A Review of 'Contact' and Its Stellar Themes - Cosmic Crossroads

18 October 2023

"Contact," directed by Robert Zemeckis and released in 1997, is a cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan's 1985 novel of the same name. Starring Jodie Foster (Elysium) as the resolute and impassioned Dr. Ellie Arroway, the film explores complex themes of faith, science, and the eternal human yearning for contact with the 'other,' whether it be extraterrestrial or divine. T

The film not only boasts a compelling narrative but also captures the spirit of its source material, serving as a tribute to Sagan's own ideals. Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt (Alien), and William Fichtner round off a stellar cast, contributing their own dimensions to a story that delves into the very essence of what it means to be human in an incomprehensible universe.

Zemeckis, known for other blockbuster films like "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump," brings his unique touch to a story that could easily become trapped in its lofty themes. Through a lens that is at times tender and at others awe-inspiring, the director ensures that the movie is as much a journey of the heart as it is of the mind. In an age where science fiction often becomes a canvas for spectacle over substance, "Contact" serves as a reminder that the genre's true power lies in its ability to make us question the known boundaries of our existence.

This review will explore the intricate layers of "Contact," from its well-etched characters and visual storytelling to its thematic depth and contribution to science fiction. Each aspect will be dissected to appreciate how they contribute to making the film an enduring classic in the annals of sci-fi cinema.

contact film review

The Premise: A Glimpse into the Story of Contact

"Contact" revolves around Dr. Ellie Arroway, a dedicated astronomer who works with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. Operating from the Very Large Array in New Mexico, she scans radio frequencies in the hope of detecting signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life. Her perseverance pays off when she picks up a repeating series of prime numbers, a clear indicator of deliberate transmission, originating from the star system Vega, 26 light-years away from Earth.

As the world grapples with the implications of this monumental discovery, Ellie finds herself in the eye of a scientific and theological storm. The signal not only confirms the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life but also includes detailed instructions for constructing a mysterious machine. The machine's purpose is unknown, but its construction involves international cooperation and billions of dollars. As Ellie vies for a seat on the machine—essentially a one-way ticket to an unknown destination—she must contend with bureaucratic obstacles, ethical quandaries, and existential questions.

The story cleverly interweaves Ellie's personal journey with broader themes of human aspiration and limitation. It's a narrative that doesn't just look outward to the stars, but also inward, into the intricate complexities of the human soul. Against a backdrop of cutting-edge technology and cosmic vastness, Ellie's search for extraterrestrial life becomes a mirror for her own quest for meaning and connection. As the pieces of the mysterious machine come together, so does a larger picture of humanity's place in the cosmos and the true nature of faith and understanding.

In short, the film tackles the grandest questions about existence through a deeply personal lens, setting the stage for the viewer to confront these questions alongside its protagonist. With this rich thematic texture and narrative depth, "Contact" distinguishes itself as a unique tale of first contact, not just with alien life but also with the multifaceted dimensions of human experience.

Characters: Probing the Psychological Depths

Ellie Arroway: A Relentless Seeker
Dr. Ellie Arroway, portrayed with nuance and complexity by Jodie Foster, serves as the emotional and intellectual nucleus of "Contact." A fiercely independent and deeply rational scientist, Ellie is driven by a relentless quest for knowledge and a need to uncover the mysteries of the universe. This drive is both her strength and her vulnerability. Ellie is motivated by an underlying yearning for connection that stems from the loss of her parents at a young age. Her pursuit of extraterrestrial signals is not merely a scientific endeavor; it's a search for validation, a cosmic antidote to the loneliness and sense of insignificance that haunts her.

What sets Ellie apart is her unwavering commitment to empirical evidence and the scientific method, even when she is tempted by the emotional comforts of faith or public opinion. She stands her ground in debates with theologians, politicians, and even fellow scientists who question the value and ethical implications of her work. Throughout the film, her character arc reveals a subtle transformation. While her commitment to science remains steadfast, she learns to appreciate the intangible, immeasurable aspects of human experience, such as love and faith.

Supporting Characters: The Earthly Counterparts

Palmer Joss: The Spiritual Antithesis
Matthew McConaughey's Palmer Joss provides a fascinating counterpoint to Ellie. As a Christian philosopher and theologian, Joss represents the spiritual dimensions that Ellie either ignores or disdains. He challenges her scientific materialism, forcing her to contemplate the limits of empirical evidence and the role of faith in human experience. Through their interactions, the film raises poignant questions about the compatibility and potential synthesis of scientific inquiry and spiritual belief.

David Drumlin: The Pragmatic Skeptic
Tom Skerritt's David Drumlin, Ellie's supervisor and a high-ranking government scientist, represents a different kind of foil. Drumlin is a pragmatist who values science for its utility rather than its capacity to answer existential questions. He embodies the bureaucratic and political obstacles that often impede scientific progress, serving as a gatekeeper who initially dismisses Ellie's work as fruitless. His character exposes the viewer to the internal politics and power dynamics that exist within scientific communities, adding another layer of complexity to Ellie's journey.

Contact’s Cinematic Elements: Aesthetic Choices and Technical Brilliance

Visuals: The Telescope to the Cosmos

One of the standout elements of "Contact" is its cinematography, executed by Don Burgess. The film skillfully employs visual storytelling to augment its complex narrative and themes. The choice of settings, from the expansive desert landscapes surrounding the Very Large Array to the claustrophobic interiors of government buildings, serves to juxtapose Ellie's limitless curiosity with the often restrictive societal structures she navigates. Moreover, the film uses visual motifs, like mirrors and lenses, to parallel its thematic focus on perspectives, both scientific and personal.

The visual effects, especially for the era in which the film was made, are remarkable. The construction of the machine, based on the alien blueprints, is shown through a series of breathtaking shots that capture its scale and complexity, evoking a sense of wonder and trepidation. These visuals serve not just as eye candy but as a narrative tool, encapsulating the awe and fear associated with venturing into the unknown.

Soundtrack: Echoes of the Unknown

Alan Silvestri's haunting and ethereal score is another noteworthy aspect of the film's technical brilliance. The music is at once cosmic and intimate, imbuing the film with a transcendental quality that elevates its narrative and thematic depth. The soundtrack serves as a kind of emotional compass, guiding the audience through Ellie's journey of discovery and internal struggle. The subtlety of the score, which avoids overwhelming the viewer but rather complements the on-screen action, adds layers to the viewing experience.

In the sequences involving space and the unknown, the music takes on an otherworldly quality, using a range of instruments and electronic sounds to evoke the enormity and mystery of the cosmos. During the more introspective moments, the score shifts to softer, melancholic tones, reflecting the internal landscapes of the characters, particularly Ellie.

The visual and auditory elements of "Contact" work in harmony to create a cinematic experience that is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally resonant. These elements do not merely serve the narrative; they enrich it, providing additional layers of meaning and engagement for the viewer. In doing so, they demonstrate the power of cinema to tackle complex issues and themes in a way that is both accessible and profound.

Exploration of the themes of Contact

The Conflict of Science and Faith

One of the most compelling aspects of "Contact" is its nuanced exploration of the perennial tension between science and faith. Ellie Arroway, as the embodiment of scientific rationalism, often finds herself at odds with characters who represent religious or spiritual viewpoints, most notably Palmer Joss. However, the film does not settle for a simplistic binary; instead, it delves into the complexities and overlaps between these two modes of understanding the world.

For instance, Ellie's rigorous empiricism is put to the test when she has an experience that she can't quantify or prove scientifically. The film plays out this tension in a fascinating scene where Ellie must present her unverifiable experience to a skeptical panel, including religious and scientific authorities. Her struggle to articulate the validity of her experience without the backing of empirical evidence parallels the very essence of religious faith.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Voyager

Another recurring theme is the isolation—both physical and emotional—that comes with Ellie's journey. Whether she is scanning frequencies alone in the vast New Mexican desert or standing as the lone representative of humankind in a monumental endeavor, Ellie grapples with a profound sense of solitude. This theme is accentuated by both the visual language of the film, with its expansive shots that often depict Ellie as a tiny figure within larger landscapes, and the emotional nuances that Jodie Foster brings to her character.

Ellie's isolation is not just a function of her physical circumstances but also stems from her intellectual and emotional detachment. She has devoted her life to pursuits that often leave her alienated from more conventional social norms and relationships. Her struggle to connect with Palmer Joss on a spiritual level serves as a poignant representation of this emotional isolation. In a sense, her loneliness encapsulates the larger human condition, one often fraught with existential solitude despite our collective endeavors and shared experiences.

Both themes—the conflict of science and faith, and the loneliness of the long-distance voyager—interact throughout the film to create a textured, multi-dimensional narrative. They challenge the viewer to reconcile their own beliefs and experiences with the larger questions the film raises, making "Contact" a deeply engaging and intellectually stimulating experience.

Impact and Contribution of Contact to Science Fiction

Re-Defining First Contact

"Contact" offers a refreshing twist to the popular science fiction trope of first contact with extraterrestrial life. Unlike many other films in the genre that focus on the spectacle of alien encounters, often fraught with conflict or outright warfare, "Contact" opts for a more introspective approach. The extraterrestrial message received is not a declaration of intent but a puzzle to be solved, a challenge that unites humanity rather than divides it.

This film complicates the idea of 'first contact' by suggesting that the first meaningful contact we make might not be with extraterrestrial life, but with our own species, and even within the recesses of our own minds. The machine's journey, rather than culminating in a traditional face-to-face meeting with aliens, serves as a catalyst for individual and collective self-discovery. This re-defining of 'first contact' adds a new layer to the trope, enriching the genre’s vocabulary and offering new narrative possibilities for future works.

Ethical and Philosophical Dimensions

In addition to its innovative approach to first contact, "Contact" significantly contributes to science fiction by thoroughly exploring the ethical and philosophical implications of scientific endeavor. It does not shy away from asking hard questions about the responsibilities that come with knowledge. Should we act upon every piece of information we gain, regardless of the potential repercussions? How should resources be allocated in pursuit of uncertain goals? These ethical quandaries are woven into the fabric of the narrative, providing a framework within which the audience can engage with the story on a deeper level.

Bridging the Gap: Science Fiction for Scientists and Philosophers

One of Carl Sagan's goals in writing the original novel was to create a science fiction story that was deeply rooted in actual scientific theory and ethical considerations. The film adaptation continues this mission, serving not just as entertainment but also as a form of public outreach for scientific thought. The movie doesn't merely pay lip service to complex scientific concepts like radio astronomy, wormholes, and the nature of time; it incorporates these elements into its narrative structure.

It is this commitment to scientific accuracy, coupled with a deep philosophical inquiry into the human condition, that sets "Contact" apart as a masterwork within the science fiction genre. It shows that science fiction can be a medium for serious intellectual engagement, not just escapism, thereby elevating the genre's potential for contributing to important cultural and philosophical discussions.

Reception and Legacy of Contact: The Echoes that Persist

Critical and Audience Reception

Upon its release, "Contact" was met with both critical acclaim and public interest. The film struck a chord with audiences for its deep intellectual engagement and emotional resonance, factors often credited to the masterful performances, particularly that of Jodie Foster. Critics lauded the film for its meticulous storytelling, commitment to scientific accuracy, and its brave foray into existential themes that most mainstream films seldom tackle. It became not only a box office success but also a topic of discussion in various intellectual circles, ranging from the scientific community to religious and philosophical debates.

Awards and Nominations

The film received several awards and nominations, further solidifying its place as a noteworthy entry in both the science fiction genre and mainstream cinema. Jodie Foster’s performance was universally praised, earning her nominations for several awards. The film’s technical achievements, especially its visual effects and sound design, were also acknowledged in various industry award functions.

Influence on Subsequent Works

The thematic richness and narrative complexity of "Contact" have made it a point of reference for subsequent works in the science fiction genre, and even beyond. It has served as an inspiration for storytellers who seek to blend hard science with deep philosophical inquiry. Films like "Interstellar" and "Arrival" owe a thematic debt to "Contact," particularly in their nuanced approach to the concept of first contact and the complex interplay of science and human emotion.

"Contact" serves as more than just a cinematic experience; it is a cultural artifact that invites repeated engagement. Its enduring relevance speaks to the universality of its themes and the effectiveness of its storytelling. In that sense, it has not only enriched the science fiction genre but also contributed to the ongoing dialogue about humanity's place in the universe.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

At The Astromech, you can expect to find a variety of articles, reviews, and analysis related to science fiction, including books, movies, TV, and games.
From exploring the latest news and theories to discussing the classics, I aim to provide entertaining and informative content for all fans of the genre.

Whether you are a die-hard Star Trek fan or simply curious about the world of science fiction, The Astromech has something for everyone. So, sit back, relax, and join me on this journey through the stars!
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