Saturday, August 17, 2019

When Ellie Arroway Makes First Contact in Contact (1997)

Title: Contact
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Language: English
Rating: PG

In Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), who for years has been involved in a search for extraterrestrial life, gets to make face-to-face contact with an alien.

It's a disorienting sequence of events, with ambiguity as to what happens (and how it happens). It's also the most visually beautiful part of the movie. Arroway, committed to recording what she is seeing as she glimpses new parts of the galaxy, is almost robbed of speech by how magnificent everything is. With tears in her eyes, she talks about how officials should have sent a poet to be the ambassador of humanity. Maybe a poet could have found words, though I think a poet would have been overwhelmed too. I especially liked Foster's performance in this sequence; it was moving.

The moment of first contact itself is part of this resplendence. It's a gentle connection, full of beauty and wonder and humility. The being she encounters assumes the form of her father, who passed away when she was a child, and this image becomes a metaphor of how this alien species views humans. The aliens are more advanced and mentor-like (though not close to all-knowing); the humans are fledglings, not yet prepared to become part of the web of species that have established communication with each other.

I smile thinking about how a movie involving an extraterrestrial experience makes you appreciate humanity more, as brutish and arrogant as we can be. (What's likely the first sign of us that aliens pick up is a broadcast of Hitler's speech at the 1936 Olympics.) The movie celebrates the potential of humanity, and not just our potential for destruction.

I liked the portrayal of science: the enthusiasm, obsessiveness, long hard slogs, and careful thought and preparations. Also the fight for grant money, and the stress of dealing with politics and with other people sliding in to take attention and credit from you. (As in The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster plays a woman in a field dominated by men and fed up with the politics and power plays.)

Contact also discusses faith, the awe and humility in faith. The main proponent of faith and religious belief in the movie is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). McConaughey's performance is mostly about looking calm and wise, and Palmer's function is mostly to remind Ellie that there are different kinds of "unknown" and "unseen," and that science alone can't provide guidance about developing a meaningful life. (He also isn't "anti-science.") Humility and a sense of wonder are (or should be) a part of faith and a part of scientific discovery; we are questing beings – humble, thoughtful, and courageous at our best.