Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.Sagan's optimism, understandably, bleeds through the narrative of the film adaptation of Contact (1997) (how could it not?). Ellie's father, Ted (David Morse), for example, answers his young daughter's (Jena Malone) question about life in the universe by cleverly playing the "it's too damned big of a universe" card -- he suggests that if there isn't anyone else out there, then all that space is wasted. Adult Ellie (Jodie Foster) eventually relays these lines to preacher/religious popularist Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who also repeats them to the world after Ellie's return from her mission and the media firestorm of the perceived failure of the project (not to mention Ellie's implication that faith in her story is necessary).
people called for more optimistic SF in 2009-2010 (resulting in Vries' Shine Anthology), they must have had Contact on the mind, if not in actuality, then in spirit. Contact is a film that strives to find the positive in a world bloated with bureaucracy, religious terrorists, and fear (it is also a largely male world we are presented, with some exceptions). The government wants to control everything, the vain scientists want to use Ellie's discovery to further their own careers, even at the expense of others, the people at large cower or clamber in supplication before things they do not yet understand, and, finally, the religious extremists, seeing this great moment as a threat to their authority, want to destroy the entire project, even if that means preventing humanity's next great leap forward.
Ellie's almost desperate need to remain involved, to discover whatever is "on the other side," to leap into the darkness and bring back answers, holds her up in this storm. She won't participate in the politics or the glory of discovery; she only wants to discover, to know, to understand. Unlike the people around her, with the exception, perhaps, of Palmer and a handful of minor characters, Ellie has only one desire: to use this momentous occasion to understand humanity's place in the universe. It's her optimistic view of the world that I find so pleasant. She truly believes in the mission, not because it will bring her material wealth in the future, but because taking the leap of faith by building and using the machine will actually advance human knowledge. She is the idealized scientist (the film actually offers a foil to this idealized image; he dies -- not insignificantly).
Unlike the shock factor of Sputnik, which, as Tyson suggests (and many other NASA historians), galvanized the U.S. space program, Contact suggests that the next driving force for human exploration into space could be the knowledge and faith that we're not alone. Rather than falling into the trap of violence (as Stephen Hawking would many years later), Sagan presents that next stage as familial. By taking that next leap, we will join the brotherhood/sisterhood of species and become part of something greater than ourselves. We no longer have to fear loneliness, pointlessness, or the terror of the void. That, I think, is the most optimistic message of the entire film. And I think we should embrace it.