In a time when the idea of alien visitation is becoming inseparable from Transformers and Battleships, the 1997 movie Contact seems more rare and precious than ever...
Based on the novel by famed astronomer Carl Sagan, the 1997 movie Contact has become a firm favourite in the UFO community. Sagan, of course, was a vehement UFO sceptic, and so it is ironic that Contact connects so profoundly with so many in the UFO field; ironic, but perhaps not surprising considering the movie lends itself freely to UFOlogical readings.
In the movie, SETI scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) – whose character is inspired by real-life former SETI director Jill Tarter – discovers an alien signal beamed from Vega, a star in the constellation of Lyra, some 25 light years from Earth. Her discovery and its subsequent public disclosure by President Clinton constitutes proof that we are not alone in the universe and captures the imagination of the entire planet, sparking fervent scientific, political and religious debate. Soon, Ellie and her team realize the signal is actually a complex schematic for a transport pod designed to carry one person to a destination unknown. That destination, in transpires, is Vega itself and is to be reached via multiple wormholes. Naturally, it is Ellie who takes the cosmic voyage, and, at the end of her epic journey, she finds herself in an elaborate simulacrum of a childhood memory: a warm beach in Pensacola, Florida. It is here that she speaks face-to-face with an alien intelligence which has assumed the form of her dead father, whom she lost as a child: “We thought this might make things easier for you,” he says, smiling gently. No little green or Grey men for Ellie, then; no flying saucers, no motherships or gleaming alien cityscapes, only a mirage of Earthly forms created for her personal comfort. “You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix,” he tells her. “You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” She longs to learn more before being sent home, but is told “This was just a first step. In time you’ll take another… this is the way it’s been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie, small moves.” And so an individual is selected for contact and provided with philosophical nuggets but zero physical evidence of their alien encounter, before being left to tell their story to whomsoever will listen. Ellie, it seems, has much in common with the contactees of UFO lore.
“I can’t prove it”
Back on Earth, during a government inquiry into her claims, Ellie is reminded by a panel member that she has “no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that, to put it mildly, strains credibility.” Ellie is asked: “why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this ‘journey to the center of the galaxy,’ in fact, never took place?” She responds:
“Because I can’t. I... had an experience... I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us, are alone! I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and hope. But... That continues to be my wish.”
Ellie is visibly frustrated. She has experienced direct contact with an alien intelligence, but she has done so in a manner that flies in the face of our preconceived notions (a saucer on the White House lawn, for example – a notion, which, ironically, was borne of cinema), and thus her claims are dismissed by official culture.
As Ellie leaves her hearing, the hardheaded atheist realizes that her contact experience was, in essence, a spiritual awakening not so different from those claimed by religious disciples. Indeed, the throngs of worshippers who greet her outside with placards hailing her discovery of “the new world” confirm her new status as a religious icon. Like many a contactee, Ellie has attracted followers with her stories of otherworldly communion. Certain elements of society see fit to believe her, while most do not. Either way her story is out there.
Although Carl Sagan was a UFO sceptic, the screenwriter for Contact, James V. Hart, is a self-proclaimed UFO believer. Not that this seems to have had much bearing on the film. Any UFOlogical readings we might ascribe to Contact the movie are also identifiable in the book. Intentionally or not, the idea of ‘missing time’ features prominently as Ellie assumes her hyperspatial voyage has lasted hours or even days, when to the eyes of outside observers her transport pod travelled nowhere at all. It is implied that her experience occurred in the space between spaces. Certainly it was beyond her limited comprehension and of those she would seek to convince of its actuality – something UFO witnesses can relate to.
Contact and Clinton
An intriguing UFOlogical side-note on Contact relates to President Bill Clinton. When in the movie the President announces the discovery of the alien signal, the Clinton we see and hear is the real Clinton – which is to say his image and words have not been manipulated by the filmmakers, as could so easily have been done through digital trickery. The President says, in part:
“...If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far reaching and awe inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental. We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge that is as old as humanity itself but essential to our people’s future...”
These words, however, although actually spoken by Clinton, were presented out of context in the movie. While in the scene in question it certainly sounds like Clinton is delivering a cautious disclosure of contact with an alien intelligence, in reality his comments were delivered in August 1996 and referred to the possible discovery of fossilized microbial life in a Martian meteorite. Director Robert Zemeckis simply lifted this part of Clinton’s speech and used it to heighten the believability of his fictional movie. It was a decision that landed the director in hot water with the White House, which issued a complaint to the film’s producers citing unauthorized use of the President’s image. In truth, Clinton was probably delighted to be seen on the big screen announcing alien contact. By his own public admission, the Democratic President was and is fascinated by the idea not only of extraterrestrial life, but of UFO visitation; he has even spoken publicly of his frustration at being stonewalled on the issue. At a speech in Belfast in 1995, the President made a point of bringing up the famous Roswell Incident of 1947: “If the United States Air Force did recover alien bodies, they didn’t tell me about it, either, and I want to know.” He was even more direct in a question and answer session following a speech in Hong Kong in 2005. When asked about Roswell, the President replied: “I did attempt to find out if there were any secret government documents that revealed things. If there were, they were concealed from me too. And, if there were, well I wouldn’t be the first American President that underlings have lied to, or that career bureaucrats have waited out. But there may be some career person sitting around somewhere, hiding these dark secrets, even from elected presidents. But if so, they successfully eluded me.”
A contemplative film calling to mind the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact is a spectacular sci-fi that milked every penny of its $90 million budget to gross in excess of $171 million worldwide. Seventeen years on from its release Contact remains distinct from most all other movies to have explored the idea of human/alien interactions. It belongs to that lonely group of films which has dared to dream that life beyond the stars might one day extend to us a peaceful hand. Although from a screenwriting perspective it is arguably more challenging to explore the positive implications of otherworldly contact than the negative – explosions being easier to pen than profound socio-political or spiritual debate – Contact is testament to the fact that the challenge can be met with gusto, and to both critical and commercial success. Here’s hoping that, in the years to come, Hollywood will be more inclined to shake ET’s hand rather than to blow it off with a bazooka and a one-liner.
This article was originally published in Exopolitics Magazine, Issue 1, Summer 2014, which is available now for free download.
Another sneaky owl