It took Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, a renowned advocate for public science, nearly 20 years to fulfill their dream of making an intellectual science fiction movie with a female scientist as the hero. 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. It remains one of the best, most realistic and emotional alien films ever made. And the public never sees the aliens.
The idea for Contact started by the pool as Druyan and Sagan considered what to do next Cosmos. They always intended it to be a movie, but the movie got stuck in development hell. In the 1980s, producers and directors simply couldn’t handle the idea of a female protagonist who had no husband or children. Ideas have been floated for his son to disappear or even secretly follow him on the journey into space. They couldn’t see the character outside of women’s traditional social roles. So, Sagan wrote the novel Contact in 1985, based on his and Druyan’s story. The book was a huge success and Warner Bros. then started listening to Sagan.
Eventually, George Miller was brought in to direct. He worked closely with Sagan, Druyan, and uncredited writer Menno Meyjes to create a less explanatory, more uplifting film. Sagan’s book was fantastic, but it lacked some of the emotional heart that Druyan and later storytellers brought to the film. Sagan understood science and how it conflicted with faith, but it was others who filled humanity’s good and bad reactions. The book also had to deal with the Cold War; the film did not. While his film is one every movie or sci-fi fan wants to see, he ultimately left the project because he couldn’t set an ending, according to an oral history published by Vulture. Then the singular Robert Zemeckis came on board, delivering the kind of film that two longtime advocates of public science could be proud of.
Contact begins with a three-minute tracking shot through the entire solar system. It follows the broadcasts humans have sent into space until we get to the one that kicks off the story. Of course, this was done with CGI. The visual effects for this film are expansive and involved almost every major effects house at the time, from newbies like Sony Imageworks to old-guard innovators at Industrial Light & Magic. The most controversial effect was a technique developed on Forrest Gump to insert real images in this fictional film. Several shots by President Bill Clinton were used, including a speech in which he discussed the impact of a suspected meteorite from Mars which doubled well for a “first contact” speech. The most notorious sequence, however, is the one at the end of the film.
Jodie Foster and David Morse, playing a manifestation of her late father created by the aliens, filmed the scene in front of a green screen with a pile of sand between them. The rest of the footage was a digitally created backdrop of Pensacola, Florida, and a vast galaxy in the sky. Zemeckis and visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston deliberately placed this sequence squarely in the uncanny valley. Even though the film shows almost nothing extraterrestrial, it was important for this sequence to feel “alien”. The experience is ultimately the same as Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss described when he “saw” God. Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway dismisses it, saying it was an experience he “needed” to have. It’s a nice foreshadowing of how the film lands squarely in the middle of the question of science and faith.
Perhaps more revolutionary than the harsh sci-fi plot or the high-end visual effects employed was the character of Ellie. She was not a sympathetic woman, who remained confident in the face of bigoted men. She was prickly and emotional and made decisions that frustrated the viewer. Added for the movie, the focus was on Ellie and her father, Ted. In the book, Ellie’s mother is mostly alive, but in the movie, she’s already gone. Then Ted dies and Ellie rushes off to get her medicine in one of Robert Zemeckis’ coolest shots ever. Ellie’s search for extraterrestrial life reflects her desire to reconnect with those she has lost. This is why the aliens ultimately choose Ted’s form for their conversation.
The central conflict between faith and science is one that Sagan understood and still struggles with. At some point in any scientific endeavor, faith comes into play when science is theoretical. While Palmer and Ellie represent this personal philosophical conflict, the audience’s reaction to the post is its critique of faith and scientific culture in society. Nearly three years into a global pandemic, it seems Sagan and the other storytellers have underestimated how far people could go when fear-fueled faith intersects with fact. Media coverage served primarily to provide exposure, but it was also a way to highlight this divide in society without taking a position. Yet outside of Busey’s bomber, the faith side of the fight is treated with sympathy.
Whether Contact has villains, it’s Tom Skerritt’s David Drumlin and James Woods’ Mike Kitz, impeccable casting for an overly militant, anti-science political opportunist. Drumlin is both Ellie’s mentor and adversary. It represents the patriarchy in STEM and how it closes doors as easily as it “opens” them. Although he’s not as cowardly as Kitz – Drumlin cares about science – he lies about his belief in God to win the political fight with Ellie. Audiences may not mourn him when he dies, but Ellie certainly will. He’s yet another in a series of human losses that pushes Ellie to make a more lasting connection, one that stretches across the universe.
Contact deserves to be revisited on its 25th anniversary, as it is still the most realistic alien encounter film ever made. Still, what’s worth watching is his view of the human race. It shows people at their best and their worst, and these much more advanced creatures still want to get to know us. Contact may also be the most upbeat alien encounter movie. It’s also prescient, if only for its eccentric bald and mostly reviled space-loving billionaire: SR Hadden, played by the late John Hurt.
Ellie Arroway’s true legacy is shown at the end of the film when she teaches children the joys of radio telescopes. Jodie Foster says she’s met so many women in STEM who credit Ellie Arroway as their inspiration, the same way 1970s women saw Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan have spent their partnership trying to engage the public in science. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Contactthis may well be their greatest success in this mission.