The Spirit of Contact

Written by Dan

Published June 16, 2004

Yesterday, I watched my favorite movie ever, Carl Sagan’s Contact. Now, this might seem like an unusual choice for a favorite movie. It’s got practically no action, next to no sex, and hardly any special effects. It’s set in the present day rather than in the future, there are no space aliens (well, there are— kinda), and there’s no fantastical gadgets carried around. Ultimately, the story isn’t even about space or science. But... the story is about people— as all the best stories should be. Its scale is both grand and tiny, focusing on world-shaking events troubling the entire world and individual people alike.

At the core of Contact is a conflict that many people consider irresolvable— the innate friction between science and religion (or spirituality, if you prefer). As the popular belief holds, science relies entirely on empirical evidence, while spirituality relies on belief in premises that cannot be proven— faith, for lack of a better word. (Or maybe faith is the perfect word, it’s just so loaded with religious meanings that there are bad connotations associated with it.) These two viewpoints seem to be utterly incompatible, but the movie shows that they don’t have to be.

The two characters who embody this conflict are Ellie and Palmer, the primary and secondary protagonists of the story. Ellie is a devoted scientist, brought up on science and entirely focused— almost fanatically— on SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Convinced that there are other civilizations out there just waiting for us to find them, she single-mindedly focuses on the project. Palmer, on the other hand, is a minor religious figure in American politics, and his specialty is how technology (and by extension science) affects people’s spirituality. Naturally, his religious viewpoint— taking the existence of God on faith alone— grates against Ellie’s steadfast reliance on direct, empirical evidence.

As a person who was raised as a Catholic and who currently describes himself as an agnostic or borderline atheist, it’s very easy for me to accept Ellie’s perspective on the universe; indeed, I’ve used arguments very similar to Ellie’s in the past. Occam’s Razor, in particular, seems a very tempting tool of logic to apply. But as we see later on, the blade can point both ways. Occam’s Razor is turned on its head at the end of the movie, when it is used to cast doubt on Ellie’s account of her fantastic journey to some far place in the universe, when it seems as if there’s practically no evidence that anything happened at all. Although we know (by virtual of the theatrical format) that Ellie did in fact travel to another world, the mere possibility of doubt really made me sit up and think about my world view.

I could go on about what else I loved about Contact— the sense of scale, the sense of reality, the chills I felt as the message from Vega was received (as if I were really watching such a momentous event taking place in reality)... but that’s still all window dressing for the true spirit of the film. Rarely do I see films these days that actually make me think... instead we’re just expected to sit back and mindlessly take in the action. Carl Sagan’s incredible story successfully captures the essence of the Human condition, and the nature of the very Human conflict between science and spirituality, and presents it in a way that somehow refuses to take sides. It lets the audience think for themselves.

If you haven’t seen Contact before, I give it my highest recommendation. And if you’ve already seen it... go and watch it again!