During my movie night with the dogs, I re-watched Contact, a movie that explores the possibilities of intelligence on other planets, as well as the fringes between science and religion. It’s a good movie, released in 1997, directed by Robert Zemeckis. It holds up astonishingly well after 20 years. It’s a good movie in the sense that it makes you think about stuff, even though the story breaks down towards the end.
The story is based on a novel by Carl Sagan, which is a good starting point. Jodie Foster plays scientist Ellie Arroway, working in the SETI program, and she and her team discover a message from outside our solar system, specifically from Vega or one of its planets. The transmission contains the construction plans for a machine that will allow Ellie to encounter the senders. I don’t want to spoil the plot too much here, but focus on a few points.
What I consider to be well done is the way the extraterrestrials make contact. There are different aspects to consider here. For starters, Vega is some 26 light-years away, that is, the transmission was initiated not less than 26 years ago. Hence, there’s no possibility for any practical conversation back and forth between Vega and Earth to set up some communication protocol, or establish a common language. The aliens had to get it right in the one and only transmission. And they needed to ensure that the signal is even recognised amidst the radiation noise out there. So the extraterrestrials use amplitude-modulation of the signal that contains the actual information to send out pulses that signify series of prime numbers to make themselves heard in the first place. The transmission contains a video stream of a speech by Hitler, when he opened the Olympic games in Berlin, which was – or so we’re told – the first television program transmitted with the necessary strength to reach Vega after 26 years, and they send it back for the Earthlings to recognise as being the intended recipients. And within the video stream they encode the actual information, including the construction plans for the aforementioned machinery. Pretty smart.
Now, these construction plans contain calculations and explanations. The extraterrestrials don’t assume that we speak their language, but also include a dictionary of symbols and notations, building a common understanding from the basics of mathematics, which they obviously think we actually do share, as math is void of meaning, but it can describe nature and reality (or nature essentially is math, as some physicists claim). Hence, the Earthlings now can understand the construction plans sufficiently enough to build the machine, even without understanding each and every aspect of its functionality.
Oops, I guess I have used more virtual ink than intended on this topic, but I find it remarkable that a Hollywood movie would be so meticulous about all these messaging layers of getting in contact in the first place up to the establishment of a common language.
In the movie plot, the detection and reception of a meaningful message from space brings politicians and the military on the scene, and – invariably – a plethora of religious faithful and nut-jobs. It is then determined and decided that it’s safe enough to build the machine, that is, that the extraterrestrials' intentions are benign.
At first, Ellie is not selected to be the traveller, as she admits to not believe in any god. In the selection process she is asked if she is spiritual, which quickly is reduced to believing in god or not. As if you need to believe in a god to be spiritual. I consider myself to be spiritual, or attempting to be, and I don’t need a god for this. Take Buddhism, which is mostly a very secular method to understand and adapt our minds with the goal to reduce suffering and improve flourishing, especially of sentient beings. No omniscient god, no creator, no ancient book with “god’s words” needed. Or make an inner journey using mind-altering substances, such as LSD or psilocybin, which can be an utterly spiritual experience. In addition, there is music, literature, photography, movies. And many other ways to understand the world, such as history, archeology, or journalism. It’s not just science vs. religion. I understand that this might be too a fine point to make in a two-hours movie, especially with the end it steers towards, but one or two minutes could have invested there anyway. Ellie could have easily made a statement to that effect at her hearing, not least as the question if science can give us all the answers, and meaning in life, is brought up elsewhere in the movie.
I love that the aliens are never actually depicted in any form. No weirdly shaped and coloured creatures. They just appear as the intelligence that created the machine. Yes, Ellie encounters a being in the form of her deceased father, but that is just one of “them” assuming that appearance to facilitate the first contact with the Earthling, as I understand it. I mean, the movie surely does not suggest that there’s an afterlife on a planet of Vega, that would be absurd. And maybe it’s not “them”, but “it” – just a super-intelligence, without the need to be incarnated in individuals in general.
In the story, a kerfuffle emerges when Ellie makes her journey. She experiences some 18 hours of it, while from the outside observers' points of view, it only lasts for three or so seconds. The machine works in the way that the traveller is in a pod high up, and this pod falls through a system of huge moving rings, somehow creating the needed conditions within (nice visual effects there). From the outside, the pod simply falls straight through these rings, but Ellie experiences a journey through what appear to be wormholes, which allow her to travel to Vega and back in these 18 hours. Bottom line, the observers don’t believe her report afterwards, and also the instruments on board of the pod don’t record anything useful, even though they do record 18 hours of static, not just three seconds.
Here’s where the plot starts to fall apart. First, they had planned a test run with a dummy aboard the pod, but a religious wacko blows the machine to smithereens during that test run, and the first selected traveller dies. Why didn’t they do a test run with the second machine? There would have been no surprise about the pod just falling through, or the instruments aboard not recording useful data. Heck, they might even have tried to upgrade their measuring equipment.
Then, Ellie is depicted as somehow helpless during the investigation following her journey. She just repeats her story and experience, while the investigating committee insinuates that she just might have some psychotic experience. One of the investigators even asks her if they should take her account on pure faith – of course making a stab at her being a non-believer, but a scientist. In science, there’s no faith and authorities to believe, but critical thinking, theories, tests, and verification or falsification. Why does Ellie, the scientist, not stand up and shout, at the top of her lungs, “No, imbeciles! That’s not how science works! No faith needed! We had just one run, so we have only one test result and report, one set of data points – now let’s do some more!”
But she’s all docile, and seemingly content that at least her boyfriend, who is a theologian, publicly proclaims that “he believes her”. What started as a credible movie on science fizzles out as some reconciliation story between science and religion, blurring the boundaries in-between. I felt sorry for Jodie Foster, who started as strong-willed, confident, knowledgeable woman, and ended as weak-ish character in the arms of her boyfriend to offer guidance and support, physical and mental. And in a subsequent scene we see Ellie teaching children. Talk about female role stereotypes. It’s painful to watch.
To conclude, two things. First, the discrepancy between the two time-durations, 18 hours vs. three seconds. According to Einstein’s special relativity theory, a clock that moves fast compared to another clock ticks slower. But here, we have it the other way round: if Ellie moves fast, her clock should run slower, but it runs faster, as she experiences more time than the observers on Earth. Therefore, we have a contradiction with a well-known and tested physical theory, and actually with reality as we Earthlings know it. It might have been worth to point this out explicitly, and not just show some ominous conversation (and it would have been even more a reason to conduct more experiments, for crying out loud, Ellie!).
Second, Ellie is told by her father-impersonator that this kind of travel to Vega has been done “for billions of years”. No. Vega is only about a tenth of our sun’s age, which is roughly 4.5 billion years, hence Vega is less than 500 million years old. Add some substantial time to develop the obviously highly developed civilisation and intelligence. It would have been easy to say “for tens of thousands of years”, and this would have been impressive anyway, considering the age of humanity, and still fit the story.
Nevertheless, a movie worth watching. It has the potential to make you think. And write overly long posts.