by Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 150 minutes.
MPAA: PG (language, partial nudity).
Region: 1 (USA, Canada)
There isn't really a comprehensive writeup here on the movie
or the book
, so here goes
I've only seen the movie (own it on DVD). I keep meaning to pick up a copy of the book and read it, but busy busy, you know? WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
"Whatever it is, it ain't local."
Contact, originally penned by astrophysicist and all-around cool guy Carl Sagan, is the story of Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, an astronomer who lost her father at a very young age. This, combined with a strong propensity in her for math and science, led her to excel in the field. She gives up a illustrious career as a Harvard professor, etc. to join SETI and search for radio signals from intelligent life, though.
In the movie, she takes a trip to Puerto Rico to do research at Areceibo. She meets Palmer Joss, new-age religious guru who has no qualms about having a one-night stand with her. Shortly thereafter, her boss David Drumlin pulls her funding. She packs up and heads on the road to try and procure funding for a new SETI project at the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. She conveniently leaves Palmer's number on the bedside table in Puerto Rico.
Of course, it wouldn't be a very good story unless she did eventually receive a signal from another intelligent race. It comes from the star of Vega. The finding of the signal was only the first hurdle. After a very interesting (for the technologically inclined among us) series of scenes where the astrophysicists analyze the signal for any deeper meaning, they discover that it contains plans for building a light-speed transport device. This is done with the help of S. R. Hadden, a ridiculously wealthy businessman who is Ellie's mentor of sorts. He funds her efforts at the VLA, and is kind of the grandfather/cohort to her. It's a very interesting relationship. Part of the story at this point is also the usual meddling, involvement, and naivetÃƒÂ© of the U.S. government, who can't seem to see the bigger picture as all the scientists can. Palmer is back in the picture now, as a special religious advisor to the president (yeah, right). So is Drumlin, who tries to take all the credit for Ellie's discovery, despite having nothing to do with it. Palmer, in his very soothing, non-aggressive way, tries to placate Ellie's atheism (see the quote in dustfromamoth's writeup).
In the meantime, all the nations of the world have joined together to construct the fabulous transport device. Palmer serves on the committee which must select one human to ride in the pod of the transport as it does...whatever it may do. The choice effectively comes down to Ellie and Drumlin. Drumlin is selected solely on the fact that he admits his belief in God (though we're led to believe he, like Ellie, is truly atheist) while Ellie sticks to her guns and does not compromise her personal beliefs.
A religious terrorist suicide-bomber brings about the total destruction of the first machine, just minutes before its launch. Drumlin, and countless others are killed. It's a few days later when Ellie is informed, by Hadden, that the government actually built a second machine off the coast of Japan, and they want her to go in it.
What follows is the 2001-esque, esoteric, abstract, SGI-style special effects laden romp through some wormholes. The Vegans take the form of her father to speak to her. She is told, essentially, what she always wanted to hear. However, the theory of relativity causes her to appear to be gone for a fraction of a second on Earth (which to her seemed to be 18 hours). The machine "did nothing", to the onlookers. All of the cockpit recording instruments recorded only static. The only proof of the journey Ellie took is what she tells people.
This is where the whole thing gets metaphorical. Ellie, previously the hard-line atheist, is now telling the government panel investigating the "machine scam", to take everything that she says on her word. The panel suspects Hadden of essentially fabricating every last detail on the plan for whatever reason he had. (Hadden conveniently dies a few hours after Ellie's voyage). The key point is when Michael Kitz, the military advisor (who resigns and leads to the inquiry after Ellie's trip), says in front of a whole mass of government officials, "Are you saying we should just take all of this.....(very long pause for emphasis)...on faith? Basically, Ellie's gospel of the journey she took and what she was shown is analogous to Palmer's efforts to make her see the existence of God. It's a movie as much about the contact between humans and a mysterious, unseen alien race, as it is about the personal genesis of one person from athiest to...not necessarily Christian, but to one who is no longer adverse to believing in a higher power.
Needless to say, it had a very profound impact on me.