Pop Culture Rewind: Contact

Pop Culture Rewind: writing about pop culture years after it was current.

So I watch the movie Contact the other night. First off, I read the novel by Carl Sagan almost 10 years ago. I have fond, but mixed memories of that book that watching the film actually clarified (although I am not realy sure how closely the film follows the book – obviously the film condensed the book’s plot considerably). The book’s strength is Carl Sagan’s account of how a “first contact” with an alien civilization might occur. Not what the aliens would be like or what they would say to us but the very technical and completely plausible method in which an alien civilization might try to contact another civilization, such as ours. In this part of the yarn, Carl Sagan is writing science fiction but it is so grounded in physics and what we are already engaged in today that Sagan doesn’t have to extrapolate much. Embedding a message in radio waves using math as the language of the message may not be the way Earth does get its first contact with aliens (assuming of course we’re not alone in the “beeellions and beeellions of stars” in the universe) but it’s a damn plausible way and completely believable in the context of the book (and the film for that matter).

But the way the book is structured Sagan has more then half the tale to tell after Earth receives that “contact”. And that’s where it kind of goes off the rails. Because Sagan can’t decide whether he wants to tell a largely factual, scientific tale or make up some science-fiction answers to things that are ultimately unknowable yet. Now Sagan was a scientist and a writer of considerable skill as well as someone who was tremendously effective at explaining science to the public. So you can see how he might not want to go the route of just making up some aliens and a whole made-up plot. After all, Sagan was also someone who believed (rightfully so) science is man’s greatest achievement and that our modern age’s greatest dangers lie in abandoning science for superstition and anti-intellectualism. And in fact beyond his notion to spell out an entirely plausible way in which Earth receives its first “contact” Sagan is also clearly interested in the conflict between knowledge and faith, science and religion. Which is an interested topic I suppose, but one that Sagan sets up rather hamhandedly and was simply beyond his fictional-writing chops.

So in the service of this reason versus belief theme, Sagan welches through the plot, introducing a fantastic machine built from a design imbedded in the message sent by the aliens and then sending the protagonist on a journey to an alien civilization that reveals nothing about the aliens and is set up so that no one on Earth has any evidence that the machine sent her anywhere. That last bit is Sagan’s attempt to set up his champion of reason, the protagonist, as needing belief, i.e., the belief of the rest of Earth, because she has no proof of the fantastic journey the machine sent her on.

Okay let’s dive into the film for a second before we go on. Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway who is the protagonist. She works on the SETI project – against many disbelievers and critics, she discovers the message, i.e., makes contact. Foster is really good in this role – she certainly makes the most of the script (despite some of its flaws). She’s tough, she projects intelligence well and when needed emotion. There are also decent special effects throughout the project, especially for its 1997 vintage. Unfortunately there is also Matthew McConaughey who is horribly miscast as a sort of pop-culture spiritual guru who becomes an important advisor to the President (President Clinton actually – he is played by himself by the use of inserting news footage into the movie. Which works very poorly actually). Moreover, McConaughey’s Palmer Joss is the love interest for Dr. Arroway which considering there is absolutely no chemistry on screen between McConaughey and Foster, which may have worked okay in the expanded plot of the book, is mostly distracting in the more streamlined movie. Sagan used this relationship and these two characters to voice his thoughts on science and religon. In the movie you’re left mostly thinking, why is a dedicated and intelligent scientist who is willing to devote everything to the obsessive goal of making contact bothering to grope around with Preachy McSurferDude? Look. in this movie Foster gets to be the action hero – a thinking action hero but that’s her role. And all of the McConaughey scenes play like unnecessary exposition. We’re here for aliens and action, not making kissy faces with Preachy McSurfer Dude…

So where was I? Oh right. Once we get past the fact that we’ve made contact and that there is in fact a message about how to build something embedded in it everyone in the movie gets kind of stupid and Sagan conveniently stops trying to even make a pass at having his plot stay somewhat extrapolated from science. First of all there’s a machine! And no one knows what it does! Well here’s the problem with that. In the movie we get the diagrams and we build the damn machine. Obviously the plans are detailed enough so that we can actually build it. The laws of physics apply everywhere so PEOPLE on Earth are not going to be completely unable to figure out what the machine does as every moron in this movie does. What does it do? It might be an encyclopedia?! A spaceship? A toaster-oven! So this is Sagan’s first big wimp-out and it’s doubly dissapointing after the realism of the early section of the book dealing with how we made contact. (The book might not be as bad as the movie on this point). Then as Dr. Arroway travels to the aliens in the machine and back (presumably through a wormhole) she is discredited and disbelieved because it didn’t appear that she went anywhere. And yet at the end of the movie it’s revealed that her suit recorder has recorded 18 hours of static – the exact amount of time she claimed to have been gone. That’s not something really smart people would have overlooked – that’s a very clear piece of evidence that something happened. It would have been entirely plausible for Sagan to have extrapolated a plausible scenario for the latter part of the book and let the characters in it continue to be smart. (That wouldn’t have guaranteed that director Robert Zemeckis still wouldn’t have bastardized it anyhow)

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