Dir: ROBERT ZEMECKIS
Gen: From War to Peace: ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMA
Much like East and West, religion and science are often seen as two worlds that will never meet comfortably. As fundamentally different schools of thought it is difficult for them to concede anything to each other without undermining themselves. Contact asks the big question, if aliens were to reach out, who would we send to represent us? Someone of God, or someone of science?
Written by revered cosmologist Carl Sagan and his wife Anne Druyan, a scientific writer, Contact stars Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, a character based on real life astronomer Dr. Jill Carter. Contact is often considered one of the more realistic (not to be confused with realistic) interpretations of alien contact because of its central idea, which focuses on the technical hurdles of extraterrestrial communication. Rather unusually it is a film which also entertains the role of religion within science, by placing all the cards on the table and allowing them to feature in the game.
Opposite Arroway is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), an academic christian theologian and “Spiritual Advisor” to the US government. His role is a significant one as the spokesperson for the Christian cause when a message picked up by Dr. Arroway appears to show instructions to build a machine for interstellar transport and communication. The world sets things in motion to appoint the role of communicator and both Arroway and Joss have designs on their roles within such an operation.
Their relationship is a very obvious substitute for science and religion. Sometimes in agreement, sometimes worlds apart. As the world’s governments appoint a committee to decide who speaks for them, many profound questions are asked of both sides. It is not a competition, but the opportunity to be the first to come face to face with intelligent life is not taken lightly. Arroway is certain that she as someone who believes in empirical, rational science is the most suitable candidate, while Joss argues that most of the world believes in some kind of higher power. But which is more important? Which more representative of humanity?
Tangible proof of many important concepts are a major point of debate in the film. Arroway asks Joss for proof in his God, and he in return asks for proof of something as universally accepted as love, neither of course able to produce. They both know there is more to their doctrine than the other can see, but their worldviews are so deep-seated that they struggle to credit each other’s stance. Yet despite this, they have great respect for the other’s dedication to their path as they advise the project in very different capacities. They rather expectedly form a romantic relationship, writers Sagan and Druyan suggesting that a peaceful co-existence is a much more positive outlook than one at constant odds. It is also pointed out that while faith is a word strongly associated with religion, there is an awful lot of it required to actually build a colossal machine of unknown function from plans hidden in an alien message.
Religion within science fiction is often either overlooked or very secondary to the story. Close Encounters briefly touches on it, as the government boardees-to-be are given their last rites by a priest, Spielberg drawing parallels between boarding the alien ship and divine deliverance. When present, it is often used as a character’s motivation, most recently in Ad Astra (2019) where Clifford McBride leads a mission in search of intelligent life and for himself, a glimpse of god - the two ideas seemingly compatible to him. Contact goes much further by pointing out that alien contact is of such great interest to both science in order to ask the how questions, and religion to ask the why - two very different agendas that need not clash along the way.
Fanatics are shown on both sides as the building of the machine is hampered by the efforts of religious anarchists just as Ellie struggles against the funding systems and cult of personality surrounding high profile scientists. The world media’s skepticism at her possibly representing humanity as an atheist woman in such a male dominated field is incredibly harsh and we feel her frustration at such an unfair judgement.
Contact is well remembered for a scene involving a press conference by then-President Bill Clinton, which deceptively appeared to show his involvement with the film. Equally controversially, it also features Hitler’s famous address at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games hidden in the alien message, which according to the film, was the first sent into deep space - i.e. the first that could be sent back. Despite the worrisome connotations of regurgitating the dictator’s address in cinema, this detail was included for plausibility against a more sanitary, hollywood friendly message, bringing the story back to its relatively grounded roots. It also works as an interesting plot device. Do they aliens mean war by sending such a brash display of power back to us? Or are there merely relaying a message as if to say, “we hear you”?
The way in which the aliens physically manifest in Contact solves the problem that hampers many a science fiction story in struggling to craft either an original alien design or convincing framework surrounding them. It opts for a much more conceptual presentation of aliens - a reflection of humanity for our own comfort, but still in a very unusual and climactic setting, with the film’s finale and most important sequence - crucially to the crux of the film, explainable in both scientific and religious terms.
Contact’s question about the pecking order of religion and science doesn’t intrinsically have anything to do with aliens, but it is fair to say that only through an event so significant would such a question probably actually be asked. One would hope that the great social divide of history would come together in such an occurrence, but perhaps an alien message is equally as fictional as a union between science and religion in modern society.
The romantic relationship between Arroway and Joss is often interpreted as a suggestion to the possible harmony between science and religion
Featuring series curator, Euan Foley, and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt.
Where to watch
The full version of Contact is available online or in stores across the UK.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.