their inhabitants to know of us. Apparently the ETI who made the wormhole
transit system disappeared a long, long time ago, possibly into another universe. I guess
they found a way to bridge the gulf between universes. Of course our Universe is a very
big place and they could well be in a really distant part of it which even the ETI Ellie
makes contact with have not yet explored. One hundred billion galaxies in an area roughly
thirteen billion light years across is nothing to sneeze at.
No wonder pulsars were thought to be artificial signals from ETI when first discovered in 1967. But they proved that a regular rhythm detected from deep space does not necessarily mean an intelligence is behind the noise. On a grander scale, this shows how humans have a tendency to think that some form of creative superconsciousness causes unexplainable phenomena. The ancients thought lightning bolts and meteorites were messages and gifts from the gods. Percival Lowell (1855-1916) thought that the straight lines he perceived on Mars were huge artificial canals made by a sophisticated race of ancient beings trying to get water from the poles to their dying cities at the equator. The "canals" turned out to be optical illusions from the imperfect views of natural surface features.
In more recent times, when gravitational lens arcs were first found, some considered the possibility that they were seeing massive astroengineering projects on a galactic scale. They were soon shown, though, to be the light from distant galaxies bent around galaxies closer to Earth and between our line of sight to those more distant star islands. At present, some consider gamma-ray bursts to be artificial in origin, perhaps the exhaust from antimatter (mirror matter) powered starships or even the signs of a major space war! Exciting as these possibilities are, more than likely gamma rays too have natural origins, such as the collision of two neutron stars, which are hardly boring in their own right. This does not mean we should not investigate all reasonable possibilities, however.
This leads me to an issue I mentioned earlier and wish to expand upon, one that has bothered me since first reading the novel. Near the end of both the novel and film version of Contact, we learn that the Universe is not empty of life beyond Earth. Indeed, the aliens Ellie encounter tell her how they are restructuring major portions of the Cosmos to keep it from succumbing to entropy. For example, the radiation spewing from the center of the Milky Way galaxy is due to one of their current projects. Apparently ETI of equally high capabilities are conducting similar "save the neighborhood" activities in their own galaxies. And let us not forget the mysterious super aliens who built the wormhole transit system and perhaps the entire Universe and left messages of conscious intent in various mathematics.
To top it all off, the aliens declare to Ellie that the one thing they have found in all the Cosmos that keeps them alive and together is the bond of love to fight against the overwhelming emptiness and cold indifference of the inanimate existence at large. William Hurt's character came to a similar conclusion in the 1981 film, Altered States, after taking a mind-altering trip back to the very beginnings of space and time and finding nothing but "atoms and the void", to quote the ancient Greek scientist Democritus of Abdera, who lived in the Fifth Century BCE. (8) Humans are social creatures. What other reaction could be expected by our species to being alone with the unfamiliar?
I am bothered by this portrayal on two levels: That many celestial phenomena we see are actually the results of alien construction efforts and that ETI need love to survive and thrive. As for the first matter, this element only bolsters the convictions of those who see intelligent handiwork in every aspect of existence. I know you can say that Contact is a novel of science fiction, meaning the author has every right for numerous reasons to go beyond the bounds of what we consider reality into grand speculation. I tend to agree with this.
The issue I have here is that Sagan's novel went beyond being just another action-adventure work of the genre. In many respects, until Ellie and her companions (there were four additional star voyagers in the novel version) are whisked off to meet the ETI who signaled from Vega, the story is a fairly realistic portrayal of how humanity would deal with a message from alien beings as seen through the scientific, religious, political, cultural, and social realms. Sagan got in many good points he has made about humanity and the Cosmos over the years through the story. It is apparent that he wants them to be taken seriously by his readers. Therefore, when we come to the realization that the Milky Way is not just a happenstance event, the reader could conceivably end up believing that the Universe is one big testing laboratory and playground for the more advanced ETI.
Perhaps this is pushing things a bit and that most of the people who would read such a tome by a scientist such as Carl Sagan would know where reality ends and unproven speculation begins. But I know I have had my fill of the human race believing that every object and event is from the mind of some superior being or beings, based largely on emotional "feelings" rather than any real evidence. This has gone on for thousands of years and, despite our expanded knowledge and technology, has yet to show any significant abating with the majority of folks. That is what makes this major plot point so ironic for me, as Sagan has stressed through most of his life and in this work that it is time for the human race to grow up and stop hanging on to the metaphorical mother's skirt. In other words, face the realities of the Universe as they are and mature with them through our own efforts and abilities as human beings.
The novel considers growing up for humanity to be joining the large collective of alien intelligences, which permeate the galaxy and beyond. The Universe is not a big, scary wilderness of emptiness and danger. Indeed, the more advanced species are fixing it to make things better for their existence. The whole thing probably came from even more powerful entities which left their signatures in the framework. Forgive me for more seeming lack of imagination (I assure you, though, I have a very good one when the need arises), but all the evidence we have, small as it may be, is that this vast star island we reside in is not filled with Kardashev Levels Two and Three aliens (able to utilize and reconfigure whole solar systems to the galaxy itself, respectively).
Perhaps I am just being a romantic explorer-adventurer, but in some ways I would find it disappointing to learn that the galaxy is not a vast wilderness untouched by intelligent appendages throughout most of its makeup. Certainly alien life could reside on individual worlds around many stars, but is all of it aware of each other and working together in some type of "Federation"? The evidence is far from clear on this matter.
To add another set of questions: Contact states that the Universe was created by some powerful and presumably very wise beings eons ago. Since the Universe was deliberately made, one can also presume that these beings wanted existence to be the way it is. So why should other lesser ETIs feel they can muck around with the celestial furniture? How do they and we know that what is perceived as a cosmic flaw might actually be a design feature? Why aren't these creators stopping the little inhabitants of their creation from messing up the place? Or at least made it so that they could run around in the various "rooms" but not extend to doing any galactic reupholstering? I suppose you could say that the creators wanted their creations to evolve and change things as part of their development plan, but again I think it shows the flaws in the theory that the Universe was consciously formed, at least in reality. Unlike in Contact, there are no craftsbeing's "signatures" in the cosmic framework, neither in pi or anything much less obscure. Remember Occam's Razor, which the film loved to quote: The simplest answer to a problem is usually the best one.
The second point is that the ETI, for all their incredible wisdom and technology, need companionship and love just as much as we puny, primitive hairless apes do. Once again we are placing human needs and values on an alien species. Granted, certain physiological aspects for being an intelligent life form may be a prerequisite, such as consuming nutrients, reproducing, and so forth. I know that fear is an important mechanism for keeping an organism from getting into harm, and feelings of being alone are meant to tell social creatures to get back with their group.
However, can we assume that all ETI would react to the empty spaces of the Universe with loneliness and dread? Imagine a civilization of machine intelligence where logic and order dominate over more base emotions. I doubt they would feel alone and empty in the void.
Sagan was involved in the development of the ETI in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. He was tired of seeing aliens depicted unimaginatively in most science fiction films or reported in alleged UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) encounters as either humanoid embryos or reptiles. Therefore in both cases it was decided not to display the ETI running the shows. (9) A wise move in one sense, but the human was not entirely taken out of the alien. In Contact they still behaved like humans. I do not mean because they took on a human form (Ellie's late father, Ted), but because they admitted to feeling overwhelmed and alone in the big Universe and needed each other for comfort and safety. Does this mean that all intelligent beings are naturally social creatures? It seems that way on Earth, but who says this applies elsewhere? It is hard to know with a sample of one, but evolution could easily create beings that do not need others of their species for companionship, protection, or even reproduction to survive and thrive. This is certainly the case with some less sophisticated life forms on our planet, so why not out there where the numbers for variations on the theme are vast? I know that sexual reproduction provides better and varied genetic material than asexual methods, but again, we are presuming from one example, Earth life.
Is there really anything inherently wrong with aliens who admit to being alone and afraid? Of course not. My issue here is that we are once again projecting human values on others. Perhaps this is an instinctive trait to try and make the unknown seem familiar to us and therefore less dangerous, but it may not reflect humanity.
We once thought we were the literal and spiritual centers of existence. As our knowledge grew, we gradually came to learn that we are but very bit parts in a play beyond measure. Yet we still want to think that anyone out there won't really be too different from us. I tend to think this is one reason why we have not yet detected any ETI: That it IS very alien from us, that just because we are searching for them does not mean they are all doing the same. Of course with all the millions to billions of alien possibilities in the galaxy alone, there could well be some races which do want to find other intelligences using their own active and passive search programs. These are the ETI we will most likely find. But if highly intelligent beings could develop right on Earth - whales and dolphins - which we could never discover with our current SETI methods because they do not communicate with technology, then just imagine what dwells on the planets of other suns and why we would need to go there directly with starships to ever find them. (10)
This all leads me to wonder: Do we REALLY want to find other intelligent beings in the Cosmos and take them as they are (likely non-humanoid), or do we just want creatures who might have pointier ears and wear different clothing styles, but are otherwise just like us deep down? No wonder Star Trek is so popular. Their aliens really aren't alien, they just sort of look like they are.
Of course I know I want to know if ETI are out there for sheer curiosity, an important
start to a much longer and wider process of knowledge. I will take them as they are,
though naturally I would be happier if they didn't try to conquer or kill us. I know many
other SETI scientists feel this way too. It is hard to overcome millions of years of
instinct even with our large brains, but we must begin to accept the Universe as it is,
warts and all, or we will either end up stagnating and die or kill ourselves outright.
I was thankful to see that the ETI in Contact caught Earth's attention with the use of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and one), which cannot be generated by any natural means that we know of. Then there is the scene of the visiting Senator asking why the aliens didn't just speak English and making a blank stare when Ellie told him that prime numbers were an easy way to let the radio astronomers know that the signal was not a natural one. In the space of one minute, this scene deftly exposes two flaws among the less educated masses. The first is the view of most United States citizens that English either is or should be the first language of every culture (shall I presume that the Romans felt this way about Latin with the world of their era?). The second are the lacking levels of scientific knowledge with many politicians.
I will spare my readers from going into a diatribe on the frustrations and outright dangers of having politicians and others with more clout than education deciding the fates of SETI and space development. I think Contact did well in expressing my views on this problem, not to mention I am sure that most of my readers already feel the same (or at least you should). These people are literally deciding the future of humanity. Thus their actions should not be taken lightly, especially in a democracy where everyone has a voice and a vote.
Okay, so it was a small diatribe.
Another good move was the sending back of the television broadcast of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Nazi leader Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) as one of our first representatives into the Milky Way galaxy? Unthinkable but true. I only wish I had not known this scene was coming (due to the novel) to feel the full impact of surprise that many theater audience members expressed when they and the film characters realized that the initially fuzzy black shape was a swastika grasped in an eagle's talons.
I believe Sagan used this fact to make aware to those who produce and transmit our television and radio entertainment that their audience is possibly far wider and larger than they can imagine, thanks to the microwave leakage displayed at the very beginning of Contact. Perhaps a few of them (besides PBS) will try to show the Universe at large that not everything about the human race is relentless advertising, lame sitcoms, and cheesy movies of the week -- but neither am I going to hold my breath waiting for that day to come from the mainstream media. Money is a far greater concern to most of them than impressing our galactic neighbors (or humanity) with the good traits we do possess.
Of course we can take some comfort from the knowledge that any ETI encountering our technological leakage will not completely understand what they have picked up from distant Earth. There is conjecture that the reason we have not heard from anyone out there yet is that they already know of the human race through our radio and television leakage and want nothing to do with us because of what it contains.
Perhaps, however, we are being too rough on our young selves. SETI scientists would be thrilled to detect an alien civilization by their own leakage and would not be too concerned, at least in the beginning, if that leakage contained either noble qualities or cultural dreck. Of course, who is to decide what is treasure and what is garbage when it comes to another society? Any good anthropologist knows that the trash created by a community tells you far more truth about themselves than any carefully written records or monuments. (11)
Going back to the Olympics scene in Contact, I am puzzled as to why the ETI would want to use that television broadcast among their first transmissions to Earth? They certainly understood the conquering and oppressive nature of the Nazi regime in the novel. They comprehended humanity's good and bad natures in the film as evidenced during Ellie's meeting with the ETI on the "beach". As "Ted" said: "You're capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares."
Why, then, would they want to present us with such a threatening image as Hitler if they knew what horrific evil he represented to most of Earth? Despite Ellie's protests that the ETI probably did not fully understand the leakage they were receiving from us, I could also empathize with those in Contact who were paranoid about the ETI finding the Nazis to be an "appealing" culture to them. If the ETI were trying to send us a "warning" against such behaviors as conducted by the Nazis, then perhaps they should have done so later in the "discussion".
Still, if the ETI in Contact knew what the Nazis meant to humanity, then they should have left it out of the Message and gone with the next strong television transmission as stated in the novel, the Coronation of Great Britain's King George the Sixth (1895-1952) in 1936. Or even more appropriately, the broadcasts from the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. Not only would the Fair have been preferable in terms of its more global significance, but Sagan himself attended it at the age of five. You can read more about this in the first chapter of Cosmos. Sagan also made an allusion to this event in his early life in the novel when Ellie was fantasizing about others' lives just before being whisked away by the Machine. Sagan was that young boy from "darkest Brooklyn".
But let's face it, neither King George nor the World's Fair would have had nearly the
dramatic impact that showing Hitler in front of a swastika did. Plus we also have to keep
in mind the message Sagan was trying to convey about our leakage and the fact that real
ETI might have no idea what the 1936 Olympics broadcast was actually about: Showing the
world how superior the Nazis thought they and the Aryan race were over everyone else. In
light of the Universe at large, their claims would be almost laughable if not for the
horror and tragedy their warped philosophies and actions caused to Earth in the Twentieth
Century. I did not blame Michael Kitz at all for being angry that this broadcast was
one of our first impressions sent into the galaxy, even if it was unintended microwave
There were other aspects regarding the Message I was not pleased with. The fact that The SETI Institute itself commented on them (http://www.seti-inst.edu/phoenix/contact.html) shows some glaring gaps in the scientific authenticity that Sagan tried so hard to maintain. I know that film aesthetics sometime need to rule the day in order to make a film both palatable to normal sensibilities and not be unbearably long. However, since Contact was already trying to portray itself as a different kind of motion picture from the usual summer fare, why not go all the way with its science?
For example, 2001 was one film that decided it was not going to follow the pack and stuck rigorously to the science in it. Granted, there were some errors, but they were more from the imperfections that appear in any complex human endeavor and the limited knowledge base of the middle 1960s. Director Stanley Kubrick chose not to cave in to some money-focused producer wanting flashy but unrealistic space battles and the usual ilk of the lesser science fiction films. Or perhaps 2001 was a one-of-a-kind project. I know I have never seen another such motion picture equal what it accomplished almost thirty years ago, and this includes its 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. (12)
But this Contact decided not to head for home, to use a baseball term. It copped out where things counted the most, in the reception of the Message. For one, the Very Large Array was chosen more for its "sexy" appearance than for the fact it is four times smaller in microwave collecting area than the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico (We first meet Arecibo -- and Ellie as an adult -- when she wishes for a bigger antenna as a young girl). (13) This means that the VLA is not as sensitive to detecting narrow band signals as Arecibo would be, and that is certainly a critical factor in conducting SETI.
At least in the novel, Project Argus consisted of 137 radio telescopes in Cyclops fashion. (14) I know that the National Science Foundation (NSF) was building "45 brand new dishes" as stated by Ellie near the very end of the film, but that is too late for the initial reception of the Message. Besides, it still only comes to 72 radio telescopes, 65 short of what Ellie got to use in the novel.
Not only did Ellie use a radio telescope system that was not entirely sufficient to the task of finding an alien civilization, but she went about searching on her own in a way that was also less efficient. Frequently we saw Ellie sitting on the hood of her car in the midst of all those imposing VLA dishes, usually at dusk or dawn, listening for that golden signal wearing a pair of headphones. The computers, which sift through all the interstellar noise, are far more capable of finding an artificial, non-terrestrial signal than Ellie ever could with her limited mental capacity. This is no offense to her abilities. Our organic brains do not work the same way or as fast as a mechanical computing system.
Carl Sagan argued with Robert Zemeckis about this very bit that it was not how a real SETI scientist would go about searching for an ETI transmission. Zemeckis countered that while doing it the "real" way would please perhaps a dozen radio astronomers, having Ellie search on her own with those big, black headphones wrapped around her cranium would attract thousands of children into the field.
I am certainly all for directing our youth towards the sciences, not to mention expanding their perspectives on the cosmic scale. However, I must raise my objections again to Contact's director sacrificing reality for the sake of looking good dramatically. Apparently Zemeckis does not consider radio astronomers to be an economically and politically important enough group to please. He also makes an underlying statement that how these scientists do their jobs is not very exciting to the rest of society. I do indeed hope that many young (and older) people who see Contact will be inspired to pursue careers in astronomy and other space sciences, but somehow I don't think that Ellie in a Field with Headphones will be the real clincher. This image is certainly one of the most portrayed, though, whenever a representative scene is required for the film.
Of course it is both entirely plausible and Ellie's right that she just wanted to listen to the stars on her own. This is in the same vein that even though I could easily select thousands of books, articles, and films on Earth's natural satellite, Luna, to learn its every intimate detail from dozens of spacecraft that have been there, I still deeply enjoy observing our moon with my humble pair of 7x35 binoculars and 3-inch Newtonian telescope. To see Luna up close with my own eyes has an emotional power and visual clarity that no glossy photograph or list of facts can ever truly duplicate. Indeed, I honestly believe that if more people looked at the night sky through a telescope, with a little time and practice, there would be many more astronomers and folks in general who have a better appreciation as to our true place in the Universe. I also like to think that such celestial views would make humanity a better species in general. I can dream, can't I?
Ellie seems to feel the same way about studying interstellar radio waves. As she said
to Kent Clark about listening to the stars on her own, "it makes it feel more
real." One gets the impression that for all the superior efficiency of Project Argus'
sifting computers, she does not entirely trust a non-human (i.e., non-emotional and
non-intuitive) machine to find that ETI needle in the galactic haystack. As Star
Trek's most famous Vulcan, Spock, once said, it is not logical, but it is the human
thing to do. Ellen wants to listen in for herself, even if she only has a 0.1 percent
chance of actually detecting an artificial ETI signal via the headphones. Of course that
is apparently just what she does with the Vega transmission, seemingly even before the
When real celestial signals of possible ETI origin have appeared in the past, most often the researchers discovered them while scanning printouts of data recorded hours and even days earlier. This is what happened with the famous Ohio State University (OSU) SETI project's "Wow!" signal of August, 1977. (15) These days there is a concerted effort by the major SETI programs to alert the project scientists to potential ETI signals as soon as they are detected. By catching the signal quickly, they can at the least determine more accurately if it is of human origin, which is most often the case (human civilization is very noisy and growing more so with each new day). Of course what all SETI scientists want is that piece of solid evidence from someone with an intelligent mind but not of this Earth. This means that their signals have to repeat to be proven alien.
Another real gaffe is how Ellie and her team handled presenting the Message to humanity. They spent a relatively short amount of time determining where the signal came from. Then Ellie decides that "everybody" should know about it. Overall it is correctly argued that an ETI message would not likely be meant for any one particular person, organization, or nation on Earth. However, there is an actual list of protocols designed to ensure that the signal really is from an extraterrestrial intelligence and that the rest of humanity is told in a fashion that would make the news as easy to deal with as possible. This is vitally important for a race that has never dealt with other beings beyond Earth and is still struggling with conflicts among its own cultures and technologies that not everyone comprehends or knows how to use wisely.
A signal that appeared to be of ETI origin would be scrutinized very carefully to ensure it was not of terrestrial make or some natural celestial phenomenon. Then the discovery is brought before the proper scientific and government institutions for their scrutiny and decision on how best to present this historical event to the rest of humanity.
Ellie risked two possible dangers by flinging out her ETI find to Earth at large: Even though Ellie did make checks on the signal's place of origin, if she were ultimately proven to be wrong about its alien nature, the science community would dismiss her as an unprofessional reactionary in a field that many still find to be on the fringe of "respectable" research. Ellie could have doomed both her own astronomy career and all future support for SETI. Then the chances of finding out if ETIs really do exist would drop to near zero for a very long time.
The second danger is telling a society that might not handle well the news of a superior civilization essentially hovering over their heads. Evolution has designed us to be wary of unknown factors. It is always safer to assume that an unfamiliar creature is a potential threat so that we can protect ourselves in case that the being in question IS a danger to us. We can always come out of hiding or stop shooting later if they turn out to be benevolent -- not to mention still alive and not upset with us if we decide to attack first and ask questions later.
Despite the view of scientists such as Sagan that truly hostile ETI would wipe themselves out long before they could spread into the galaxy, the pervasive mindset of the masses is that aliens are conquering monsters just waiting to pounce on us and take over our luscious planet Earth. Of course there could be ETI which want to have the Milky Way all to themselves -- and who is to say that humanity is not a prime candidate in that category? But the vast size and resources of our galaxy leave me doubtful that every hell-bent alien wants Earth above all other rocks in space. We just cannot seem to let go of that ancient, narrow, and very wrong view of being the Center of Everything.
Besides, if another civilization did want our planet, it would be a relatively easy matter to just drop across Earth a number of targeted planetoids or comets plucked from our own solar system and wait for the dust to settle before moving in. No fancy laser weapons or messy nuclear bombs are required. The fact that we have not been attacked in this manner leaves me to believe that such belligerent aliens either do not exist or are at least unaware of our presence.
I am also aware that an alien culture could develop and work together as a unit on a high technological level (like social insects, but with machines) and still want to conquer the Cosmos. I am reminded of the Borg from Star Trek in this example. The Borg view is that they are the supreme species in the galaxy. Not only does this entitle them to whatever technologies and resources they desire, it also gives them the mindset that every other intelligent being in the Universe should become just like them. One can hope for our sake that the Borg remain only works of fiction.
Though it seems unlikely to anyone with backgrounds in astronomy, biology, and space engineering that some ETI could pose a threat to Earth, most of the public is not trained in this manner. What they know of space comes mainly from the kind of science fiction films that Contact is not: Light on science and heavy on the melodramatic action. Even if ETI are not hostile to us, if they are far in advance of our civilization, there could be a culture shock. People could look upon the superior knowledge and accomplishments of another race and wonder why they should even bother to strive for anything if someone else has already done it.
Many religions hold the belief that they alone are the chosen ones of existence. Their lack of adaptability to such a radical update to the human knowledge base could easily throw their members for a devastating loop. All this time they thought they were only children, the special favorites of their benevolent Father. Now another race of beings whose high intelligence cannot be denied (as many still do with whales and dolphins) comes along. Are THEY also God's favorites, or perhaps even more favored than their slice of humanity? Just imagine the pandemonium if the aliens declare that they know of a better deity (or deities) and think we should join their church! This is hardly an uncommon event in human history, to be sure.
Though I think that the human race will be able to handle the discovery of ETI overall -- barring an outright threat -- SETI scientists must be cautious in their research and reports. One thing Contact did capture right was the human reaction to the ETI. Only humanity could take such an amazing event and turn it into a circus, between the flakes surrounding the VLA and the inane comments from the talk show hosts and journalists. Note that Ann Druyan made a brief appearance as one of the commentators during the scenes of the many televised folks talking about the Message (She was the smiling brunette in the upper left corner of the four-split screen scenes, if memory serves). Besides being a clever cameo, perhaps Druyan's appearance also served to add some signal to the noise humans always seem to make when discussing subjects they are most passionate about. I wonder if Carl Sagan would have made his own cameo, had he not been so ill during the film's production?
Human beings like to protect themselves from unknown and frightening events by trying
to "put them down" with humor and simple explanations. The latter usually
involve imagining a conscious mentality behind the unknown. Our ancestors began this by
thinking that natural phenomena mysterious to them were the acts of spirits and gods.
Today we consider ourselves more sophisticated, by blaming strange lights in the sky and
abduction stories on alien visitors. While I am not questioning whether intelligent life
exists beyond Earth, I do not care to see modern day people simply slapping the alien
label on strange things they do not understand. First we hoped that a variety of gods and
goddesses would save us from our wretched, short lives. Now many think that aliens will
save us from the current mess we are in. Unless there is one heck of a surprise coming our
way, only humanity can save itself from extinction.
Of all the elements in Contact, it is the Machine that symbolizes for me where the conjectured need for melodrama ultimately conquered realism in the story. I know the Machine also exists in the novel, but this does not lessen my point. All too often most people think of disc-shaped spaceships landing in the desert or on the White House lawn as how we will make first contact with an alien race. While granted this does not happen in Contact, the creators still felt a need to have some physical presence of the ETI beyond the radio transmissions to make that "connection" between Earth and whatever is out there.
I have two problems with the Machine and the scenario: I doubt this is what will happen when we do receive a message from space. I am also disappointed that the filmmakers copped out again when it came to crowing about Contact being a "realistic" science film.
Of course I have no actual idea what the contents of a real message from an ETI would be, but I can consider some realistic possibilities. First we must consider the fact that if there are other civilizations in the galaxy, not many may be trying to deliberately contact humanity. For if they were, I say by now we would have some pretty strong evidence of their methods to gain our attention. In the event there are some ETI sending beacons our way, it is likely that the first signals would contain basic information about how to send and receive transmissions and perhaps some information on the senders themselves. The Contact scenes where the transmission begins with prime numbers to show that the signal is artificial in nature is both logical and realistic.
There is also the possibility that will we pick up ETI transmissions that are
essentially the same kind of electromagnetic leakage we have been sending into space with
our everyday technological lives for decades. These noises certainly will not be meant for
us and finding them will be serendipitous. On the one hand I would give better odds to our
detecting that kind of ETI signal than a beacon aimed at Earth, if for no other reason
than technological societies would logically spend far more time talking to their own
members than sending messages into the unknown. However, the fact that their destinations
are not Earth automatically lessens their signal strength and thus their detectability
across interstellar distances. Other than letting us know that we are not alone in the
galaxy, such microwave signals may be indecipherable for a very long time.
The existence of the Machine did serve one good purpose in our world: In Sagan's attempt to have a scientifically plausible ultrafast transportation system for his characters, he enlisted the aid of astrophysicist Kip Thorne to come up with the method. Thorne's response was to conjecture an artificial wormhole where the holes would be enlarged and kept open (natural wormholes are very small and unstable) by a very advanced race using "exotic matter" to keep the wormholes stable and usable.
Theory is always fun and much can be learned from it. However, to say that a wormhole could be kept open by a highly sophisticated intelligence using some undefined form of complex matter, for me they might as well have said it works with magic fairy dust. I am well aware of Arthur C. Clarke's quote that a highly advanced society's technology would be indistinguishable from magic to primitives like us. Nevertheless, we cannot advance ourselves if we answer every question we have by saying it is (or is like) magic (or God did it) and leaving it at that. We must strive to find the truth behind the mysteries of existence, or we will dwell in ignorance and stagnation forever.
Of course a truly advanced society that can manipulate an entire galaxy would have abilities and technologies far beyond current human comprehension, but I dislike seeing scientific theories skating so close to the edge of becoming supernatural magic. It is said that science fiction is just a modern form of the mythologies humanity has loved to spin out for centuries to explain the world around us. There is nothing inherently wrong with a good story, but I would like to think that as we approach the Twenty-First Century, explaining the workings of existence without resorting to deities or mysticism is something that more authors would be comfortable with by now. This comment is not directed at the creators of Contact per se. I know they had to come up with some kind of plausible explanation for Ellie to be transported to Vega and back within a matter of seconds and not end up invoking a wizard waving a magic wand. But then my whole argument is that the Machine should never have been necessary in the first place with a "realistic" story about alien contact.
So what kind of story do I consider to be realistic? Not that I know of every ETI novel and film in existence, but my choice would be James E. Gunn's 1972 science fiction work, The Listeners. Here the aliens contact Earth to give us all their history and knowledge in order to preserve as much of themselves as they can before their star Capella expands into a red giant and renders them extinct. These ETI do not intend to conquer the human race. They do not possess starships with warp drives or subspace radios. The transmissions between Capella and Earth move at the speed of light and no faster (a message from Capella takes 45 years to reach us). The story therefore stretches over hundreds of years, as a real two-way communication between distant star systems would take.
If an ETI were transmitting to Earth in a deliberate and non-hostile attempt to communicate, the message contents would most likely be about their culture and what they know of the Cosmos. Preserving themselves by sending this information to other star systems is also plausible. We have done this already on a small scale with the Pioneer plaques, the Voyager records, and the Arecibo radio message sent to the globular star cluster Messier 13 in 1974. Our microwave leakage might also be considered cultural preservation on a galactic scale of a sort.
The Listeners serves as a good example of an ETI contact story which did not involve alien marauders or even a spaceship and still remained suspenseful, intelligent, and scientifically plausible. Even Carl Sagan praised the novel. His words adorn the cover of the paperback version I own. I do not know when he wrote them, but it certainly could have been before Contact was even conceived. (16)
What matters is that Gunn portrayed how our first contact might actually happen and
unfold. People should be made aware of this so that they do not have any more unrealistic
expectations of what is out there than what they already do. SETI searches can be
seriously harmed by lack of support if the public is expecting the Mothership to land at
Devil's Tower instead of a faint whisper from deep space.
It was obviously done to heighten the ongoing debate between faith and reason, which means that once again the filmmakers sacrificed realism while trying to make a point.
Speaking of the Machine's cost, if S. R. Hadden has that kind of money, resources, and influence to build two Machines, I am surprised the man doesn't just take over Earth. Then again, maybe he did, but was far more subtle and benevolent about it than, say, Hitler. In our world, there are a number of individuals with lots of money and power who have made serious contributions to SETI, but I do not believe any one individual could ever reach Hadden's level.
I also have a problem with how quickly these Machines were made. It seems like only months passed between the time of the Vega Message and the Machines' construction instead of the years it should have taken. Now it is the realities of time that were sacrificed to satisfy the filmmakers' need to keep the plot moving along.
And why two? Other than Hadden's snide comment about governments spending more money
whenever the opportunity arises, one seemed sufficient for the purposes of the film plot.
Did Hadden anticipate problems with the United States' Machine? At least in the novel the
reason was that rival nations wanted to build their own Machines (the Message was
receivable everywhere Vega was visible from Earth) and meet the ETI first, plus gain any
advanced technological information that the Machine had to offer. Having a second Machine
ready to go when a religious fanatic blew up the first one seems too much like a deus ex
Regarding the cyanide tablet that the Machine equipment person gave to Ellie: I have no practical problems with that concept, for they had no real idea what would happen with the pod other than it was somehow going to be sent with Ellie into the galaxy. If she found herself marooned in interstellar space with no way to get back to Earth, it would be a more suitable route to go than a slow, agonizing death. Or if by some remote chance the ETI had unpleasant intentions for Ellie, this might also be the better way to end it all.
At the time, no one had any idea that the Machine was part of the aliens' artificial cosmic wormhole system, which could whisk Ellie to distant points in the galaxy and back almost instantly.
My issue with the suicide pill is that they made the statement about it being a top secret standard issue item for astronauts since the beginning of the space program. Not only is there no validity to this, but my main concern is that now viewers will come to believe that such a thing is carried onboard all manned space missions.
As a case in point, the Apollo 13 astronauts were asked many times, after returning from their near-fatal mission to Luna in 1970, if they had suicide pills in the event they were stranded in space. All of them strongly denied it.
If they had been permanently stuck in the void, Commander Jim Lovell said he would have kept the spacecraft and crew going as long as possible, then let the air slowly leak out of the ship. This way they would merely be rendered unconscious before death occurred.
Another reason why I do not believe our astronauts ever carried any such means of killing themselves (I do not know about the Soviet cosmonauts, but I will assume the same is for them): Especially in the early days of the space program, the astronaut corps was made up primarily of jet test pilots. These are men who looked death in the face and always tried to do everything possible to get out of a dangerous situation alive before giving up the ship, as it were. Suicide would be a very last resort measure. Indeed, these men would rather have died while trying to keep their craft from crashing than just quit.
I know that the U-2 pilots who flew over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s carried cyanide tablets (Francis Gary Powers was supposed to have used his, but either did not or was captured before he could do so). However, these were top secret spy missions where giving information to the enemy was the worst thing that could happen. The men and women who explore the heavens are doing it in the best interests of everyone. They too are generally not ones to give up in a crisis without exhausting every other possibility first.
One more comment regarding the provisions they had for Ellie to take aboard the pod:
Ellie may have been right in one sense to protest taking any medical kits, use a special
chair, or have anything else not recommended in the Machine blueprints, but I also think
the Machine project planners were only being sensible and cautious for Ellie's comfort and
safety. Considering how rough a ride she had in that wormhole, I was a bit surprised that
the ETI did not try to pad the walls or provide their own chair, at least.
For a film about space with Carl Sagan as its creative source and consultant, one would
expect the astronomical aspects of it to be quite accurate. Happily, this is the case in
the majority of instances where celestial objects and events are presented. The following
are some selected examples from the film.
Accurate astronomy is prevalent right at the very start of Contact with the incredible opening sequence as we travel from Earth into the Universe with our microwave leakage. Numerous real celestial objects, such as the Eagle Nebula (Messier 16) with its incredible black pillars of star-forming gas and dust (image courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)), were seen in all their glory as we passed them by, though naturally at speeds far beyond those achievable in reality.
You can find cels of these scenes in the September, 1997 issue (Number 71) of Cinefex
magazine, which contains an excellent article on the film's special effects. Since I do
not know when or if a Making of Contact book will be produced, this Cinefex
article could be your best source on the subject. For more details on this quick tour of
the Cosmos, see the section The Opening Sequence.
One night Ellie is conducting her SETI research at the Arecibo radio observatory with Kent Clark. She detects a suspicious signal that the computers quickly determine is a pulsar (a rapidly rotating neutron star, the remnant of a star more massive than Sol that went supernova) named J1741+2748, discovered on November 4, 1982. I looked for that particular pulsar in the online Princeton Pulsar Catalog. No pulsar with that designation exists, according to their records. There is a pulsar with the very close name of PSR J1741+2758, discovered in 1995, but nothing matching the pulsar named in Contact. Perhaps the neutron star did not want its real number used in the film. At least the writers got the astronomical naming scheme correct.
You can read more about the real pulsar at this Web page URL:
Shortly thereafter, a group of other astronomers working with Arecibo arrive at the station. Clark introduces them to Ellie and briefly describes what they are studying. One scientist named Chris is studying the black hole at the center of M87. Messier 87, also known as Virgo A, is a gigantic elliptical galaxy some sixty million light years from Earth. It may hold up to three TRILLION stars, as compared to "only" four hundred billion by our barred spiral Milky Way galaxy.
M87 does have a very active nucleus emitting a long jet of gas and radiation into intergalactic space. It is believed that a black hole (a star that has collapsed into a singularity, leaving a gravity well from which even light cannot escape) of some three billion solar masses is the source of all this activity. If one goes along with the workings in the Contact universe, though, it may well be just another astroengineering project conducted by many ETI civilizations working to keep the Universe from expanding into nothingness.
Another scientist named Eli is studying Markarian 541, which is only described as
"a major gamma-ray source". Markarian 541 is an active galaxy about which I
initially found very little information, including confirmation that it really is a major
source of gamma rays. I did find some data on it in the last group of a long list of
Markarian galaxies at this Web page URL: http://crux.astr.ua.edu/keel/mkn.cat
Some more familiar heavenly bodies are mentioned when Ellie and Palmer Joss are sitting out under the stars with the Arecibo telescope in the background. Ellie is pointing out constellations to Palmer, of whom I get the impression is not terribly familiar with the night sky. Ellie remarks on Cassiopeia, one of the northern circumpolar star patterns easily recognized as a large W-shape (or the letter M, depending on the time). The Cinefex 71 magazine article on Contact describes how the special effects experts made the star patterns match what one would really see in the sky, in deference to Sagan. I think it is something they should have done regardless of who was advising on the film.
This constellation is named after the Greek mythological queen Cassiopeia, wife of King Cepheus and mother of Princess Andromeda, who have their own star patterns nearby. Cassiopeia was bound to her throne to forever circle the north pole star with her head downward. This was her punishment by the Nereids for her boast of being more beautiful than all the Sea Nymphs. I am not quite certain if there is a symbolic connection between Cassiopeia and Ellie, except perhaps that Ellie tended to be punished by the Establishment for declaring how much more important searching for extraterrestrial life was over the other fields of astronomy.
For more information about the constellation Cassiopeia and its various parts, refer to this Web page URL:
As Ellie was describing Cassiopeia to Palmer, she mentioned how that area of the sky had a supernova remnant she often listened to. That radio source is known as Tycho's Supernova Remnant. It is named after the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who witnessed this stellar explosion on November 11, 1572. Considered the finest sky observer before the age of the telescope, Tycho wrote a paper on his studies of the supernova and published it in 1574. This work did much to prove that the event was located deep in space and not part of Earth's atmosphere, as comets were often thought to be in his era. The supernova also turned Tycho's interest from alchemy back to astronomy, to the benefit of future astronomical research.
For more information on Tycho's Supernova Remnant, including an X-ray image of this object, refer to this Web page URL:
After Ellie described Cassiopeia to Palmer, he asked her what drew her into astronomy. Ellie explained that one night when she was eight years old, she asked her father, Ted, about a certain bright star looming in the evening sky. He said it wasn't a star but the planet Venus, a world "filled with deadly gases and sulfuric acid rain." This realization so intrigued Ellie that she was hooked to the Cosmos from that day on for the rest of her life.
This scene contains some good meaning for the film and us. Before the Space Age, Venus was once thought to be an abode of life like Mars. Those thick clouds hiding the planet's surface led to wild speculation about steaming swamps full of reptiles and stranger creatures. In 1960, Carl Sagan wrote his dissertation on the possibilities of life in the Sol system. In the section on Venus, Sagan claimed that the second world from our sun is much hotter than most scientists believed at the time. Sagan said this was due to the greenhouse effect, where solar radiation penetrated the planet's dense clouds but could not escape back into space. As a result, the surface temperature built up far past the limits that any Earth-like organisms could survive. (17)
Sagan was widely applauded for this discovery. In a sense, Venus helped launch Sagan on his way to become one of humanity's most famous scientists. You can see parts of Sagan's actual dissertation from the University of Chicago at this Web site URL:
Sagan's Venus theory was proven correct when the Soviet Union's Venera probes landed on Earth's nearest planetary neighbor and reported a global surface temperature of 475 degrees Celsius, or 900 degrees Fahrenheit. These short-lived landers also let scientists know that the surface air pressure was ninety times greater than what we experience at sea level! This is equivalent to being approximately one kilometer under the oceans. The atmosphere itself is composed mostly of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. These elements gave further support to Sagan's greenhouse theory of why Venus is a perpetual furnace.
In 1993, I published a three-part series on the exploration of Venus by the robot probes of the Soviet Union and the United States. I invite you to read them to see how we came to shed the mysteries of this shrouded world at these Web URLs:
It is ironic that Sagan, a man who devoted himself to finding life beyond Earth, was the one who determined that life as we know it could not survive on Venus. Sagan also determined that the Mars features which changed shape and color as seen through telescopes were due to sands being shifted around by the winds, not masses of plant life growing and dying with the Martian seasons, as many others had thought. This is the hallmark of a scientist who is willing to change his theories in the face of new and stronger information that contradicts his own.
I would like to think that Venus was chosen for Contact as the celestial body that launched Ellie into her lifelong passion for astronomy because it was the planet that also helped to bring Sagan into the limelight. His popularizing science is what gave us so many wonderful gifts of knowledge, including Contact.
For more information on the fascinating world of Venus, check out this Web site URL: http://www.seds.org/nineplanets/nineplanets/venus.html
For a new book on the planet that is both very informative and entertaining to read, check out David Grinspoon's Venus Revealed. Grinspoon even conjectures that some unusual probe data taken at certain layers of Venus' atmosphere may be due to a form of life that can survive in the less severe regions of the planet's clouds. There is a wonderful Web site on the book at this URL:
The astronomical star of the show was naturally Vega, the place where the Message was transmitted from. This star has had a long and prominent affect on human history and astronomy. The Babylonians called it the Messenger of Light. To the Assyrians, it was the Judge of Heaven. The Chinese called it the Spinning Damsel. She was separated from her lover, the star Altair, by the river of Milky Way stars. However, they were reunited once each year by a living bridge of magpies. All of these names are certainly appropriate in context with Contact. This includes the Chinese one, if you look at it as Ellie wishing to reunite with her deceased father.
The name we currently call it, Vega, comes from the Arabic word for the Plunging or Swooping Eagle. It is also known as Alpha Lyrae, being the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra the Lyre. This was a stringed instrument, like a harp. Legend says the lyre was invented by the Greek god Hermes (called Mercury by the Romans) as a gift to his half-brother, Apollo. He in turn gave it to Orpheus, the musician of the Argonauts.
Vega was the first star to be photographed. At the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, astronomer William C. Bond and professional photographer J. A. Whipple used the fifteen-inch refractor telescope to take a one hundred-second daguerreotype exposure of the star on the night of July 16, 1850.
As seen from the night skies of Earth's Northern Hemisphere, Vega is a star right out
of Hollywood's Central Casting. During the evening months of summer, this zero magnitude
star is positioned directly overhead at the zenith as part of the famous Summer Triangle
of bright stars, which includes Altair and Deneb.
Vega was Earth's north celestial star fourteen thousand years ago. Our planet undergoes precession, or wobbles on its axis, due to the gravitational pulls of Sol and Luna. Over the twenty-six thousand years it takes Earth to make one complete precession, a number of prominent stars get to become our north star along the way. Polaris holds this honor now. Vega will become the north pole star again in twelve thousand years.
Vega is the fifth brightest star as seen from Earth's skies. It is three times as large and massive as our sun. Burning at a surface temperature of 9,900 degrees Kelvin, Vega is fifty-two times more luminous than Sol. Being a large blue-white A0 Main Sequence V star, Vega burns its nuclear fuel faster than our sun, so its estimated lifetime is "only" two hundred million years. By comparison, a yellow dwarf star like Sol should last for ten billion years before swelling into a red giant on its way to becoming a white dwarf. It is not considered that Vega would ever have time to form any kind of stable system of planets, let alone have life evolve there.
The distance to Vega is currently determined to be twenty-five light years and four months from Earth. This translates into 230 trillion kilometers, or 149 trillion miles. The former distance to Vega was placed at twenty-six light years (including in the novel and film), but this was before the European Space Agency (ESA) released in June of 1997 its precise star measurement data made by the Hipparcos satellite. Our Sol system is actually plunging through the Milky Way galaxy in the direction of Vega at the speed of twenty kilometers per second. We will arrive where Vega is located now in about 390,000 years.
The main reason Vega was likely chosen as the star where the ETI transmitted from was due to the discovery made by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in 1983 from Earth orbit. IRAS detected a debris disk around Vega, the first ever witnessed. Astronomers theorized that our Sol system and others formed from the condensation of interstellar dust and gas called protoplanetary disks. The center of the disk collapsed into a fusion-powered star. Debris knots in the outer parts of the disk turned into the planets, moons, and minor bodies.
It was thought that the debris seen circling Vega was evidence of a solar system in the making, short-lived as it may be on the celestial scale of stellar events. This meant that if Vega had such a disk, perhaps then other more stable stars also formed planetary systems in this manner, which in turn could have organisms evolving upon them. While it was not the same as finding either actual extrasolar planets or life, it was an exciting step in that direction.
Other protoplanetary disk discoveries from the IRAS data soon followed, but Vega was remembered as being the first. This major astronomical find of the early 1980s is probably what inspired Sagan to make Vega the place to locate the ETI's interstellar listening post for the novel, which was published in 1985.
In the film, when the Message is first picked up by Ellie's team at the VLA and its galactic source determined (they got its right ascension and declination correct, by the way), the staff debates whether the signal could actually come from Vega. The star was rightly considered to be too new and surrounded by debris. They speculate that perhaps any ETIs in that system are just visiting and possibly using "laser blasters and photon torpedoes" to keep the gas, dust, and rocks from causing a fatal impact with their starship. In the novel, the ETI satellite orbited Vega so as to avoid the debris disk.
There was one thing that Sagan and the other astronomers of the 1980s did not know about Vega: The debris disk might actually be just the star's equatorial region bulging out from Vega's very rapid rotation rate. In 1994, Canadian astronomers discovered that Vega was rotating once on its axis every eleven hours, instead of five days as previously thought. For comparison, our sun rotates along its equator once every twenty-five days. This caused its poles to flatten and its middle to extend outward. They also determined that one of Vega's poles was pointing towards Earth, not its equator. So while there may be many stars with early planetary systems throughout the Milky Way galaxy, Vega no longer appears to be among them. Of course, with the pace of new discoveries in astronomy these days, this too could change in the near future.
For more information on the "star" of Contact, refer to this Web page URL:
In Ellie's flashback scene of her father's death, the night began with Ellie standing on the balcony of their home, excitedly watching a meteor shower in progress. Using the biographical data on Ellie spouted by S. R. Hadden during their first meeting aboard his private jetliner, Ted Arroway died from his heart attack ("by myocardial infarction") on November 10, 1974.
I looked into when any meteor showers might have been occurring during that time in November. The Leonids are the major such shower in that month, lasting from November 14 to 20, with its peak on November 17 and 18. There are a few minor showers that do fit into the November 10 timeframe, but this would appear to be a major one, judging by how many bright meteors Ellie saw in such a short time period. If they were witnessing the Leonids, then the peak was apparently a few days early. At least it was a good night for observing, with Luna in a waning crescent phase just one day away from becoming new. I assume and hope the two telescopes on the balcony with Ellie were meant for viewing other celestial objects, as meteors move much too fast to normally be either seen or tracked in most telescopes. Unaided vision is best for watching meteor showers.
For more information on the Leonids and the other meteor showers of November, see this Web site URL:
As I described in the section on The Machine, artificial wormholes were "invented" by astrophysicist Kip Thorne, thanks to Sagan's search for the characters in Contact to have a plausible way to zip around the galaxy at superlight speeds without violating the laws of physics, at least not too terribly.
Natural wormholes may have been created after the Big Bang, which began the Universe roughly thirteen billion years ago. Whether this actually did happen or if any still exist is a matter of speculation. A wormhole would provide a space-time shortcut between two otherwise very distant places in the Universe. The problem is that natural wormholes are entirely too small for star travel, according to current theories. A very advanced technical civilization could find the means of widening these wormholes and keeping them open, or even creating their own. This is apparently what the Universe creator race in Contact did. Of course such concepts are very theoretical and well beyond our present capabilities. But I always hesitate to say something is impossible unless proven as such.
For more information on wormholes, see these Web site URLs:
For related matters, namely black holes and neutron stars, see these Web sites:
Sagan originally wanted to use black holes as the aliens' space transit system, but soon realized any travelers would be stretched and crushed into oblivion. So he settled for intergalactic artificial wormholes. For more of my thoughts on the wormholes in Contact, see the section on The Machine.
"Do we, holding that gods exist, deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams and lies, while random careless chance and change alone control the world?" -- EURIPIDES, Hecuba
"Is man one of God's blunders? Or is God one of man's blunders?"
-- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Unless you really were not paying attention during Contact, or failed to read any number of reviews and summaries on the film, one cannot help but notice that a large amount of the plot was devoted to the struggles between the rational, objective methods of searching for answers to existence called science, and the general acceptance of things as they are without questioning called faith and religion.
In one sense I understand why this battle between the two disciplines, which goes back to at least the dawn of civilization, is a part of Contact. Christianity and some other religions have long maintained that Earth and humanity are the literal and spiritual center of the Universe. We are the only intelligent, non-supernatural beings made by God in all of His Creation. Since we were less than perfect, God decided that we needed some guidance along the way. We were saved about two thousand years ago when God gave us His only Son, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins at the hands of the very humans He wished to save from oblivion.
There are no other intelligent organisms anywhere else in the Cosmos because the Christian Bible never refers to any ETI (not counting Ezekiel and his fiery chariots). However, very few people grasped the concept of alien worlds and life when the Good Book was written thousands of years ago. God sent out His Son only once to save souls. Jesus would need to appear and die again and again for imperfect races on countless planets throughout space if aliens did exist. Not a terribly "dignified" concept for the offspring of the Ultimate Being in the Universe. Certainly it is no more dignified than the idea that humans evolved from lower life forms over four billion years of evolution on Earth.
With this mode of thinking, it is easy to see why certain groups would have more than a little problem with the discovery of an alien intelligence. If such beings do exist, then does that mean their long-held beliefs are wrong? Disrupting a large number of people's faith is not a lightly taken matter.
But this is now the late Twentieth Century. We are only a few years away from the start of a new millennium. In the two thousand years since Christianity first appeared as a radical Jewish sect in the Middle East, much has been learned about the world around us. We know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that our planet Earth does not occupy the actual center of the Universe. It is just one planet circling an average yellow dwarf star. Our Sun, as bright and powerful as it is in our sky --- not to mention vital to Earth life --- is but one of four hundred billion such luminous gas balls making up an island of stars we call the Milky Way galaxy. Billions of planets may be orbiting most of these stars. Nor is the Milky Way a unique celestial construct. Hundreds of billions of star islands populate our immense Universe. The Milky Way is just one component of a Local Group of galaxies, which in itself is an unremarkable part of a much vaster galactic supercluster. There is even the theory that our Universe may be but one of an infinite number of universes beyond our own.
How does a Judeo-Christian God fit into the human species and our world, now that we know it is not some unique realm in the scheme of things? Will He have to change just as our worldview has? Or does He now only exist in the human mind, and probably always did? This can explain why most of the faithful go right on believing, even after centuries of one celestial displacement after another. Rational thinking has always been far less comforting than the blanket acceptance of existence as stated by society's chosen authorities. This also makes for a less than flattering statement on the state of our education system.
The previous examples bring up the reason why I question the relevance and amount of film time devoted to the tenets and differences of faith and science. We know that Earth and the Sol system are not the only collection of planets in the galaxy. Evidence keeps mounting that life may be commonplace throughout the Universe. We are no longer all just primitive farmers and warriors wondering about those lights in the night sky and fearing every celestial, meteorological, and geological event out of ignorance.
As for Contact itself, it was no longer an issue that intelligent life exists beyond Earth. Despite Kitz's attempts to discredit Ellie's ETI signal discovery as a Hadden hoax and her wormhole encounter as a delusion, it has already been shown that not only did Ellie meet the intelligence behind the Message and the Machine (the eighteen hours of static on her video unit when she seemed to have gone nowhere in the Machine pod), but that the signal did come from around the star Vega and not some Hadden satellite in Earth orbit.
We are left with the question of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Does this Supreme Being exist in reality or not? I think this whole area was given far too much time. Contact is supposed to be about the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligences and how humanity deals with this revelation.
Now naturally a religious element to this event is going to be involved, as it is a large part of most human mindsets and cultures. Some belief systems will be vindicated by the proven existence of ETI. They will serve as a sign to these sects that God is indeed most powerful by creating many worlds with diverse forms of life upon them. Other groups could be torn apart by their rigid dogmas if alien life is not one of the accepted concepts.
The whole issue of faith versus science felt forced in Contact, especially with the presence of Palmer Joss and his debates with Ellie. Perhaps a separate film should have been made just for these issues. Palmer and Ellie could have a series of formal debates arranged by the National Science Foundation and the National Council of Churches (NCC). Most of their conversations on this subject came across in this manner anyway.
"Believing" there are ETI is not the same as believing in a deity. Granted, there are plenty of people who take it on faith alone that aliens are not only real fellow members of the galaxy, but are also visiting and interacting with humans on a regular basis. However, actually attempting to either prove or disprove their existence is feasible, both with SETI programs and space probes. But as for God, just as Ellie could not contact her deceased parents with her short-wave radio, neither can we aim a radio telescope heavenward and hope to pick up a booming male voice identifying itself as the Supreme Being.
God is a subjective concept, one that cannot be measured by any scientific devices. But does this mean that He (or She? Or is gender even relevant here?) does not exist just because we cannot detect God as we could an alien intelligence? While that possibility is there, making this a non-absolute theorem, there is far more evidence that people's reported encounters with God or related supernatural beings are forms of wish fulfillment, tapping into areas of thinking new to them, and outright delusions rather than reality. A good scientist would need more than just someone's word to decide if indeed God exists or not.
This also applies to ETI: While mysterious signals have been detected by SETI projects over the years which seem to be of alien origin (the 1977 OSU "Wow!" signal being a prime example), they have not repeated. Thus the researchers cannot make any definite claims on the nature of these signals until they are found again and can be verified.
Case in point: While Ellie and Palmer Joss were in Puerto Rico at the Arecibo facility, Palmer relayed to Ellie how he had a personal experience that was so psychologically powerful to him that he could felt it could not be anything other than God contacting him. Ellie was not so sure that what Palmer really connected with was anything more than a part of his own mind. Palmer insisted that his feeling had to go beyond "mere" human thought, it was that strong to him. But the reality is, while Palmer may indeed have had an actual experience, there is no physical evidence that it was supernatural in origin. I refer back to my points on humans assigning conscious entities to events inexplicable to humans.
Then we come to Ellie's experience with the Machine. The film tried to force her experience into being something like Palmer's, one that could seemingly not be taken on anything other than the faith that it really did happen to her. It was almost insulting to throw in a few tidbits of proof at the end to show that Ellie's journey through space was real.
When the day comes that we do encounter an alien life form, especially an intelligent one, we will almost certainly know it. This will come from the rigorous testing that such evidence will undergo to ascertain its validity. Until then, scientists may assume life is plentiful beyond Earth because of the mounting evidence, but they will not say for certain that there is extraterrestrial life until there is undeniable proof.
As an example, take the case with the Martian meteorites ALH 84001 and EETA 79001. The tiny objects found in these rocks and reported in 1996 may be microfossils of Martian bacteria, but scientists will examine all the evidence thoroughly before coming to any conclusions. The scientific method may take longer than faith to find the Truth, but in the end, we will be on far more certain ground.
One more comment on the reference to religion in Contact: Where did they get the number that ninety-five percent of the human population believes in God? The statistic was said twice, as a matter of fact. Seeing as twenty-one percent of the population alone either does not believe in any deities or are members of a religion that does not involve supernatural beings, this number is way off.
Could those Let's Choose Who Gets to Ride in the Machine Committee members have been trying to yank down Ellie with this number? You know the old bit: Everybody else does it, why aren't you? They certainly seemed concerned that the finalist who did get to visit the ETI be a religious person as well. David Drumlin, being a much better political player than Ellie (then again, who wasn't in this film?), knew just what to say to get the coveted slot.
If you want to give an ETI an honest representation of the many aspects of our many human cultures, religion naturally has to play a role in this. But was it a truly necessary feature for the one chosen to journey in their Machine? Americans usually want their pioneers to be God-fearing (generally Christian) individuals as part of their makeup. But was it necessary when visiting an alien race which may have no concept of religion whatsoever? It seemed to be more for psychologically comforting the passenger and those sending them out into the unknown, rather than serving as part of an information exchange about humans. I also think many people believe in God and the supernatural more out of fear of the alleged consequences if they don't before anything else. What they have been taught since childhood is also a large factor in this behavior.
I have often wondered how an ETI would respond to the image of Christ Crucified as
being one of Christianity's icons of worship? Perhaps this is just a human reaction on my
part, but I think that any advanced beings, upon seeing this barbaric form of
torture-execution from ancient Rome in action, would consider the human race with extreme
caution, fear, and perhaps even outright avoidance. ETI would require a lengthy
explanation on the symbolism behind this image, and this could not come until after we had
at least a basic understanding of each other's languages. Thus I hope that abstract
religious symbolism would be relayed to our galactic neighbors well after we have
established a more generalized system of communication and exchange of knowledge. I know
they might have already picked up our uncensored microwave leakage, but one prays they
won't understand all of it and will ask for explanations first.
Much has been made about the characters in Contact, both as what they stand
for and the actors who portrayed them. Certainly a film starring a strong, intelligent,
and independent woman is just as uncommon in Hollywood as a science fiction film about
aliens who are not trying to take over Earth. But did Contact have realistic
characters, or just stereotypes to make its various points? I would have to say the answer
is both. Some characters are discussed primarily in the section The Meaning of the Names.
And now to analyze...
It would be hard (but not impossible) to imagine another current major actress who could portray Ellie than Jodie Foster. Even Sagan and Druyan said they had her in mind for a long time. Ellie is a very intelligent, single-minded, and driven individual. Though she had more relationships in the novel, no man is more than a temporary diversion to Ellie as she risks everything to reach that ultimate goal of contact. But does she want it with an extraterrestrial intelligence or her father, Ted, who died of a heart attack when she was ten years old, leaving a strong psychological shock that stayed with her into adulthood? When young, Ellie asked her father if she could reach her mother, Joanna (who died in childbirth), through her ham radio. When her father died, we saw Ellie trying to contact Ted on that same short-wave device. Naturally there was no one to respond. Add to this the priest with his banal and uncomforting response to Ted's death about God working in mysterious ways, and it is easy to see why Ellie clings so desperately to the Search for something or someone better "out there".
This is one of the issues I had with Contact: Is the film really about searching for ETI, or a woman's quest to regain her father and lost childhood? Granted this event makes Ellie a more three-dimensional character than most of the other roles in the film, but I can equally see the general audience thinking that SETI is not so much about finding what is out there than what is in the human psyche. Of course one of the Search goals is to learn where we stand in the larger Cosmos (refer to the earlier Sagan quote on this subject). However, if we make every human endeavor -- especially this one -- as nothing more than yet another way to make us seem like the center of the Universe again, then we have lost a very major point in searching for life beyond Earth.
I know much of Contact is about how the human race reacts to the discovery of ETI, but I am concerned that Ellie's reasons for hunting them may be blurred in the mind of the audience. I go so far as to say this could give fuel to those who constantly whine about focusing on human problems over exploring the Universe. If they see Ellie only as a person who desperately misses her father, then they could easily say all she needs is a good therapist, not a radio telescope. I hope I am just being overconcerned, but I could see this attitude extending to all astronomers and space explorers, that what they "really" want is right here on Earth. This may be true for some of them, but certainly not all. Many people want to know what dwells beyond our pale blue dot for the knowledge itself and the culturally enriching rewards an expanded perspective will bring. There are certainly enough people and resources that we can devote our energies to both uplifting the human condition AND exploring space. Those who cannot see this are only looking at one side of the picture. As with the Vegan Message, one needs to think in multiple dimensions and levels to comprehend the whole picture.
Is Ellie a truly strong person? She certainly has the arrogance to stick to her SETI guns when almost everyone else thinks she is wasting her time and career. But I was disappointed at how easily she became flustered and even tearful when confronted on her own beliefs and goals. You would think that after all her years of being put down for hunting "little green men" and not buying into religion, Ellie would have some ready-made answers and be almost numb to the conflicts by now. But most of the time Ellie acts as if she never had to deal with the issues before and came across as an unprepared and "emotional" female. Of course one could argue that many scientists in the field, both men and women, are not very socially adept creatures. I still think, though, my case stands that on a number of occasions Ellie did not come across as being a strong veteran of the SETI/science versus religion wars.
Some cases in point: When Palmer Joss asked Ellie if she believed in God, she was almost evasive instead of her later proclamation that she said what was truly on her mind rather than bull her way through as David Drumlin did to get that single slot on the Machine. Ellie was essentially in tears at the Senate hearings after her ride in the Machine. I know there was quite a bit of pressure upon her to prove an event that on the surface seemed to be only in her mind. But I also contend that if Ellie were a trained scientist, then she could have at least refuted Michael Kitz's claim that S. R. Hadden had set up the whole ETI encounter. A simple explanation that triangulating with another radio observatory (which they did when the Vega transmission was first detected) would have shown that the signal could not have come from a terrestrial satellite near Earth, to serve as one sufficient example.
How about when Joss told Ellie that he threw her the God question at the review meeting just to keep her from going on the Machine and thus leaving him, possibly forever? Ellie's reaction should have been to punch Joss' lights out, not look at him with weepy eyes of tenderness and gratitude. Why? Because her true life devotion was making contact with an ETI, not this pretty boy, New Age rhetoric-spouting preacher whom she slept with only once and barely knew before then. Maybe Joss thought he was in love with her, but the only real man in Ellie's life was long dead. (18) Joss took away her one (at the time) chance at meeting ETI/Dad. Forget that Ellie would have been killed instead of Drumlin if she had won the seat the first time. Neither of them could predict that incident. Joss stole her dream for his own selfish reasons and that should have made Ellie madder than hell. Instead she looks at him with an expression of love which I have a hard time believing could ever exist between two characters who probably have little more than a physical attraction to each other. Hardly a reason to lose a goal like being the first person to contact an advanced alien civilization. (19)
Here is another consideration about Ellie Arroway that I throw into the ring: Did the main role have to be played by a woman? Sagan created the character as female to encourage more women to partake in the sciences, which is certainly an important and noble goal. Ellie is not Jill Tarter, the Director of the SETI Institute's Project Phoenix, even though they are both women searching for ETI as part of a major, privately funded science program. In the book Carl Sagan's Universe, recently published by Cambridge University Press, Kip Thorne states that Ellie may have been based on Sagan's daughter, Alexandria, nicknamed Sasha. Thorne would know Sagan's family far better than I would, so perhaps he saw some of Sasha in Ellie, even though she is only a teenager at present.
There is also a good deal of evidence, some of it discussed elsewhere in this review, that much of Ellie is Carl Sagan himself. The novel bares much of this out. Sagan certainly went through many of the same steps that Ellie went through to become a professional astronomer. Her thinking on things is more often Sagan's than anyone else. This may be stretching it a bit, but Sagan was named after his maternal grandmother, given the anglicized name of Clara after she arrived in the United States from Europe. Clara gave birth first to Sagan's mother, then died from childbirth complications after having her sister. Ellie's mother also died giving birth to her. Details on this can be found in the beginning of Sagan's 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot.
All this begs me to ask my original question: Could a man have played Ellie's role just as well? I say yes. I know many would respond that there are more than enough white males heroes on the big screen and women need the chance to be shown a strong role model and that a career in the sciences is not the remote possibility it used to be in past decades. I agree with all this. However, this is really Carl Sagan's story with all his philosophies and goals deeply entrenched in both the novel and film. Remove some of the sexism comments and change the romantic partner (or get rid of the role completely) and Eleanor Arroway could easily become Edward Arroway (Sagan's middle name is Edward). After all, even this deepest of the Contact characters is overall a symbol of the pure scientist in search of Truth. Perhaps what I am hoping for is a film about Sagan himself. Contact was a good start, but it just scratched the surface that is Carl Sagan and his Cosmos.
I noticed a parallel between Contact and another recent film release which I must point out, if for no other reason than their uncanny resemblances to one another, especially with their main characters. The 1996 film Twister deals with a strong, intelligent, and independent woman of science from the Midwestern United States named Jo Harding, played by Helen Hunt (who bears a resemblance to Foster). Jo became obsessed with studying a powerful force of nature, tornadoes, due to a traumatic incident when she was young: She saw her father swept up and killed by a monster tornado that struck and destroyed the family farm. Hunt's character has spent her life since then, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else, trying to "capture" a tornado with the tools of science to better understand this phenomenon from the skies.
Jo is assisted in her quest by a dedicated team of young and geeky meteorologists. Her fellow rival (and well-funded) scientists think she is wild and unorthodox, perhaps even crazy. For Jo the ultimate goal is to get inside one of these wind funnels to know what makes them the destructive elements that they are. If she can accomplish this and wrest the secrets of nature from the tornado, she might also be able to get through her feelings about her father's death and move on with her life. As Contact did with astronomy, Twister contains a good deal of accurate weather science, though Jo and her team certainly do run into far more tornadoes in a relatively short time period than most storm chasers encounter in years.
Sound familiar? I am not saying that one film copied the other or that it matters even if they did. Heck, more films should try to be like Contact. I was just so struck by the parallels that I had to relay them here. Perhaps when Contact is available on videotape and laserdisc this December (conveniently right before Christmas), my readers can watch the two films in sequence to see the similarities for themselves. (20)
Perhaps there IS another reason why I am comparing Twister and Contact. Why do the two principal characters have to be so driven in their sciences and life goals by a traumatic incident from childhood? Why do such characters always have some hidden agendas for their motivations, as it were? I know this happens often enough in real life, but must it be shown as an example in films seen by millions of people? This is the same as the stereotype that all writers and artists are unhappy substance abusers due to dysfunctional childhoods.
Cannot for once we see a scientist or other creative soul motivated by their wonder and curiosity about nature? Carl Sagan's motivations for becoming an astronomer and SETI researcher were -- in addition to the wonder and curiosity -- loving and supportive parents (who lived long lives) and innovative mentors during his college years. Perhaps Hollywood does not consider this to be dramatic enough for film, but I say it would be a welcome change. There is enough real tragedy in everyday life without allowing it into our educational experiences as well.
Children are always in need of positive role models for their proper development. Eleanor Arroway as portrayed by Jodie Foster is sufficient for the role. Nevertheless, I am concerned that her obsessive behavior and emotional detachment from other people will send the message that "normal", happy, and well-adjusted women and men are not to be found in the sciences. Sagan was proof that you could have both a good scientist and a reasonably well-adjusted individual driven by wonder in the same human package. This is why I think there should be a definitive biography and film about the man. Contact was one step in that direction.
Ellie became the most like Sagan after her experience through the wormhole. At the end of Contact, we find her talking to children at the VLA about the radio observatory. Going to schools to educate the young on science and space was one of Sagan's deepest passions. He knew that instilling interest in this areas had to start in childhood, or it might never blossom in adulthood, a loss for everyone. Ellie's interaction with the children also seemed to indicate that she had finally overcome her self-imposed isolation from others. As Sagan did, Ellie now wants to instill her love and wonder of the Universe with others, especially the young. Sagan once said that when you are in love, you want to share this feeling with the world.
As an aside, I was disappointed when Ellie asked one child if he thought there was life
beyond Earth and his response was "I don't know." Since this took place eighteen
months after her journey and the Senate hearing, wouldn't there have been confirmation by
then that alien signals had indeed been detected, either from the United States Government
revealing the eighteen hours of static on her monitoring device in the Machine pod, or the
radio astronomers showing that the transmission had to come from Vega. Lord knows kids
don't pay enough attention to the news, but I would think this was something on a scale
where hermits living in caves on remote islands would be aware of. Add to this Ellie
saying it was the answer of a good skeptic, and I am further disappointed. The film just
wanted to keep plugging the Faith Versus Science angle to the end, despite all the
When Ellie first visited megabillionaire S. R. Hadden aboard his flying home after the discovery of the Message, he impressed her with his knowledge on Ellie's life. The following is a transcript of what Hadden said in the film:
"Eleanor Ann Arroway, born twenty-fifth August 1964 in DePere, Wisconsin. Mother, Joanna, died from complications during childbirth. Early testing indicated high predisposition towards science and mathematics. Father, Theodore, advised to provide enrichment activities along these lines, did so conscientiously until his death by myocardial infarction November 10, 1974. You graduated from high school in 1979, almost two full years early. Rewarded full scholarship, MIT, graduated Magna Cum Laude. Doctoral work, Caltech, where you did breakthrough work on the lansamine built ruby maser, dramatically increasing the sensitivity of radio telescopes. Subsequently, offered a teaching position at Harvard University, which you turned down, to pursue SETI work at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Changes in NSF policy gave rise to certain funding problems, at which point you came to my attention."
I could find no major events which occurred on Ellie's actual birth date, but I did learn of the following four space events that took place on August 25: In 1609, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) demonstrated his first telescope to Venetian law makers. In 1962, the Soviet Union launched an unmanned Venera probe to Venus, but it failed to leave Earth orbit. In 1989, Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to flyby the planet Neptune. Finally, in 1994, planetoid 1620 Geographos came within three million miles of Earth. Astronomers bounced radar beams off this minor body and discovered its very elongated shape, the longest yet known in the Sol system.
I wondered if Jodie Foster had been born on that date as yet another reason August 25, 1964 was chosen, but I found that she came into the world on November 19, 1962. This is ten days after Carl Sagan's birth in 1934. I did discover that actor Tom Skerritt, who portrayed David Drumlin, was born on August 25 in the year 1943! Perhaps this is why that date was picked (how ironic if so). Of course it could have been a date taken at random for all I know. (21)
I was pleased to see that Ellie's aptitude for science and math was discovered early and that her father supported her further education in this direction. His teachings were in evidence from the very beginning of the film. This should serve as an important lesson to all parents to encourage their children to learn about the world around them. Who knows, perhaps their offspring will be the ones who discover a real signal from an alien civilization or make some other great contribution to science!
Theodore Arroway's death date in connection with a meteor shower he and Ellie were watching (possibly the Leonids) is discussed in The Astronomy of Contact section under The Meteor Shower. The names of Ellie's parents are discussed in the section The Meaning of the Names.
Six days after Ted's film death, in our reality Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent a microwave message from the Arecibo Observatory to the globular star cluster Messier 13, twenty-four thousand light years from Earth. While it was primarily just a symbolic test of the refurbished system in binary code, if any ETI do pick up the Arecibo Message, they will learn basic information about Earth life, human beings, our solar system, and the radio telescope that sent this greeting to the stars. You can see the Message itself and learn more about it from this Web page URL: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap970717.html
I wonder if young Ellie learned about this event during her grief? Did this symbolic act of reaching out to other beings in the galaxy at such a critical time in her life somehow strengthen her resolve to become a SETI scientist? Or was it just one of many similar events which led Ellie to her destiny?
Ellie could not have graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Magna Cum Laude, as MIT gives no such distinctions. I guess Ellie was just so smart and impressive that they decided to make an exception in her case. Either that or they do give out such honors in the Contact universe.
Ellie's refusal to teach at Harvard University is an interesting parallel to Sagan's own experience with that Cambridge institution. He was denied tenure at Harvard, but was happily accepted at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1968. This was indeed a good move, as many prominent SETI scientists came from that school, among them being the pioneers Frank Drake and Philip Morrison. I also count this as more evidence that Ellie was really portraying Sagan in female form.
The ham radio call sign that young Ellie used, W9GFO, was originally going to be called W9GFZ in tribute to Grote Reber, a pioneer in radio astronomy in the 1930s and 1940s. The radio club station of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) also uses Reber's call sign. A man from Indiana named Robert Wilson did use the W9GFO call sign in the late 1930s.
It appears that it took a combination of both insufficient script writing and limited plausibility to take Palmer Joss, one of the most interesting and complex characters from the novel, and turn him into one of the least believable of all the Contact cast. In part I blame this on miscasting. I was hard-pressed to accept that this male model wannabe spouting vacant New Age rhetoric was charismatic and important enough to become the key religious and spiritual advisor to the President of the United States of America.
I got the impression that although he may be genuinely concerned about the state of humanity's collective soul, this Palmer Joss also liked to turn on his charm and sensitivity whenever an appealing member of the opposite sex came into his sights. Eleanor Arroway was the prime example of this behavior.
Remember, this is the man who said he dropped out of the (Roman Catholic?) seminary because he "couldn't live with the whole celibacy thing." I know from my own pondering about joining a religious life in my younger days that while the issue of no more sex is not one to be taken lightly (talk about going against one of the most basic fundamentals of human nature, the urge to reproduce the species), neither should it encompass one's entire reason for either pressing on with a religious calling or dropping out. This is one reason why I do not take the film version of Joss seriously as a major man of faith.
This leads me to yet another reason why I give the man so little credit. Joss appears to have two main purposes in the Contact plot: To represent those who believe and trust in a higher power on faith alone, and as a love interest for Ellie. As I said before, if he is the symbol of humanity's spiritual nature, then I have even less "faith" in its validity for existing. As for being someone who loves Ellie and receives it in return, I have my doubts that what they really feel for each other is anything more than the physical and chemical attraction which two young, good-looking, and intelligent people can often possess. Real love is something that takes time and more than a walk in the park or one night in bed to happen.
Joss is a token character when he should be almost as strong as Ellie. I know that Contact is not exactly in religion's court, but when you discover the depth of Palmer Joss in the novel, you will find how he and religious faith should have been portrayed in the film.
I was also surprised at how Palmer did not seem to grasp why Ellie would be risking her life to make direct contact with the ETI. Surely a truly devoted man of religion would give his life for God if the need arose. Perhaps because the ETI were "secular" to him, he could not see anyone giving up everything for something that was not beyond physical reality. However, I contend that Palmer did not really understand either Ellie or the subject of her devotion. Another black mark against this supposedly important character.
For more comments on Mr. Joss, refer to the Character section on Ellie, the Names, and Science and Faith.
The French author and philosopher Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778) once said
that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In a film that stars an agnostic
and questions the existence of a Supreme Being in general, Hadden is essentially the
all-powerful deity of Contact. Like any good god, Hadden lives in the sky; first
in his private jet airplane, then all the way into Earth orbit aboard the Russian space
station Mir. He descends to Earth only when he has to communicate directly with his chosen
mortals such as Ellie. Almost everything seems to be within his capabilities. Among his
feats are finding the primer with the Machine blueprints hidden in the Vega transmission
("think like a Vegan", he advises Ellie) and building the Machine itself. Hadden
appears to know everything about anyone he needs information on, such as Ellie, and can
obtain access into her dwelling anytime he wants. (22)
In reality, wealthy individuals have and are currently supporting the various global SETI projects now running. Indeed, SETI is no longer funded by any governments. Any complaints these days by less than cognizant citizens about their tax currencies being thrown after chasing "little green men" are no longer valid, nor were they ever in terms of being considered a waste of money and effort.
The last government-sponsored SETI project was NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey,
or HRMS. NASA was afraid to have the word "extraterrestrial" in this long and
purposely bland name for fear of narrow-minded taxpayers and politicians cutting off the
money supply (one hundred million dollars over ten years of operation, less than the cost
of the 1995 film Waterworld). The trick did not work: Less than one year after HRMS began
on Christopher Columbus Day in 1992, Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada got NASA to halt all
support of any SETI activities they were funding. Thankfully, far-sighted SETI scientists
were able to keep HRMS alive, turning it into a private venture and renaming it Project Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rose
from the ashes. A number of millionaires and corporations made sure that Phoenix got off
to a good start and stayed afloat.
Contact audiences may now think that any kind of ETI Search and Contact will
have to involve wealth and power --- mere mortals need not apply. However, groups like The SETI League and Dr. Kingsley's Columbus Optical SETI Observatory have shown that any
competent individual with a good interest in the Universe and a decent observatory ---
microwave and visual --- can take their rightful place in searching for beings from other
Actor John Hurt is no stranger to aliens. As inquisitive astronaut Kane, Hurt had a close encounter of the most unpleasant kind with the main exobiological life form in the 1979 science fiction film, Alien. Fellow Contact actor Tom Skerritt (David Drumlin) also starred with Hurt in this film, playing Captain Dallas of the mining starship Nostromo.
Funny how both of Hurt's characters ended up dying aboard a spaceship, stuffed into a body bag, and laid to rest in space. No, I do not know for a fact if Hadden was ejected out of Mir, but it would be the logical course to take. Storing his body in the cramped confines of the Russian space station to await transport home probably would not be appealing to the living crew members. I also assume that since Hadden did not seem to consider Earth as his home any more, he would prefer to be "buried" in space, just as sailors are often buried at sea from their ships. Hadden would orbit Earth as an independent satellite until air resistance brought down his body, turning him into a brief, bright meteor as he entered our planet's atmosphere and burned up. A rather romantic way to go. (24)
The non-terrestrial creatures depicted in Alien, including the "space jockey" ETI in the derelict starship that housed the eggs, could indeed exist in reality. They certainly seemed both (exo)biologically plausible and alien enough from Earth life forms. I just hope our starfaring descendants are suitably prepared for a variety of possible alien contact scenarios as they explore and colonize the galaxy. Alien and its sequel films can serve as a lesson in this regard.
For other observations on S. R. Hadden, refer to the section on the Machine.
These two characters have been lumped together to show how though they may seem to be very different men, they actually share much in common. In particular, both are using their positions not so much to benefit their fellow men and women as they were meant to, but to further their own political ambitions. This is certainly one aspect of Contact regarding human nature that is sadly quite realistic.
Drumlin may be head of the National Science Foundation, but he does not hesitate to remove Ellie and her SETI research when he feels it is wasting time and resources for more potentially profitable science. But when Ellie does get a message from the stars, Drumlin wastes little time in using his NSF position to take the limelight from Ellie.
Kitz at first seems to be a man just doing his job as the National Security Advisor. It is only natural and right for him to question the intentions of the Message and the Machine. Having that Hitler broadcast among the first identifiable items did not exactly ease anyone's mind about the aliens' motives. But as events press on, we discover that Kitz intends on becoming a United States Congressman (despite his public denials), possibly as a step towards obtaining the Presidency. Publicly tearing apart Ellie and her story certainly got Kitz the recognition and power base he apparently craved all along. (25)
Though not as prominent in the film plot, Christian Coalition leader Richard Rankin represents the third part of this triumvirate of putting personal gain and power over their duties to humanity. Rankin naturally represents the religion branch.
There may have been another motive to their actions beyond the usual quest for becoming the Alpha Male, which most social mammals strive for. The ETI Ellie found are definitely superior to humanity. Had they wanted to, they could easily become either the single most powerful force on planet Earth, or remove humans completely. To men such as Kitz, who have probably never give much thought to anything beyond the national borders and terrestrial interests, this is a very frightening and unsettling prognosis. Their response quickly becomes one of either trying to repel or make friends with these aliens before they decide they know how to run (or wipe out) our civilization far more efficiently than we almost hairless primates.
Drumlin, Kitz, and Rankin's occupations should give them a much wider comprehension on society than most other folks. However, they instead show how limiting a one-planet culture can be in a Universe that is perhaps thirteen billion light years across and contains billions upon billions of stars, planets, and possibly other intelligences. They also display the fact that despite four million years of human evolution, we are still very much controlled by our ancient basic instincts to lead a pack, find enough food and resources to survive, and reproduce.
Humans are real professionals when it comes to either capitalizing upon or trivializing the most momentous events in our history. The ETI in Contact seem to have gotten past the attitudes of self-interest and power for its own sake. It is hoped that enough people will realize from their example that one can improve their own lives and their species without having to step on each other in the process. We have the awareness and abilities to make this possible.
For more insights on these just discussed Alpha Males, see the section on the Meaning
of the Names.
It is far from unusual that the names of characters in books, plays, and films have a special meaning to the individuals they are given to and the themes being presented. Contact was certainly no exception to this rule. This is especially true because, outside of Ellie, the rest of the characters were primarily just representatives of whatever aspect of society they were meant to symbolize. As I will present, there are deep levels of meaning for all the principal character's names, some of which were both pleasant and amusing surprises.
I first considered that Contact's cast had names of relevance upon seeing Ellie's last name, Arroway. One does not have to dig too deep to see that Sagan meant for Ellie to serve as an example of what humanity should be striving for and even how to live one's life - an arrow pointing the way. When I discovered that Eleanor is the Greek word for light, I was bemused how Sagan used such a strong religious overtone with Ellie being the Way to the Light, or Truth, a dominant theme in both the novel and film. For the record, her middle name, Ann, is the Hebrew word for grace and mercy. Certainly Ellie Arroway was a considerate woman who had compassion for the underdog, with a blessed future beyond her wildest dreams. Ann is also the first name of Sagan's third wife, Ann Druyan, who played a major role in the formation of Contact and his overall life.
Ellie's parents certainly do not escape having significant nomenclatures. Both Theodore
and Joanna are, respectively, the Greek and Hebrew names for the Gift of God. In addition
to their identical meanings, the couple brought into the human race a member that indeed
seemed to be a present from a higher power for the enrichment of the species. And perhaps
this is stretching it a bit, but to Ellie, her father Ted is one of the few things in her
life that approaches a deity, angel, or other supernatural being. This is in part due to
his early departure from Ellie's life and the subsequent mental pedestal she placed him
on. It is also a concept that took on a powerful meaning when she encountered him at the
other end of the wormhole.
Of course all of this was lost because Ellie never carried a palm frond in the film and the celluloid Palmer Joss was not nearly the character he was in the novel. One might make some kind of grasp at connecting the palm trees which blew about on the idyllic beach Ellie came to after her wormhole journey when she met her father's image. They were based on the symbolic picture she drew after her first ham radio connection with someone in Pensacola, Florida. It is a tie with her past and home on Earth, but still, it pales to the symbolism in the novel.
As for Palmer's last name, if Joss is a form of Joshua, then the Hebrew word meaning God is My Salvation certainly applies to the Palmer of both the novel and the film. For God is Palmer Joss' vision of the Ultimate Truth. And the Truth Will Set Ye Free -- or at least it is supposed to.
To focus briefly on the names of the lesser characters in the plot, I question if they were given their labels with any serious intent, but it was fun to see what appeared.
I doubt that either David Drumlin or Michael Kitz were meant to have symbolic names, unless a sense of irony was implied. David is Hebrew for Beloved One (and Drumlin was hardly loved by the others, especially Ellie) and Michael is another Hebrew word for Like God. Judeo-Christian religion is in for quite a tumble if Kitz is an accurate representation of God.
Kent Clark's first name is Welsh for Bright White. Kent was indeed a Caucasian male of high intelligence, but that name no doubt comes from the fact that he was based on Kent Cullers, the Project Manager for Project Phoenix of The SETI Institute. I also wondered if Kent Clark was a play on Clark Kent, Superman's human identity and alter ego? Kent did indeed have a hidden inner strength, despite his physical blindness.
I had the honor of meeting Kent Cullers in person at the Dedication Ceremony for Project BETA on October 30, 1995, when I was the editor of SETIQuest magazine (http://www.setiquest.com). BETA is the latest SETI project of The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan in 1980. Kent Cullers was a very kind and warm man. I sensed no pretensions about him. I think the producers did well in capturing his look and essence with Kent Clark.
The two religious figures have interesting names. Richard Rankin's first name is an Old German word meaning Powerful Ruler. Certainly as head of the Christian Right, he would hold sway over a large percentage of American citizens. However, I got the feeling that Rankin, as in a rank (bad) smell (something is rotten in Denmark), was meant to imply that the character and his organization had hidden agendas and ulterior motives. They were likely not for the benefit of either the scientists or the ETI. The fact that Rankin was played by actor Rob Lowe further cements this idea, adding a touch of derisive dark humor in the process. Rankin symbolizes all those in religion who have covertly turned their faith into a tool for secular political gain at the expense of the "true" believers and society in general. In the novel, he was a decidedly older man named Billy Jo Rankin, whom Palmer Joss once worked with in his fundamentalist Christian organization. The former head of the Christian Coalition was Ralph Reed, another name starting with the letter R.
Joseph is the Hebrew word for God Multiplies. This is indeed most ironic, as Joseph would be the last one of the bunch to ever think that God was anywhere or anything more than the Ultimate (and singular) Powerful Being of All Creation, meant solely for the human inhabitants of Earth. The fact that Joseph is never given a last name also implies that he serves as a representative of all religious fanatics who go to deadly extremes to prove their warped and narrow points of view. The type of deity that Joseph worships -- one that puts all its energy into the primitive inhabitants of a single planet -- exists solely in his strained mind and paranoid desire for a clearly defined meaning and purpose to existence, irregardless of its validity. Perhaps it is too much for some to realize that the Universe gives no ready answers unless one makes a serious effort to look for them. The ETI in Contact were not the kind of answers Joseph and his kind wanted. They already had the answers to existence, as far as they were concerned. Any others were blasphemy and only worthy of "righteous" destruction.
Rachel Constantine, the woman who quietly supported Ellie, has a very basic meaning to her first name: It is simply the Hebrew word for female. But perhaps that plain and rather obvious label is deceptive. Rachel could stand, perhaps even moreso than Ellie in certain respects (politics in particular), for what all women can achieve if they use their minds, inner strength, and some social savvy, regardless of their gender or race. She is an Everywoman. For the record, Rachel is also the first name of Carl Sagan' mother, who was born on November 23, 1906, and died on February 1, 1982.
Rachel did not wave her power around like the males of her Washington group did, but neither did she have to. For example, it only took the private presenting of a few simple facts about Ellie's galactic trip to bring Kitz down a notch or two. She did not have to do any posturing before Congress and the world as Kitz did with Ellie at the post-journey hearing.
As for Rachel's last name of Constantine, it may come from Constance, the Latin word for Constant or Firm, which Rachel certainly was. If it also comes from the great Roman Emperor (born circa 280, died 337) who made Christianity legal throughout the Empire and created one of the greatest metropolises on Earth for centuries, then one can find their own meanings from this.
I did not bother to focus on the names of the rest of the characters, as I did not feel they held any major significance like the truly main players. I will be glad to take corrections on this matter, though. (26)
Contact's music score came out just over one month after the initial release of the film. I could not remember much of the music from my first viewing of Contact. I often chalk this up to a soundtrack that blends in well with the images and events upon the screen, instead of being one that blares out at you, usually in an attempt to sell itself at the music stores.
I purchased the soundtrack almost to the day of its release, eager to see what I had missed the first time around. I was hoping for something reminiscent of the wonderful Cosmos soundtrack. Instead I heard music that somehow lost something in the absence of the film it framed. The music was certainly nice enough and obviously professional, but without the film, it just did not stand up on its own with much strength. The solo piano pieces were distinctive and capture the right mood of Ellie confronting both the loss of her father and the incredible significance of her journey. But the majority of the rest portrayed various scenes of action which without the film to accompany them, I was rather lost as to what I was supposed to be thinking and feeling when I heard them.
I guess in a film with such a heavy influence by Carl Sagan and with its theme of alien contact and heavenly wonder, I did expect something more like the music I heard in Cosmos. Instead I was left listening to a soundtrack that for me did not necessarily distinguish itself from the many other film soundtracks I have heard over the years. And I do like a good film soundtrack. In fact it does not have to contain such elements as singles that wind up on the Top 40 radio stations for the next six weeks.
I was also struck by how the soundtrack did not contain any dialog or sound effects from Contact, not even the throbbing Vega signal. By contrast, the soundtrack of the 1995 film Apollo 13 has loads of dialog which greatly heightens the listening experience for me. I do not have to guess what was going on in that film or what feelings I am supposed to possess when I listen to that soundtrack. Nor did Contact's liner notes contain anything special in terms of interesting messages, news, or other tidbits on the film. If this is a place in the film where Sagan and Druyan did not have much influence, it certainly shows.
I got the impression that, despite being released over one month after the film, no real care was put into presenting the music. If you want to hear what I am talking about with the Cosmos soundtrack, head on over to the following URL for some actual score samples, some of which were originally placed on the Voyager Interstellar Record in 1977:
To see the Contact compact disc cover (which has a color version of the film poster), music list, and some samples, try these Web site pages:
Composer Alan Silvestri has created a long list of film soundtracks dating back to the
1970s. He has done them for most of Zemeckis' films. Silvestri is also no stranger to
making music for films dealing with aliens, though only a few approach the quality and
serious level of Contact. They are Flight of the Navigator (1986), Predator
(1987), My Stepmother is an Alien (1988), Mac and Me (1988), The
Abyss (1989), and Predator 2 (1990). In the category of a young, strong,
intelligent, and independent woman who lost her family at a very young age, only to be
found and reared by a culture that is essentially alien to hers, I add The Clan of the
Cave Bear (1986).
As I wrote this article, I pondered the idea of how I might have considered Contact if I had never read the novel. Would I have been more or less critical of the film in some aspects? Should the two have been judged together at all?
To answer the first question, yes, I probably would have been less disappointed with certain places in the film had I never encountered Carl Sagan's novel, or most of his other works, for that matter. The novel was so rich in so many ways that the film could not be, due to its time constraints. Jodie Foster commented in an interview that had they followed the novel more faithfully, Contact would have become a twenty-hour miniseries instead of a 2.5-hour film.
I say they should have done just that. Other television series of similar length have been very popular with millions of people over the last few decades. James A. Michener's (1907-1997) novel Space, a fictional account of the Space Age mirroring real events, was turned into a miniseries in 1985. In early 1998, Home Box Office (HBO) is premiering a 13-hour history of the early days of manned spaceflight titled From Earth to the Moon. I think Contact would have done just as well in this format and presented many important scientific and philosophical concepts to millions of viewers, especially those who do not frequent movie theaters.
As for the second question, while Contact in both its written and filmed forms can certainly stand on their own merits, it should be noted that Contact actually began its existence as a screenplay around 1980. The concept had trouble finding backers, so Sagan turned Contact into a very successful novel. Ten years later, the efforts finally paid off and Contact was turned into a major film. The general success of the motion picture also put the novel back on the best seller book lists. (27)
To give just one example of what was lost from the novel to the film, take Ellie's journey through the wormhole to meet the ETI who sent the Message and the blueprints for the Machine. In the novel, she traveled with four other selected individuals, all interesting characters and representatives of various human cultures in their own right. Just as in the film, they wound up on an idyllic beach, where Ellie encountered an alien in the image of her deceased father, Ted Arroway.
However, their conversation in the novel was far more rich and fulfilling. All the effort, time, and money spent on the Machine and making contact felt much more purposeful. The ETI representative showed Ellie how they were literally reworking the Universe to keep it from expanding into oblivion. Celestial engineering efforts over one-half billion light years away were clearly visible to astronomers on Earth. Both sources did have the ETI declare that they were not the builders of the wormhole transit system, but the novel went on to say that the beings who made the tunnels also created the entire Universe and left its inhabitants messages in the very fabric of nature. These messages could be found deep within mathematical concepts such as pi.
In essence, we knew these aliens were powerful groups of many cultures living in a Universe made by even more powerful entities of unknown origin and destination. It was a high privilege for humanity that they bothered to let us in with them, even if it was only to let us know they exist for now. When you watch and listen to the conversation in the film, you get only a sample of what was said and done in the novel. I admit I felt a bit of "All that work and two hours of buildup just so Ellie could talk to her dad again and we get the message that they exist and will call again when they're ready for the next step?"
I know, however, that this is the wrong attitude to take. In reality, we will be thrilled beyond belief if just a faint hint of noise from somewhere in the galaxy says "We Are Not Alone". Look how excited humanity got over some possible microfossils in meteorites that might be from Mars. An event and journey like Ellie's is more than most scientists even dream will occur on the day that ETI are found. Of course the real messages of Contact are about putting us in our true place in the wider reality and how we will respond to knowing that Truth.
I know it seems I have spent most of my time griping about Contact the film, but I have not hesitated for a second to recommend seeing it to anyone. My complaints stem from my wish for the even better film that Contact could have been. Contact is more than just an above average film about finding extraterrestrial intelligence. It is a mirror on our society and our need to grow up and take personal responsibility as we emerge from the cradle called Earth.
I think Carl Sagan would have been pleased. After all, the film was for him.
I leave with these quotes to ponder:
"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not.
"William James used to preach the 'will to believe.' For my part, I should wish to preach the 'will to doubt.' ...What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."
-- Lord Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Skeptical Essays (1928)
"Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: There is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness."
-- George Santayana (1863-1952), Skepticism and Animal Faith, IX
Christiaan Huygens had his own ideas about what might be found on remote worlds. He wrote, after his discoveries:
"Now can anyone look upon and compare these systems (of Jupiter and Saturn) together, without being amazed at the vast magnitude and noble attendants of these two planets, in respect of this little pitiful Earth of ours? Or can they force themselves to think that the wise Creator has disposed of all his animals and plants here, has furnished and adorned this spot only, and has left all those worlds bare and destitute of inhabitants, who might adore and worship Him; or that all those prodigious bodies were made only to twinkle to and be studied by some few perhaps of us poor fellows?"
The Official Warner Brothers Contact Web site. Contains useful SETI and exobiology information in addition to promotion of the film.
Contact.Base.Org. One of the best Contact Web sites I have seen. Contains the complete novel in Microsoft Word 6.0 format and the film script, among other useful goodies!
The Dr. Carl Sagan Honorary Web Site. One of the most comprehensive Internet sources on the man who gave us Contact, Cosmos, Comet, and so much more.
First Published: November 6, 1997