a review by Ari Armstrong
Contact is a beautiful film about a driven scientists who fights for her job against incredible difficulties. This self-chosen "job" is to search the skies for signs of broadcasts from extraterrestrial intelligent life. Finally, she discovers such broadcasts, and her finding shocks the globe.
Jodie Foster offers an amazing performance of the scientist, Dr. Ellen Arroway. Foster is the perfect actress to portray this strong, confident, passionate scientist. Her Arroway lifts the major theme - the drive to succeed - into our hearts and thoughts.
Director Robert Zemeckis masterfully blends superb special effects with human drama. The film opens with a view of the US, from which we are whisked through the solar system and beyond the galaxy into the far reaches of space. Finally, the scene becomes a close-up of Arroway's childhood eye, and we are introduced to the scientist-in-training. Zemeckis moves us from scene to scene always with such thoughtful and meaningful transitions.
I saw Contact in the theaters at least half a dozen times, and on each viewing I gained more from the film, from the subtle dialogue and non-verbal communications and suggestions, and from the brilliant and symbolic cinematography. It is a film I would describe as "wholesome." It made me feel like the human species is full of wonder, and hope, and potential. Always the film is respectful, of the viewer's intelligence, of the viewer's spirituality.
The film suffers from but one short-coming, on which I focus the rest of my attention, because the issue involved is so important, not only in the film but in life. Contact is based on the novel by the late Carl Sagan. In the novel, Sagan creates an Arroway who is consistently "scientific," that is, who is consistently demanding proof and a reasonable explanation. In the novel, Palmer Joss, Arroway's antagonist, friend, and eventual romantic interest, is religious in the Christian tradition - he is willing to go "beyond" scientific knowledge into the realm of faith. In the novel, Arroway eventually converts Joss to her scientific ways.
In the film, however, the tables are turned. Still the scientific Arroway is sharply contrasted with the religious Joss, but in the end Arroway makes important epistemological concessions to Joss's world view. That is, she accepts some distinctly anti-scientific views.
The film thus suffers from some internal contradictions. Arroway's character makes a number of implausible shifts. Rather than remaining always the cool, confident scientist who knows that any idea can be tested experimentally for soundness, she on occasion becomes shaken in her beliefs.
Sagan's novel is the much stronger story because of its consistency and logic of plot. The film suffers greatly by straying from Sagan's work. However, the film, despite its shortcomings, remains one of the finest works I've seen and one of my all-time favorites. Foster's performance and Zemeckis's vibrant direction of the cosmos at large add visual and emotional elements to the story that a novel by its nature cannot as strongly evoke. I suggest that you read the book as well as see the movie, so that you can perhaps merge, emotionally, the cinematic experience with Sagan's original compelling story.
Now that I've explained the major difference between the film and the original novel, I'll prove that this difference in fact exists. Some who viewed the film disagreed with my interpretation on an e-mail discussion list (Objectivism-L), though I have now gathered enough textual support backing my position that my conclusions are, I believe, unavoidable. See for yourself. The nature of Sagan's story, and the alternate story of the film, will become clearer through examining some differences between the book and the film.
What follows is an edited version of two of my earlier essays on Contact. I decided to leave the essays largely as-is. The first I wrote before reading Sagan's novel, the second, after. I label each.
ESSAY ONE (my first viewing)
Foster's boyfriend (in the film) is a contemporary religionist who has experienced a "moment with God" or whatever. This guy, played by Matthew McConaughey, wrestles intellectually with Foster throughout the film over the issue of faith. At one point Foster suggests that McConaughey's "Moment" was most likely, via Occham, merely a self-delusion, a psychologically driven response to mental anxiety. To this McConaughey offers two responses. First, he says, he believes because he "has" to believe. This is sort of the Pragmatist reply; "I believe X because believing X makes me feel good." Second, he offers a type of reductio ad adsurdum by asking Foster, "Do you love your dad?" "Yes!" "Prove it." Foster('s character) is thrown by this, even though the obvious response is that introspection is a type of "evidence."
Foster is seen as buying into McConaughey's Pragmatist argument toward the end of the film. She believes she has traveled through a worm-hole to another civilization and made contact with an alien, but she has no solid "proof" of this occurrence. We are to take this as a parallel to McConaughey's "Moment" and as proof that some things we just "need" to accept on faith. (The irony of the preceding sentence struck me only upon editing.) However, this intended parallel is just too great a stretch. There is no positive evidence that McConaughey's "Moment" had anything to do with the existence of a God, and quite a lot of positive evidence that the "Moment" was psychologically driven (drawing upon experience without the film for this conclusion). On the other hand, with Foster some evidence seems to point toward the reality of the trip, while some evidence seems to suggest *it* is a delusion.
The appropriate conclusion to draw from Foster's experience (in my view) is NOT, "Some things we must accept on faith," but, rather, "Some issues cannot be clearly decided one way or another because of a lack of evidence." I am reminded of Neil Peart's lyrics off the latest Rush album: "I can learn to get along / With all the things I don't know."
If the creators of the movie *really* believe their Pragmatist position on faith, I am tempted to wonder why they feel it necessary to reveal to the audience that the US Government really *does* have fairly clear evidence as to the nature of Foster's trip (though of course the government keeps this information "confidential"). I guess "faith" only works for the people in the movie.
Another problem with the "faith" theme arises when a religious nut-case blows up quite a number of people. This is clearly seen as a bad act, but the creators of the film don't seem to feel the need to explain why the nut-case's "faith" is bad while McConaughey's and Foster's "faith" is good. Yet we the audience are obviously supposed to glean that "faith" does come in these two varieties. I guess it's sort of like the "Dark Side of the Force;" you're supposed to act from "love" rather than from "aggression" in order for the Force to work right.
Closely linked in the film to (but intellectually quite distinct from) the issue of "faith" is the issue of "believing in something greater than ourselves." The film makes an interesting move in attempting to replace Heaven with a Universal Community. As a child, Foster attempts to contact her deceased father via ham radio. Later, the aliens contact Foster using the image of her father as a front. Foster, unable to accept a Christian type of super-structural meaning, instead finds meaning in a Universal order of Life.
Part of me gets really nervous at this sort of idea. The idea of "finding meaning within a community" found voice with Hegel, after all, and helped lead to both Marxist communism and Nazi fascism. On the other hand, surely there is at least *some* grain of truth to this notion. The universe is a rather lonely place, and it is nice to be part of a community. I suppose the main issue is how we relate the "value of community" to the "value of self."
ESSAY TWO (after viewing the film more and reading the novel)
I am now totally convinced that I was right: the filmmakers do indeed attempt to advance the idea that Arroway's "science" and Joss's "faith" are fundamentally similar (or at least compatible) in epistemological orientation. (Arroway is Foster's character, the lead, and Joss is McConaughey's character, Arroway's religious antagonist as well as her friend.) After reading (part of) the book, I must agree with other critics, that the filmmakers advance this notion in contradiction to the ideas contained within Sagan's original work.
The reason this issue has seemed ambiguous is obvious: screenwriters relying heavily on Sagan's characters, plot-lines and words are nonetheless trying to turn Sagan's theme on its head. If I were to make some inductive guess-work, I would say that the reason some have wanted to think that the movie celebrates "science" while depreciating "faith" (as really does the book) is that such is natural for the character of Arroway. In addition, the film does advance Sagan's original theme as well, at least in the details.
The attempted-theme over-lay of the screenwriters comes straight out of popular culture. I have heard many times, while "discussing" theism, that, ultimately, the suppositions of science rely on "faith" just as much as do the suppositions of religion. I'm sure everyone has heard this sort of thing. This is (part of) what the filmmakers are trying to say. (Of course, they end up allowing Sagan to tell us a few of his own ideas, too.)
So now I'll continue with the "proof" of my claims, as (the real) Arroway would require. I'll discuss three pivotal scenes of the film, in light of the parallel passages from the book, to make my point.
The first crucial scene from the film (for this issue) is when Joss and Arroway are discussing Joss's religion. Arroway asks Joss, "How do you know your religious experience wasn't just a delusion?" She continues to explain to him the principle of Occam's razor. Finally, Joss responds, "Do you love your father?" Arroway responds, "Yes, of course." Joss follows up, "Prove it." This really throws Arroway in the movie. "We" the audience are clearly supposed to think that Joss has won the point. But, as I've noted before, this is a juvenile attempt to prop up "faith" that fails completely. This weak nonsense is from the filmmakers, *not* from Sagan. (Quotes from the film are only approximate, based on my memory and my barely-legible notes. Quotes from the book are exact.)
In Sagan's book, it is Joss who lectures Arroway on Occam's Razor, in an attempt to prove to her that she should be an "atheist" rather than an "agnostic" on the basis of her scientific outlook. To this Arroway responds, "When I say I'm an agnostic, I only mean that the evidence isn't in. There isn't compelling evidence that God exists - at least your kind of god - and there isn't compelling evidence that he doesn't" (168-169). In the book, Arroway is consistently a champion of science, and demands evidence for all of her beliefs.
And here's what Joss says about "love" in the book: "Think of what consciousness feels like, what it feels like this minute. Does that *feel* like billions of tiny atoms wiggling in place? And beyond the biological machinery, where in science can a child learn what love is?" (252)
Joss's comment here is a far cry from the screenwriters' distortion of the quote in the movie. In the book, Joss makes the legitimate point that theories about how the mind works aren't the same thing as actually experiencing the use of one's mind. This is not at all anti-scientific in outlook, though it may be a-scientific. Nor are we intended to take the experience of "love" as an affront to science or "proof", as we are with the film.
Next I turn to the scene where a committee is questioning Arroway in order to decide whether she should be the one to travel in the transport. This is where Joss asks her if she is a "spiritual person" - if she "believes in god." In the film, Arroway again becomes very flustered. She says, "I don't understand the relevance of the question" about four times, mixed with, "There's just not data either way." She finally admits, indirectly, that she doesn't believe in god, but the question leaves her shaken.
What Arroway says in the book has a quite different tone:
"'What do I think of the population crisis?' Ellie was saying. 'You mean am I for it or against it? You think this is a key question I'm going to be asked on Vega, and you want to make sure I give the right answer? Okay. Overpopulation is why I'm in favor of homosexuality and a celibate clergy. A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism."
In the book, she's consistently a total smart-ass and she never wavers in her anti-religious stance. She's the steely-eyed Dagny Taggart we can all love. She doesn't give two shits if "95% of the population believes in a higher power," which is a line from the movie in this scene. So why do the filmmakers make her wishy-washy on screen? My answer is that they setting her up for her eventual reconciliation with "faith" at the end of the film. Read on...
Near the end, when a government schmo is trying to pass off Arroway's journey as a scam, the following dialogues take place in the movie:
"How do you explain this [lack of evidence], Doctor [Arroway]?"
"There is no evidence, no record, no artifacts; the story strains credibility. Do you expect us to take your story -- on *faith*?... Do you admit it's possible it didn't happen?"
"Yes." (Again, shaken.)
"You grant there is no physical evidence?"
"You admit you could have just hallucinated the whole thing?"
"You admit that, if you were in our shoes, you would respond to the story with skepticism?"
But here is the all-important line:
"Then why don't you just admit it didn't happen?" Arroway answers: "BECAUSE I CAN'T!
This line is clearly intended as a parallel to Joss's earlier description of his "moment" with god. Watch the movie; you can't miss the parallel if you keep an eye open for it. Arroway resorts to what I've called the "Pragmatist" justification of belief: "I believe because it makes me feel good to believe."
This scene relies on some of the elements of the book, but it completely turns around the meaning and tone of what's in the book. Consider the following points from the book:
Arroway does indeed briefly consider that she's nuts, but context makes clear that this is only a passing feeling that she doesn't take seriously and dismisses as implausible (389).
Arroway possesses quite a lot of physical evidence in the book, whereas she has *none* in the film and yet still "believes." (Remember, only the *audience* is given proof of the trip in the film, Arroway is not.) Evidence, not some "need to believe," is key for Arroway in the book: "The Machine was undergoing sensitive physical tests at this moment. That was how the validity of her story could be checked" (379). "'But our watches showed that we'd been gone more than a day,' [Arroway] protested" (380). The government schmo says The Machine "*apparently* has been exposed to a very different environment than the benzels and the supporting structures... to huge tensile and compressional stresses... [and to] an intense radiation environment..." (381). It turns out Arroway doesn't have enough evidence immediately to overcome the government guy's desire to pass off her story as a hoax, but she has enough evidence to herself believe her trip took place.
I just don't see how any conclusion can be drawn but that the filmmakers tried to tack onto Sagan's work the idea that Arroway ultimately relies on "faith" in a way similar to Joss.
Curiously, Sagan ultimately allows Arroway to *prove* the existence of "an intelligence that antedates the universe" (431) - she finds this proof in the far reaches of the digits of pi, in which the Intelligence has encoded messages (for intelligent species to discover). So Sagan's message is that, while the *end belief* of science and religion may turn out to be pretty much the same thing, what is of crucial importance is one's *epistemological orientation*. It's okay to believe in God, so long as one believes because of scientific proof. The film gets this point exactly wrong, and suggests that it matters not what is the content of one's end belief, so long as one's epistemological orientation is one of "faith" - one of "believing because it makes you feel good." It's okay, says the film, to believe in God or science or little green fairies, so long as one believes because of "faith." So again I agree with others that Sagan might have been a little perturbed about this, had he seen the film.
To be sure, the film allows Arroway to make plenty of slams against religion. Even though she is wishy-washy in her testimony to the committee, at least she finally admits she's an atheist. As a child, a priest tells Arroway that the death of her father is "the will of god." Arroway rejects this suggestion out of hand. When a reporter asks her if her confidence in the machine is "faith," she replies, "I was going to say, 'A sense of Adventure!'"
I would argue that the filmmakers have two aims in mind by allowing such scenes: first, to point out that Arroway never does come to a belief in God (as does Joss), even though she does ultimately utilize "faith," and second to show a contrast between her life-long held beliefs and her final belief in the reality of her trip.
The one thing I was wrong about at first was thinking the them of "faith" is "primary" within the movie. On my second viewing, I started to think that the main theme the filmmakers were going for is the "Triumph of the Human Spirit." The film shows Arroway fighting - and succeeding - against repeated failure and terrible odds. It shows her achieving a top education despite the loss of both her parents at an early age. It shows her fighting - and ultimately winning out over - a variety of assholes in the world (most of them from the government, which is I think fitting). It shows Joss fighting the "alienation" and mindless-entertainment that many people in our culture use technology for (thus squashing their own spirit). It shows Arroway discovering a universal community in which humans can join and improve themselves.
I must disagree with the suggestions of some that Arroway could never love Joss (as happens in the film). In the book the two don't become lovers. However, they do become friends, and toward the end the book hints at the possibility of a relationship between the two (422). I like the book's Joss a lot better than the film's Joss, though I really like McConaughey and his portrayal of Joss.
Obviously, Contact has made quite an impact upon me. It has lead me to think about a wide range of issues, from aesthetics to the nature of scientific proof. It's a great film, and an even greater book.
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