|by John Winston Moore|
|SCP Newsletter, Summer 1997 VOLUME 22:1|
Contact -- a new movie about a scientist involved in the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestial Intelligence) project, is a two and a half hour look at the universe through the eyes of the late astronomer Carl Sagan. Based on Sagan's novel, the movie is an exploration of what happens when scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster) and her team make contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Contact is not a great film, though it can overpower in a superficial way. It is a message movie, and its message resonates strongly with a certain segment, if the response at the showing I attended was any indication. The makers of the film seem to recognize this: the ads for the movie do not quote the usual media movie-reviewers -- they quote the gushings of true-believers who have seen the film. A sampling:
"I have been touched by a truly masterful work,"
"I've just seen the sneak preview of Contact and I am awed. It's one of those 'words can't describe' experiences..."
Well, it's by no means that great. But, to give credit where credit is due, it does at points rise above itself. The opening sequence of the movie, perhaps the best part of the entire movie, is a journey from the home planet Earth out to the distant reaches of the universe, produced as a stunning animated sequence. At first, with Earth looming large in the foreground, the viewer is bombarded with a cacophony of tangled radio and t.v. transmissions. As Earth fades into the distance this noise fades to nothing and the silence of the vast reaches of empty space fills the theater. It is a journey that has no end, sailing ever outward, ever out. The moviemakers have succeeded in capturing something of the beauty of the creation that is usually only seen by the astronauts and the astronomers of our world, and it is awe-inspiring. Whatever else we may think of Sagan, he did live in the world of the red giants and the swirling spiral nebulae. This perspective lends the movie a certain, unexpected grandeur at times; saves it almost.
But in the end, the cosmos is the movie's, as well as Sagan's, downfall. "The heaven's are telling of the glory of God," declares Psalm 19. But somehow Sagan, while staring at them, and thinking about them for such long periods of time, has missed the connection. The irony is huge: a man who spends his life studying the awesome evidences of the creation is unable to find a reason for believing in the Creator. As scientist Ellie puts it at one point in the movie--how can she believe in a God who supposedly created the entire universe, and then erased all evidence of himself from it? I wanted to stand and shout: "those stars you spend so much time looking at there's your evidence." Sagan is aware of the beauty and glory in the universe but from whom and what they derive he seems to have not a clue. In the end, they are apparently ascribed to the reigning gods of scientism, chance and necessity.
Not that Contact is only a movie about atheism. In fact, Sagan's object lesson in this story is that science and faith really can "come together." His attempt at a synthesis is both somewhat subtle, and remarkably clumsy--a strange combination. Representing the world of science, Ellie is the stereoptype of the pure scientist: principled, uncompromising, dedicated to the truth, empirical to the end. She doesn't believe in God because she sees no evidence of him in the universe. Representing the world of 'faith' is Palmer Joss an ever-so-caring, more than slightly over-sexed, almost-priest (a 'man of the cloth without the cloth'). Palmer's mission--ecumenical and New Agey--is to alert the world to the fact that science, with it's denial of the spiritual nature, is ripping the soul out of humanity. But that is as far as Palmer/Sagan ever gets. Palmer believes in 'god' because he once had an experience of coming into the presence of a "being of infinite intelligence." (Let the discerning reader take note.) Just who this 'god' was is never elaborated upon. Palmer's god is faceless. Palmer himself is the prophet of the non-specific, a man who goes on Larry King Live and rambles on about nothing in particular to a world that listens with one ear. This is Sagan's, and one might suppose science's, idealized "man of faith," non-specific, non-threatening to be sure, ultimately inconsequential.
Philip Johnson (Darwin on Trial, Reason in the Balance) refers to a certain class of scientists, to which Sagan aspired, as the "masters of science." These are the media celebrated scientists such as Steven Hawking (A Brief History of Time), Richard Dawkins, (The Blind Watchmaker), Robert J. Gould, et al. who have made the transition from empiricist based science to a grander practice. These "masters of science" are making the jump from explaining simply those things that science can explain, to explaining everything. But to do this, they perhaps recognize that faith, in some form, has to be brought back into the formula. And so, Contact seems to be saying, science is now ready to bring the bloodied and humbled practitioners of faith back into the fold as junior, junior partners. Provided that they are the right kind of faith practitioners, the 'Palmer Joss' type--global, syncretistic, and politically correct.
For while Contact is willing to give second-billing status to the right kind of faith, gloomier fates await the practitioners of the wrong sorts of faith. The most telling moment comes in a venomous caricature of Ralph Reed, unmistakable as "Richard Rank," the head of the "Conservative Coalition." Reed/Rank, done by no less than Rob Lowe, wades into the fray at a White House briefing session to inform the "high-level presidential aide" that his constituency is not interested in making contact with the aliens from the star Vega who are bombarding the planet with a "hello" message. Way out of his depth, Rank threatens, bullies, and blusters in his attempt to make the whole thing go away by forcing the world to ignore it. The implication: conservative Christians are exceedingly dim bulbs (with disproportionate political clout) who are willing to bury their heads in the sand rather than face realities that would threaten their tenuous faith. As peals of triumphant laughter rang through the theater, I wanted to remind people: "This contact by aliens stuff is a Hollywood fantasy, not the Copernican theory. You are revelling in a caricature of a faith you have never really considered."
Only slightly lower on the scale of contempt is the unfortunate Dr. Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Drumlin is pragmatic, unscrupulous and short sighted; but not an idiot like Rank. His litany of sins is extensive: he cuts off funding for Ellie's visionary work of listening for aliens, then, after she is forced to scramble to raise her own independent funding, he takes credit for her work when it finally pays off. But his final, and fatal sin is the hypocritical playing of the God card. In a desperate attempt to become the human envoy to the alien meeting in the sky, Drumlin suddenly "gets faith." The movie seems to reassure us that most thinking people who profess a faith in God are doing so for similar reasons. But, thank goodness ( . . . or something), justice prevails and Ellie ends up being the one to rocket off to meet the Vegans, while Drumlin is taken out by a terrorist bomber (a fantical blonde haired Christian fundamentalist).
This, then, is the spectrum of the believing world: there are the 'good' believers; there are the frothing dim-witted conservatives; there are the opportunistic, hypocritical Drumlins. Sagan's good news to the believing camp is that the people of "good faith," the Palmers, can join in the quest for Truth along with the good scientists, the Ellies, of the world. It is a happy compromise, and one that seemed to please most of the moviegoers at the screening I attended. We can have our faith and eat it too.
The major revelations of the evening are saved, of course, for the heroine Ellie played by Jodie Foster. We see the young Ellie at age 9, orphaned as the result of the early death of her father, reaching out to try and find him with the help of the only technology she has, a HAM radio. "Come in dad, this is me, Ellie." Ellie's sense of aloneness is part of what drives her ultimately, as a mature woman scientist, into the SETI project. She tells Palmer at one point why she is willing to risk her life to go meet the Vegans:
For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for some reason why we're here -- what are we doing here, who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer, I think it's worth a human life, don't you?"
Strangely enough, when the moment of contact arrives, the Vegan who comes to meet Ellie has taken the form of her long-lost father. "Dad, is that you?" asks Ellie, willing to believe for a second that is the actual father she once knew. But it is not, it is simply the Vegan relating to her in a way that will be comprehensible to her. "Why are we here?" asks Ellie. But the alien can only answer that he doesn't know. It seems that the ultimate end of the Contact is the contact itself. "We have found that this is the only thing that helps us to ease our sense of aloneness in the universe," says the alien (Sagan)--"to reach out and connect with other intelligent life in the universe."
Contact is definitely a message movie. But I, for one, found that it was not always clear just what point it was trying to make. On leaving the theater I turned to Brooks Alexander, who summed it up:
Sagan, a man who spent a career systematically stripping the evidence of God from the cosmos, was now attempting to re-graft purpose and meaning into it.
The emptiness, the vastness, the aloneness of man in the infinite dimensions of the physical universe were all too much to bear. And so, Sagan found solace in the idea that there were other lonely, purposeless beings out there who shared our predicament. By contacting these fellow denizens of the vast, irrational, impersonal cosmos, we would find some 'meaning.'
It's not a very good cosmology, but to quote Brooks again "a starving man will put anything in his mouth, even sawdust." Sagan's sawdust seemed to meet the needs of many in the audience who accepted it uncritically, with not a clue of the vast truth they were missing. Instead, they were choosing an anodyne, a godless drug to fill a void. They did not even realize they were starving for the truth and completely unaware of it. As Tal and Brooks observed--Standing in denial of his connection with God, Sagan looked for "connectedness" in his fantasies of alien life. It's a pathetic substitute: "Okay, so we exiled God from the cosmos, but we got worm-holes instead."
"When the effects of Contact wear off--and it doesn't take long--only emptiness remains in Sagan's godless cosmos," says Tal, "an endless emptiness whose inhabitants search for companionship like children lost in some foreboding forest late at night."
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