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It was likely January of 2002 when I stayed up late one evening in Kooskia and ran across Robert Zemeckis’ film version of Carl Sagan’s Contact (1997), a film I had known about for years but which I had never gotten around to viewing.
Everyone knows the story: Dr. Eleanor Arroway and crew discover a signal coming from Vega, it is decoded, contains the plans for a “device,” and after much political discussion “the World” decides to build said device to see what it does. Of course, matters aren't so simple, for Arroway’s conniving former-boss manages to play politics, take all the credit, and become Earth's representative; but this is solved once religious wackos destroy the device and kill the former-boss, thus clearing the way for Arroway to get her due and travel in the super-secret extra device that was constructed. Eleanor seems to visit with the aliens, but when she returns, everyone points out that her device went nowhere, and she was not gone for the 18 hours she claimed ... a congressional hearing and attempts to scape-goat her follow, though the director ends with a few happier scenes at the end in which the beloved Doctor has returned to a life of research and education, still searching for life “out there.”
The simiplicity of the plot masks what could have been any other alien-first-contact story; we already have The Arrival, V, and ID4 (well, The Arrival is pretty decent, actually) ... where it differs from its peers is in providing well-paced, pop-philosophical story centered around interesting and engaging characters. And here it diverges from its source material. Many of the main events, characters, and motifs come straight from Sagan’s novel, but certain things are added, others taken away, and still others compressed or expanded as needed to fit the different medium. These changes, as is easy to see, tend to annoy lovers of the book, and I am not one to disagree that the book is usually better than the movie.
That having been said, let us consider the movie on its own for a moment: the cinematography is competent, and there are some beautiful shots; the main actors are all quite good (and, for example, they did a good job at synchronizing the mannerisms of the old and young Ellie); the script is tight, refrains from most sci-fi clichés, and stays close enough to the source material to at least share its name; and the special effects do not get in the way of the story being told. The story itself has depth: we are given the political, scientific, and religious components of the discovery of alien life; many of the characters are multi-faceted and have conflicting motives; and the scientific aspects are intriguing and not just an attempt to provide the script with technobabble.
Some of the ways in which the movie differs from the film appear to be necessary changes made in order to shift from one medium to another—from book to film; others may have been part of a desire to speed up the film, make it a bit more hip, and provide a little more drama. Instead of taking years and years as in the book, the action (reception and deciphering of message, construction of the machine) of the film takes place over a relatively compact period of time, and instead of the multinational group of scientists all chosen to go on the mission, the device in the movie allows only one passenger. The results on the narrative, however, produce a different focus in the two works. While Sagan's book did center around Dr. Arroway and her development, the side characters were more well-developed than in the film and the author was more interested in the cultural effects of the “Message” and the “Machine.” The Message and Machine help to bring the world together, as exemplified in the global reduction in nuclear weapons—here we see Sagan the optimist. In contrast, the film is overwhelmingly subjective; instead of broad developments over time a more compact personal struggle is depicted. Internationalism and appeals to humanity as a whole are token. Whereas in the book the multiple passengers reveal to the reader the “truth” of the voyage, in the film it is the last-minute revelation of the 18 hours of static that provides the viewer with the correct interpretation. As outside viewers, we have a perspective that neither the characters in the film nor those in the book possess, and so for us this change means less, but for the characters it is dramatic. Jodie Foster’s Ellie is forced to doubt her own experiences and realize that her experience is, from the point of view of a skeptic or scientist of the same nature as Palmer’s religious experience and contact with the divine. In contrast, the Ellie of the book shared an experience with others, and she is convinced of the truth of her experience. Finally, in a move that improves upon the book, Kitz as portrayed in the movie is a sleazy politician, but banal ... the cynic we can, unfortunately, accept as real; Sagan's Kitz, however, is over-the-top, maniacal, and has dialog straight out of bad space opera.
Zemeckis’ ending seems a bit pat, a bit optimistic and a bit simplistic at points. There are no new revelations (outside of the 18 hours of static ... which only confirms what we had hoped), and Ellie returns to her world of science, now a wiser, more open-minded, and perhaps more content individual. The search for truth remains a personal one. Some complain that science and religion (or rather, faith) are put on equal footing at the end; that is, science is no more than faith. It is an ending that lacks bite and might be expected from the man who brought us Forrest Gump; however, it is also an ending that is, I feel, in some ways preferable to the one Sagan wrote. Sagan does provide a “bombshell” for Ellie about her family (one which is less so for the reader), and this causes her to rethink who she is and the extent to which her life has been a lie; it is a parable of sorts for paradigm change and how a small piece of information can form or shatter our notions of truth and reality. But at the same time it is part of Ellie’s growing process, and Ellie’s growth is seen parallel to the “growth” of the human race that has happened or which must happen for it to be ready for certain knowledge—Ellie concludes, for example, that she would not have been ready for the truth about her father any earlier.
In The Demon-Haunted World Sagan’s optimism in science is available for all to see, but perhaps his main point is that the natural world as revealed by science is, in and of itself, so magnificent that myths, relgion, and pseudo-science pale in comparison. The conclusion to Contact embodies that theme, but takes it a step or two further, practically to the realm of mysticism: “The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. [...] In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.”
—February 9, 2004