Analysis of the Movie Contact

 

Introduction

Francis
Schaeffer, a prominent Christian philosopher of the twentieth century, made a
compelling observation about the development of philosophy, theology, and the
arts in human society. He noted that these three disciplines follow parallel tracks,
with new philosophies influencing standing theological beliefs, and the two
then affecting trends in the arts, such as literature, music, visual arts, and
media entertainment.[1]
This paper will look at current trends in American philosophy and theology by
examining the arts, specifically the movie Contact.[2] We
will first outline the plot and themes of the movie. Then we will analyze the
philosophical and theological messages of the movie. Finally, we will examine
how Contact reflects current moves in American culture and thought.

Movie Synopsis

Contact
begins with a young girl, Ellie Arroway, and her father talking on his
short-wave radio and looking through their telescopes. Ellie, who has already
lost her mother during child-birth, soon loses her father to a heart attack.
She unfairly blames herself for his death because she did not think to keep his
heart medicine in the downstairs bathroom, and so was slightly delayed in
getting it for him. Her guilt is reinforced when she explains this to the family
priest at the funeral, and he is unable to console her, merely stating that we
have to trust God, since we cannot understand his ways. Immediately, the
conflict between reason and faith is established, with organized religion
playing the ‘bad-guy’ to science and intellect.

Skipping
ahead to adulthood, we join Ellie at her first post-college astronomical
position, doing research work at a radio telescope in Puerto
Rico for S.E.T.I., the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
She meets immediate resistance to her work from a leading scientist there,
Michael Drumland, one of her professors at college, and the leading antagonist
in the film. He is extremely skeptical about the existence of extraterrestrial
life, and is convinced that her research is a pointless waste of valuable
telescope time. He proceeds to work behind the scenes to have her funding cut
and ban her from using the facility.

While
settling into her work in Puerto Rico, Ellie
meets the handsome Palmer Joss, a failed priest who is writing a book on the
impact of technology on third world peoples. Palmer is a humanitarian, a
humanist, and yet a firm believer in God and religious experience. Unlike the
priest at the funeral, Palmer is not affiliated with any organized religious
group. After a night of romance and a brief sexual encounter, Palmer and Ellie
discuss their opposing worldviews, setting up the main theme of the film.
Palmer explains that he had a spiritual experience that ‘blew his intellect
away. It was God.’ Ellie, the classic skeptical rationalist and naturalistic
scientist, asks explains that she doesn’t believe in Gods or the supernatural.
She says the closest she ever got to being religious was a few visits to Sunday
School as a child. However, her incessant questions, such as ‘Where did Mrs.
Cain come from?’ led to her eventual expulsion from church life. Palmer insists
that his esoteric experience with God was real, while Ellie is equally
convinced that there is no God. The theme of science versus faith has been
established.

Eventually,
Drumland succeeds in de-funding Ellie’s research, and she is forced to seek
private funds and a new research site. She finds a new financial benefactor in
the character of Mr. Haddon, an eccentric billionaire who is dying of cancer.
He is impressed with Ellie’s zeal and tenacity, and provides the funds
necessary for her to rent time on a large government owned radio-telescope
array. She spends a couple of fruitless years listening for radio messages from
outer space, until Drumland convinces the government to end its rental contract
with Ellie. It seems she will once again need to find a new way to pursue her
research. However, before her contract comes to its conclusion, the radio
telescopes pick up a transmission coming from the star system Vega, 52 light
years away from Earth.

The alien
message is a set of engineering schematics which describe some kind of
transportation device. The governments of the world decide to collaborate and
build the device, and a panel is assembled to choose the person who will travel
in it. Both Ellie and Drumland are prospective passengers, while Palmer is one
of the panel members choosing the traveler. During Ellie’s interview with the
selection panel, Palmer asks her if she believes in God. He presses her to admit
to the panel that she is an atheist. He then explains that he cannot in good
conscience send an atheist as the representative of humanity, since the vast
majority of mankind is religious in one form or another. Drumland is chosen for
the journey.

During the
drama of the selection process, another character is introduced to the
audience. He is not named, but he is a white-haired radical fundamentalist
Christian preacher who insists that the message from Vega is a message from
God. He furiously roars before crowds of onlookers that we must not allow a
non-believer to represent us before our God. During the final test of the
device before Drumland is scheduled travel in it, this white-haired preacher
sneaks into the flight deck and detonates a suicide bomb. He, Drumland, and
numerous technicians are killed, and the alien transport is completely
demolished. It appears that no one will be traveling to Vega.

At this
point, Mr. Haddon re-enters the picture. Haddon, living on the Mir
space-station to slow down the cancer and prolong his life, contacts Ellie and
explains that he has personally funded the building of a duplicate device. He
invites her to pilot it, which she eagerly accepts.

The alien transportation device is a
sky-scraper sized spherical, gyroscopic looking machine in which a single
passenger stands inside a small empty metal sphere and is dropped through the
center of the machine, landing in water at the bottom. The engineers building
insist on adding a safety chair to the design, which Ellie opposes. “Why can’t
we just trust the Vegan designers”, she asks. It is at this point in the movie
that Ellie’s stance on faith versus scientific evidence begins to shift. She is
willing to trust the Vegan designers without any reasonable evidence to do so.
Anyway, she is overruled by the builders, a safety chair is installed, and she
is enclosed inside the sphere and dropped through the spinning gyroscopic
machine.

At this point in the narrative, we
come to Ellie’s faith experience. As the machine powers up for the drop, the
energies being generated block any radio or camera contact with Ellie. Whatever
she experiences will be seen and heard by her alone. There will be no
witnesses. The sphere is released, but doesn’t fall through to the water below.
A wormhole is created by the machine, and she is violently shaken in her chair
as the sphere travels down a tunnel of light and emerges in the star system of
Vega. After a moment, the sphere enters another wormhole and even more
violently travels to an unknown star system. Each successive tunnel trip is
more violent than the last, until Ellie decides to have faith in the alien
designers and leaves her safety chair. She finds that it is only the chair that
is being shaken; the sphere as designed is stable and still. After a couple of
quiet, peaceful wormhole trips, she is deposited on a world to meet the aliens.

An alien, appearing in the shape of
her dead father, approaches Ellie and explains that they are part of a huge
inter-terrestrial federation. Earthlings are encouraged to continue to develop
and evolve, but along peaceful lines. At some point in the far future, we will
be contacted again and asked to join the civilizations of the galaxy. She asks
for some evidence or proof to provide to her fellow earthlings back home, but
is given nothing except encouraging words. Apparently humanity is on the right
evolutionary track, and must be patient. Then the anti-climactic scene blurs
and Ellie finds herself back in the sphere, falling through the machine and
splashing into the water below. Communications is restored, and, when she asks
how long she was gone, she receives the shocking answer that she didn’t go
anywhere. Numerous cameras track her falling directly through the machine into
the water. There is no evidence that she traveled anywhere at all. Even the
camera on Ellie’s helmet shows only static; she has no evidence whatsoever that
she made a trip at all.

As the movie is drawing to a close,
the scene switches to a climactic Senatorial investigative hearing, at which
Ellie is being vigorously questioned about her alleged trip to Vega. The
interrogators are completely disinclined to believe her story of traveling to
another star. All the camera evidence shows that she went no-where. She is
challenged to produce one shred of evidence to prove she took a trip at all.
She responds that she has no evidence, only faith that what she experienced was
real. Palmer, sitting in the auditorium, hears her make this profession of
faith, and is moved by her embracing of faith, not science alone. The
investigation concludes with the Secretary of Defense concluding that the
entire alien message and machine were a hoax propagated by Mr. Haddon, who knew
he was dying of cancer, and has indeed died on the Mir space station. Haddon is
blamed for the entire Vega debacle, Ellie is judged to have been an unwitting
pawn in the event, and she is released from the hearings.

Palmer meets Ellie as she comes from
the Senate chambers and escorts her to a waiting car. As the press corps yells
out questions to the couple, he pauses and makes a statement about Ellie’s
veracity and declares that he, as a man of faith, believes everything she has
said, whether there is any evidence to prove it or not. They happily drive off
together, and the conflict between science and faith is resolved: the
conclusion is that faith and reason are complementary in that they address
different questions. There need be no conflict between the two.

While the movie could end there, the
author includes a surprise twist. The Secretary of Defense is shown having a
video conversation with another highly placed government official. As they
discuss what to do about Ellie and how to close out the Vega incident, a
surprising revelation is admitted: Ellie’s helmet camera showed only static,
but there were eighteen hours of static recorded by her helmet as she fell
through the machine. There was indeed evidence that she was telling the truth,
though it is being buried by the government. Therefore, while it is fine for
Palmer to believe Ellie on the basis of blind faith, the veracity of science
and reason in upheld. Both faith and science can be true, because they are
fundamentally unrelated.

Movie Analysis

The movie
Contact was based on a novel written by Carl Sagan, scientist, host of the
popular 1970’s PBS program ‘Cosmos’, and Humanist of the Year in 1981. Sagan
was an outspoken atheist and naturalist, saying of the universe, “The Cosmos is
all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[3]
Therefore, while it was perhaps predictable that he would write a story about
the battle between faith and reason, it must have been surprising to his
contemporaries that he would treat faith with such respect.

Three
notable themes emerge from Contact. First, organized religion is depicted as
powerless, hypocritical, and destructive to mankind. Consider the three
religious characters in the movie. The priest who attends Ellie’s father’s
funeral is impotent to answer her probing questions about God’s will. Drumland
is self-serving and vindictive, yet claims to be a follower of God. The
white-haired preacher is a madman who claims to be ushering the end-times
through his murderous actions. It is obvious that Sagan fosters an extreme bias
against organized religion. The only religious character with any honorable
qualities is Palmer, and he is an outcast from Catholicism. The spirituality
that Sagan is promoting is a blind faith in God, which does not tread on or
speak to areas of science and reason. Faith and reason do not so much oppose
one another, because they speak to different questions. Their separation allows
compatibility, though not cooperation.

The second
theme of the movie is that of isolation. Through the life of Ellie we see her
isolation from those around her. She dives into her scientific pursuits in
order to avoid deep meaningful relationships with the people around her. We see
this in particular through her relationship with Palmer. He is attractive and
seems a fine match for Ellie, but she pushes him away, and refuses to follow up
on his advances. Her painful isolation stemming from the death of her father
has shaped who she is, and she may fear losing her identity if she moves to
assuage that pain. This existential view of human suffering ties directly into
the philosophical themes of the movie, which we will explore in a moment.

The third
theme which Sagan expounds in Contact is that of evolutionary development, both
intellectually and spiritually. Ellie epitomizes this evolution. She is
introduced as entirely rational, moves on to an experience of complete faith in
her trip to Vega, and ends by having her faith validated by the secret eighteen
hours of static on her helmet camera. Since Ellie is the main character of the
story, she reflects the main message of the story-teller, namely that mankind
is evolving both philosophically and spiritually. We will continue by examining
recent developments in philosophy, their corresponding developments in theology
and the arts, and tie this motion in with the movie Contact.

Developments in
Philosophy, Theology, and the Arts

Irish
philosopher Edmund Burke described the French Revolution as, “pulling
down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law;
their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their
manufactures…[there was a danger of] an imitation of the excesses of an
irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious,
bloody and tyrannical democracy…[in religion] the danger of their example is
no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism; a foul, unnatural vice, foe to
all the dignity and consolation of mankind; which seems in France, for a long
time, to gave been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.”[4]
Burke recognizes here the undeniable connection between philosophy, in this
case French Rationalism, the blossoming liberal atheistic theology of France, and
their consequent effects on the arts, such as the rise of Dada and other forms
of meaningless artistic expression. The rationalism of the French Revolution
swept through Europe, and later America,
bringing with it atheism, secularization, political liberalism, and artistic
modernism.

While
it seemed at the time that rationalism would take over the world, the advent of
the Second World War served to awaken men to the harsh realities of a
faithless, amoral approach to human existence. The renewed focus on humanity,
with its needs, hungers, sufferings, and triumphs became the Existentialist
philosophic movement.

Existentialism
was a reaction against the cold facts of Rationalism. The existentialists, such
as Heidegger, Sartre, Buber, and Marcel, proposed that man was essentially
different from other things, that “man is free from determination by any
already existing essence: ‘existence precedes essence’. Hence the emphasis on
freedom, choice and responsibility, the evasion of which by relapsing into a
thing-like state Sartrian ‘bad-faith’. Man is totally open-ended.”[5]
Existentialism was a philosophic attempt to restore meaning and value to man
without admitting the presence of a creator, from which essence or value might
be externally imposed.

The
corresponding theological movement to Existentialism was Neo-Orthodoxy, as
expressed by theologians such as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich
Reinhold. In reacting against the radical liberal theology of the
Rationalist/Enlightenment era, the Neo-Orthodox theologians, “promoted a return
to the basic principles of Reformation theology, especially the primacy of
scripture, the fallen state of man, and God’s work in Christ, while taking
seriously the Enlightenment critique of orthodoxy and rejecting protestant
scholasticism. The often used a dialectical approach to theology, juxtaposing
seemingly opposing formulations held together as paradoxically true (e.g. humans
are fallen and depraved, yet free and accountable to God.)[6]
Like Existentialism, Neo-orthodoxy was an essentially humanistic attempt to
restore meaning and value to human life, though through the auspices of a
divine Creator.

The arts through
the era of Existentialism saw a rise modern art, where the message and value of
an art piece had no relation to the intentions of the artist. This reflected
Existentialist thought in two ways. First, the importance of the creator was
devalued or entirely denied. Just as God does not define man, so the artist
does not define the meaning of his art. Second, art became less a reflection of
reality, and more a canvas upon which the viewer could project his own meanings
and intentions. Once the artist and his intentions are denied, it is the
responsibility of the viewer of art to create meaning. This is very much the
philosophic message of Existentialism.

Modern times in Americaand Europe
have seen the erosion of Existentialism in favor of a similar, but more extreme
philosophy called Postmodernism. J. P. Moreland describes Postmodernism as, “a
rejection of certain ideas, for example, truth, objective rationality,
authorial meaning in texts, the existence of stable verbal meanings, and
universally valid linguistic definitions.”[7]
Whereas Existentialism questioned the harsh rationality of the Enlightenment,
softening it with human experience and meaning, Postmodernism denies all
rationality. There is no science, no reason, no truth; only relative opinion,
personal preference, and ultimate hopelessness. Postmodern philosophers such as
Rorty, Foucault, Lyotard, and Nietzsche deny human ability to know any truth. Richard
Rorty, in discussing Nietzsche’s views, writes, “Nietzsche, the patron saint of
pragmatism [postmodernity], prophesied accurately: if God is dead, then it’s
interpretation ‘all the way down’. One word only points to another word and
never to reality itself. No one interpretation can ever be regarded as final.
As in interpretation, so in life; everything becomes undecideable.”[8]

The theological movement
corresponding to Postmodernism in America
is the so-called Emergent
Churches, or the Younger
Evangelicals. This diverse group generally questions human ability to
understand absolute truth, particularly as expounded in scripture. Rather,
their ministerial focus is on storytelling, using a variety of media, creating
community, meeting felt needs, and expanding the church experience by embracing
historic spiritual practices. The question among Postmodern Christians is not
whether a Bible story is historically true, but whether it is true to you.
Central to the Younger Evangelicals is that, “they yearn to belong to a
community. They do not embrace the individualism birthed out of the
Enlightenment and dominant in the twentieth century, nor are they attracted to
the existential me-ism of the seventies and eighties.”[9]

We can clearly see the progression of
philosophy from Rationalism to Existentialism, and finally to Postmodernism. It
is equally clear that Christian theology has mirrored those philosophic shifts,
moving from Liberalism to Neo-Orthodoxy and now to Postmodern
‘New-Evangelicalism’. We will now return to the story of Contact, and examine
Ellie as she personifies this movement through reason and faith.

Carl Sagan’s Message in
Contact

Ellie as a
youth is the personification of Enlightenment Rationalism. There is no God,
only the material universe. The only truth to her is that which can be observed
through science and reason. Her brief relationship with Palmer reveals her
inner pain and loneliness. She longs for interpersonal connections, but fears
them as she feared losing her father. Religion has proven impotent to meet her
longings. This is the Rationalism phase of her life.

This inner clash of reason and fear leaves
her vulnerable to the existential experience of traveling and conversing with
the aliens. The alien she talks to appears in the guise of her father. His
attitude towards her and humanity is one of care, concern, and love. He appears
proud of her and the things she and mankind have accomplished. This image of
her father validates her dreams and sends her back to Earth with hope.

Shockingly, she is unable to share
this hope with others. No one believes that she took the trip or spoke to the
aliens. Reason fails her, and she is forced to rely on faith. She acknowledges
that it is possible that she was merely hallucinating, that the trip never took
place. However, she has had a life-changing experience, and she has faith that
it was real. All of a sudden, she shares Palmer’s position; an experience can
be real without being provable. Whereas he had an indescribable experience with
God, she has met and spoken to aliens, and it has deeply moved her. This is the
Existential phase of her life.

Finally, with a surprising plot twist
at the very end, we find that there is evidence that her faith is justified.
She really did speak with the Vegans. Reason and faith are once again put on
the same footing. One might argue that this is an absolute contradiction of postmodern
thought; there is no truth, either in reason or in faith. However, the movie is
not making that point. What Sagan accomplishes here is to demonstrate the
irrelevance of both reason and faith to the human condition. By the time the
information about the helmet camera is revealed, it is no longer of importance
to either Ellie or Palmer. They have each other, her inner need for community
and belonging has been met, and the truthfulness of her experience in not the
central issue. This squarely fits into the values of the postmodern movement.

Sagan has brought Ellie through 250
years of human philosophical evolution, and she has emerged a better, happier
person for it. Additionally, Carl Sagan has succeeded in creating a work of art
that accurately depicts the inherent connection between philosophy and
theology. Sadly, his vitriolic view of Christianity is all too commonly shared
in America
today.

 


[1] Francis
A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible
(Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 1973), p. 376.

[2] Carl
Sagan, Contact (Burbank, CA: Warner
Brothers, 1997)

[3] Carl
Sagan, Cosmos (New York, NY: Random
House, 1980), p. 4.

[4] J. C. D. Clark (ed.), Reflections on
the Revolution in France.
A Critical Edition
(Stanford
University Press, 2001),
p. 66.

[5] Jennifer
Bothamley, Dictionary of Theories
(Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1993), p. 188.

[6] Stanley Grenz, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms
(Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 82.

[7] J. P.
Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a
Christian Worldview
(Downers Grove,
Il: IVP Academic, 2003), p. 145.

[8] Richard
Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 318.

[9] Robert
Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Books, 2002), p. 51.

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