Tuesday, 19 April 2016
Space Week: Contact (1997)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy famously included an entry which tried to describe the vastness of the universe: "Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space." From its opening moments, Contact brings that idea to the forefront. Before its protagonist is even introduced, the audience is treated to an extended zoom out which begins above the Earth with music playing overtop.
Over the following moments, it gets farther away, and the soundtrack begins to change, shifting to older and older radio transmissions as it gets further through the solar system, and moves on to other stars. Before long, the soundtrack begins to fade, until it reaches a point where it disappears entirely. This one zoom takes the audience from their home planet to other stars, and eventually shows their own galaxy, before zooming further to reveal the local group and local supercluster. This one moment, presented through computer generated images and one shot, serves to show the viewer just how little is known and understood about the universe at large.
Ironically, for a film whose plot revolves around making contact, it is really a story about humanity and the search for knowledge. Historically, science has often been an uphill battle. The quest to understand the universe is not a linear path, but one blocked by human flaws of bias, profit, and fear. When in the early renaissance Giordano Bruno proposed that Earth revolved around the sun (rather than, as was widely believed at the time, the other way around), he was punished by society. Later Galileo Galilei was accused of treason when he presented evidence supporting Bruno's earlier claims, forced to publicly recant his theories, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Contact is, in many ways, based on the idea that history repeats itself. The above accounts of early studies of orbital mechanics are just one of many ways in which scientists trying to find answers were faced with a mountain of obstacles and easily made enemies who either wanted to suppress, reject, or exploit their discoveries for their own ends. For obvious reasons, Charles Darwin's initial writings on evolution were met with huge public backlash. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was mocked for decades even by his fellow scientists until Marie Tharp discovered evidence that not only supported his theory, but also expanded it.
Contact has very much the same situation. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a scientist whose main interest is in her research. She is shown to be smart and always asking questions, and remains passionate about her work for SETI. The only problem is that she has to deal with society at large. At the beginning of the film, very few people take her work seriously. Even her boss, Dr. Drumlin (Tom Skerrit) dismisses her work as a waste of time and money. Drumlin himself is very much an example of the types of people Ellie has to deal with. He is built up as a respected scientist, but every other moment he is selling out, taking credit for Ellie's work, stealing attention away from her, or dismissing her. He may be officially a scientist, but Drumlin is only interested in working for profit.
When contact is finally made, it results in a sharp divide in humanity, all of whom are influenced by biases, agendas, assumptions, and beaurocracy. The discovery that the transmission contains a coded video of Hitler immediately sparks a panic, even after Drumlin and Arroway both try to explain that this is not evidence the aliens are Nazis (more likely, they sent it back as a means of acknowledging it unaware of how it would be received). In one notable scene, Arroway is just trying to get to the observatory when she finds herself having to drive by a crowd of people outside, which includes religious protestors, scientologists, Neo-Nazis, UFO conspiracy theorists offering extreme misrepresentations of what is happening, and others who may just be trying to make money.
However, the focus is mainly placed on three main perspectives: the scientific, religious, and political. Arroway herself serves to represent the purely scientific view, but also important is the political agenda displayed by Security Advisor Kitz (James Woods). While Arroway is objective, trying to examine the facts and showing no problem with sharing information, Kitz spends most of the film interfering with her research and making assumptions. At the movie's end, he proceeds to perform what amounts to a witch trial against Arroway, not unlike that faced by Galileo. He places her at the forefront, intentionally suppresses evidence supporting her claims, and forces her to publicly recant all of her research.