“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
Thus, begins the highly acclaimed series by the famed and extremely popular astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan, Cosmos, where he pontificates on his wonder at the universe and our place in it. The simultaneous humbling at our probable insignificance in the whole around us and yet the brilliant reminder that thought provides us, on why every moment on this planet and in this life is one to cherish, is one of the primary themes I imbibed from his work. Contact was a sci-fi movie which came out around the dawn of the internet age in 1997. However, it was based on a seminal work, the only sci-fi novel written by Carl Sagan, which was published in 1985 and much of its central ideas finds echoes in his lifelong philosophy. Sagan was a passionate advocate for funding for space exploration and the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. This especially was represented by SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) both in real life and in this movie Sagan’s various phrases are embedded in popular culture by now, including the extremely moving excerpt from his 1994 book ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Sagan was interested deeply in the philosophical gleanings from the intersection of science and faith, and this is also one of the prime themes in this movie. But how does this movie fare on re-watch today, during this COVID-19 induced lockdown in an age which, while only a little more than two decades removed from the release of the film, has seen multi-fold remarkable advancements in science and technology so that most of the pre-millennium attempts at Sci-Fi now appear painfully dated. I figured it was time to find out for myself.
The lead here is the character of a radio astronomer named Dr. Eleanor Arroway, played by the always remarkable Jodie Foster, who has had a fascination for the secrets hidden in the skies ever since she was a child and used an amateur radio set to try and unravel at least a few of them. As her beloved father says at the time (and this is another quote attributed to Sagan) – “If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space”. This inspires her lifelong search for meaning in the universe, and after becoming a respected scientist and astronomer continues her work with SETI, to the chagrin of her boss (David Drumlin played by Tom Skerritt) who believes more in the practical uses of science rather than in pure research. However, the search is long and mostly fruitless and her funding is eventually cut. But, unwilling to toe the line, she finds a private funder to continue her work with the radio telescopes. Along the way she also comes in touch with something of a celebrity author, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who primarily discourses on religion’s importance in an age of science. Despite their contrary worldviews (Eleanor is a firm non-believer), they find kindred spirits within each other in a brief interlude before parting their ways. The reunion though is much more impactful in both their lives.
Ellie’s persistence finally pays off though. A transmission is picked up from the star Vega, which is 26 light years away. After the entire world and its scientists, leaders and the media converge on the site and the possible meaning of the message, Ellie’s boss, the previously sceptical Drumlin, tries to get in on the act as they are ushered into various meetings with the powers that be who run the country. On a political level, matters concern the nature of the message and if any possible threat is posed by it. Eventually, the message is deciphered and it becomes apparent that the alien race are sending instructions on how to build a specific kind of machine that can transport one person from Earth to their realm. Cue the pandemonium of selecting the planet’s representative. The committee chosen to select this person also includes Palmer Joss, and crucially it is his question which turns the tide against Ellie and towards her opportunistic former boss, Drumlin. But the fate that Ellie doesn’t particularly believe in has another twist in store and Ellie may just get the well-deserved opportunity she has been craving for most of her life. But at what cost to herself and anyone she loves?
I remember having watched this movie a few years after its release back in the late nineties and thinking that it had something profound to say but not exactly figuring out what exactly that was. Perhaps the movie affects one differently depending on when one sees it, but re-watching it a couple of decades later, I can appreciate it more. For one, on a certain level, the premise is simple; a kid has a lifelong dream and she lives to have a shot at achieving it. That in itself is a wonder of a theme to build the film on, but there is more here. It’s obvious that the questions being asked here are not the purely scientific, but also philosophical enquiries into the nature of humanity, faith and of our planet’s relevance in the relative scheme of things. While it would have been easy to scoff at the attitude of the religiously devout and their fears of what the scientific community intends, the film doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, there is genuine respect given, especially through the character of Palmer Joss and through Dr. Eleanor’s own surreal experience, to the possibilities of faith and science working hand in hand.
Another aspect which crossed my mind on watching this now as compared to when it came out is the similarities in certain parts to another famed sci-fi space travel movie, Interstellar. Coincidentally that also starred Matthew McConaughey and that too balanced the simplistic but touching theme of a father-daughter bond within the complexities of space travel and wormholes. Both films also consider the prospect of mortality with respect to the loved ones being left behind when the considerations of time lost is taken into account. Interstellar may have been more lavishly and intriguingly mounted, but this film too deserves credit for the questions it poses. Particularly with respect to the ending and Ellie’s experience. While I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone yet to watch the movie, let’s just say that it does pose an interesting conundrum on the faith vs reason debate.
It may look a little dated at certain points, especially a few of the effects and the computer terminals that are in play, but there is no doubt in my mind that this film should serve a great re-introduction to new generations to the wonderful ideas and theories of Carl Sagan, as well as expose them to a movie that is made and acted pretty damn well.