Review: Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

THE CRITICS are hailing Contact as Hollywood’s sole voice of reason in a summer filled with dumb, mass-marketed duds, and they’re not far wrong. The film, adapted by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) from the novel by Carl Sagan, is this year’s most nakedly thought-provoking movie, and it does raise significant questions about the search for truth and the relationship between religion and science within that search.

That relationship is personified in the on-and-off romance between Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), an astronomer who scans the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life, and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a popular theologian and spiritual advisor to the American President.

Palmer believes in God because of a supernatural experience he once had, but his testimony isn’t enough to convince the skeptical Ellie. The tables turn, though, when Ellie receives a signal from a star 26 light-years away. The message contains instructions for building a transport which, after several twists and turns in the plot, Ellie rides into space.

But after spending several hours with the aliens, she returns to find that no time at all has passed back on Earth. Her testimony is dismissed as a hoax, or a self-delusion. Like Lucy after her first adventures in Narnia, Ellie is dying to share her experience, but because she has no evidence to back up her story, no one will believe her. No one, that is, but Palmer, who recognizes in her an integrity similar to his own.

So far, so open-minded. But whatever rapport this film builds between religion and science is hampered by the religious stereotypes sprinkled throughout Michael Goldenberg’s script.

There’s Richard Rank (Rob Lowe), leader of the “Conservative Coalition,” who frets that the aliens won’t share Earth’s “values.” There’s David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), the administrator who advances himself politically by currying favor with the gullible religious community. There’s Joseph (Jake Busey), the sneering sideshow preacher who blows the first transport up, killing several people in a fit of apocalyptic self-righteousness.

But, most tellingly, there is Palmer Joss himself. In the book, he was a “fundamentalist preacher” who tried “to steer a middle course, to reconcile caricatures of science and religion.”

But the film goes out of its way to distance him from those wacky conservatives, transforming him into yet another caricature, albeit a sympathetic one. Now he’s a seminary dropout who speaks pseudoliberal rhetoric, an ex-Jesuit who jumps at the chance to have casual sex with Ellie the day he meets her. Better to be a lapsed Catholic in Hollywood than an active evangelical.

Whatever common ground may exist between religion and science, the film as a whole tips the scales decidedly in science’s favor. The audience lives through Ellie’s experience in space, but we only hear about Palmer’s experience with God. And, at film’s end, the audience is let in on a secret: the government has evidence that would prove Ellie’s story, but they’re keeping it hidden from the public.

That’s a far cry from Sagan’s novel, which took a surprisingly theistic — or at least deistic — turn. There, the aliens helped Ellie find yet another message, this time buried deep within the very fabric of space and time by “an intelligence that antedates the universe.” (Apparently Sagan couldn’t bring himself to say “God”.)

In the film, the aliens settle for a trite, clichéd humanism instead. “In all the searching,” says one, “the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”

Perhaps that sentiment is meant to encourage dialogue here on earth, but true dialogue can’t take place as long as entire communities — in this case, the religious one — are kept marginalized by Hollywood conventions. Listening to the stars may be a worthy venture, but it’s of little use if you can’t make contact with your fellow humans.

– A version of this review was first published in BC Christian News.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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