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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Retro Nostalgia: Contact (1997) and Conflating Faith and Science and Its Hopeful Ethos

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Carl Sagan's popularization of science will recall his profound optimism, both with humanity's scientific endeavors and its almost desperate need to strive for "more."  I think it's fair to say that he imagined science as humanity's great thrust to greatness -- to controlling itself and its environment.  After all, he famously said that "[imagination] will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."  And while he was not a religious man, he didn't fear suggesting that science could provide a spiritual vision of the world:

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).
What's fascinating about the film (and, I suspect, the book, which I have not read) is its refusal to shy away from implying that this optimism will ultimately form the basis for a faith argument for science.  In the end, it is that unison of religion and science which offers one of Sagan's most optimistic visions:  namely, that science and religion could ever unify in an increasingly hostile political environment. Palmer and Ellie are themselves stand-ins for these respective fields, suggesting that the romantic conclusion of their narrative must be deferred too, lest faith be rested from the audience on all counts.  Sagan must have been quite hopeful for the future of science to have imagined a world where the greatest religious "threat" to science is an attractive religious guru who can see the writing on the wall.  Hence why the last line in the above quote is so crucial:  "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."  Contact is essentially Sagan's spiritual mind at work, imagining all the possibilities of the science and spiritual realms coming together for the same united purpose:  seeking some deeper truth about the universe -- science on the natural questions; spirituality on the questions about understanding our place in a suddenly crowded universe.  Sadly, if Contact had been written in the late 2000s, Sagan might have seemed naive.
Perhaps that's actually a good thing.  When 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).
But whereas Ellie's journey to discover "the answers" proves successful, the world at large is left in the dark. The aliens, descended from a collective who occasionally reach out to new species as those species reach the next stage in their technological evolution, prevent anything but 17 minutes of static from being recorded during Ellie's trip.  In a final nerve wracking scene, Ellie must defend herself against a verbal onslaught by the government, almost as if in a mirror of McCarthyism.  The irony?  For a government so encumbered with religious thought, they cannot accept her meek request that everyone has to take what she says on faith (she doesn't put things in those exact words, but that has to do with her apprehension over faith).  It's not made clear whether the government does take her seriously, or if they see this as an opportunity to attack her and the billionaire financial backer who made the project possible.
Regardless, the fusion of science and faith in those final moments reminds us that the divide between the spiritual and scientific realms is anything but absolute.  Rather, conflating the two can provide the necessary impetus for growth that humanity needs.  In this case, that growth is the desire to continue reaching out, stretching our little fingers just a little further to join our brethren in the sky.  In a way, this film is as much about science and faith as it is about the American space program.  Neil Degrasse Tyson is noted for discussing something related to this:  the dreams of a nation.  He reminds us that the Soviet Union's space program became the driving force for America's stretch to the heavens, and that once we realized that our "enemies" weren't going to make it to the moon, we stopped stretching.  In the variations of his quotes about dreams, I prefer this one (taken from the video at the bottom of the page):  "Nobody's dreaming about tomorrow anymore. The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to do, and that's making dreams come true."

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.

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  1. Interesting reading, Shaun, and its timing is rather apt, as your case study makes for a rather nice companion piece to Damien Walter's essay on the role of the divine in SF (

    I confess that I haven't seen Contact since its theatrical run, and my memories of the book are even older ('86 or '87), so everything that follows should be taken with an appropriate (and copious) degree of salt.

    Your reading goes some way toward, if not exactly reconciling me with the film, at least encouraging me to think about it in a different light, so let me start with my resistance to Contact. It had struck me, the one time that I saw it, as a movie that wasn't as clever as it thought it was. The initial catastrophic failure of the device reminded me of an Acme contraption that Wile E. Coyote would have dismissed as an obvious death trap (yep, I laughed out loud at the screening), but my bigger problems originated with the source material.

    I remember enjoying Sagan's novel right up until the ending, when the carefully nurtured realism (again, this is a quarter-century-plus-old memory, so caveat caveat caveat) gave way to what felt like a sub-2001 sound and light show with metaphysical noodlings. The very end, wherein the proof of God's existence emerges through pi, felt like a betrayal of everything I had read in Sagan's non-fiction. (Then there's the fact that if I had spent billions for no visible result, I'd be hard-pressed to take a single testimony "on faith" myself.)

    Now, much of that reaction, naturally, comes from my own set of biases, and it is a wee bit hypocritical of me to chide the film for being true to both the spirit and letter of its source novel, given the hate I can't wait to dump on World War Z. So all of that being said, your reading does invite me to consider the film primarily as a working out of a particular theme, which is *precisely* the approach I have found myself using to defend other films from criticisms not unlike what I have just levelled at Contact.

    While the film will never be a favourite of mine, you have made me give it more serious thought than I had previously, and that's always to the good. So thanks for this!


    1. I too seem to recall finding the film less-than-spectacular when I saw it in the late 90s (I can't remember if it was in the theaters or on VHS). There's certainly a sense at the end that we have been denied something we were promised, and I think some of that stems from what we expect from SF and what we expect from science (our biases, as you state). Contact, in that sense, seems to fail at making clear that what we thought we were getting was anything but. The film is about first contact only in the sense that it is about what happens to a planet of lesser beings who must reconcile their entire worldview now that everything they held as true has turned out to be total nonsense.

      I'm glad you got something out of my reading, though. That's kickass.