Contact (1997)

Long before I saw the movie Contact, I had known people who made some sort of connection between intelligent life on other planets and the existence of God.  It’s hard to say what that connection was exactly, because no one ever presented it as a valid argument, consisting of premises about extraterrestrial beings and ending with the conclusion that God exists.  No such argument was ever forthcoming, because it would have been palpably absurd on its face, even to those who were advancing it.  Instead, they just seemed to feel that the existence of aliens had religious significance, but they could never quite to bring themselves to spell it out.

Apparently, it was people just like that who made Contact.  The movie is mainly about making contact with extraterrestrials through the transmission of signals through space, but religious stuff keeps showing up, not because there is any logical connection between the two, but simply because people in the movie seem to feel that connection, even though that feeling never seems to rise to the level of coherent thought.  Mostly what we get is the association of ideas.

For example, Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer.  When Ellie was a young girl, she had a ham radio.  At one point, she asks her father if she can contact her deceased mother through her radio.  And after her father dies, she tries to contact him through her radio.  So an association is made between radio transmissions and life after death.  We regard this as merely a child’s desperate hope of finding her parents again, which would be just fine as a stand-alone scene.  But further such childlike associations recur throughout the movie.

While listening for signals from outer space in Puerto Rico, she meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who is an almost-priest whose spirituality expresses itself as a concern for human values that he believes are being jeopardized by technology.  Ellie and Palmer have sex, and in the afterglow, during a little pillow talk, he says:  “So I was lying there, just looking at the sky. And then I felt something. I don’t know. All I know is that I wasn’t alone. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of nothing, not even dying. It was God.”

There it is in a nutshell:  He looks up at the sky; he has a feeling of the sublime; so there must be a God.

By this time in her life, Ellie has become an atheist, one of a long list of movie atheists destined to find God in the final reel.  She says, “And there’s no chance that you had this experience because some part of you needed to have it?”

Her remark is to the point, of course.  Most people have a religious need.  That need is satisfied by whatever their parents told them when they were children, and that suffices for life.  If they lose their faith in the teachings of childhood, their religious need will manifest itself in something else, sooner or later.  But some people have no religious need at all.  They simply quit believing whatever they were raised to believe, and nothing ever takes its place.  They look up at the sky, and all they see are stars.  If they think about life on other planets, it inspires no religious awe.

As a way of forestalling objections, Palmer says, “I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but this…. My intellect couldn’t even touch this.”  And that’s the end of that.  His epiphany transcended such things as reason and common sense, so it cannot be subjected to critical thought.

Later in the movie, when the world finds out that signals from the vicinity of the relatively close star Vega show signs of intelligent life, we are informed that attendance at religious services has risen.  And we see Robert Novak on Crossfire saying, “Even a scientist must admit there are some pretty serious religious overtones to all this.”

It would be tedious for me to object to every piece of poppycock in this movie, but I cannot let this one pass.  A lot of religious people believe that intelligent life on this planet can be explained only if there is a God.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, there being another planet with intelligent life on it is no big deal.  What God did once, he could easily do again.  On the other hand, atheists believe that evolution can completely explain intelligent life on this planet.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, evolution could produce intelligent life on another planet just as it did on this one.  In either event, one more planet is just one more planet.

Ellie and Palmer get into a debate about the existence of God.  She appeals to the principle of Occam’s razor:  “Occam’s Razor is a basic scientific principle which says: Things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be right. So what’s more likely? An all-powerful God created the universe, then decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or that he doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t feel so small and alone.”

Palmer says he would not want to live in a world where God does not exist.  Ellie, in turn, says she would need proof.  Palmer asks her if she can prove that her father loved her.  She is stumped.  I don’t know why, because all she has to do is apply Occam’s razor one more time.  Her father acted as though he loved her, and the simplest explanation for that is that he really did.  God, on the other hand, acts as though he doesn’t care.

Anyway, it turns out that the aliens have sent us schematics for building a transportation machine that will allow someone from Earth to visit that planet orbiting Vega.  After a lot of paranoid politics and neo-luddite terrorism, Ellie gets to go.  She zips through a wormhole and ends up in a world based on what is in her mind, memories of a beach in Pensacola and of her father.  The alien who has taken on the image of her father explains everything to her, how lots of civilizations from different planets have interacted this way.  Ellie wants to know why more people from Earth can’t see what she’s seen.  The alien answers, “This is the way it’s been done for billions of years.”

In other words, this advanced civilization does not ask why things have to be this way, and so Ellie shouldn’t ask why either.  We are not supposed to question the ways of the aliens just as we are not supposed to question the ways of God.

When Ellie gets back, it turns out that while she has been gone for eighteen hours by her time, only a split second has passed here on Earth.  This is the reverse of the usual twin paradox, in which more time passes for the people on Earth than it does for the astronaut traveling at speeds near that of light, but the reason for this anomaly soon becomes clear.  It is so that her story can be doubted.  Because she ostensibly was only gone for a split second, a lot people don’t believe her story about what happened.  In particular, Michael Kitz (James Woods), who is sort of the villain of the piece, calls her story into question.  He says she just hallucinated it, that the whole thing is a hoax.  He demands that Ellie produce proof, and she cannot.  He appeals to Occam’s razor, no less, and indignantly asks if we are supposed to accept her story on faith.

Now we know why this movie has the aliens demanding that just one person go on that trip to Vega instead of having the Vegans come to Earth.  It puts Ellie in the same position as someone who believes in God but cannot prove it.  Had the Vegans come to Earth, everyone would have seen them on television.  There would have been no doubt as to their existence.  But this way, the aliens leave no proof of their existence just as God has left no proof of his.  So all the objections earlier enunciated by Ellie about God are turned against her with respect to the aliens.  Ellie’s response to these objections harks back to the mystical experience Palmer had while stargazing, almost a beatific vision.

Since this is the way things have been done for billions of years, then here is the way it must have all begun.  There was this first ancient civilization, call it Civilization 1.  They discovered there was another civilization on another planet more primitive than their own, call it Civilization 2.  So, they decided to let exactly one person from Civilization 1 make physical contact with exactly one person from Civilization 2.  They knew that the one person so contacted would not be believed by most people from Civilization 2, except for those willing to take things on faith.  Why the people of Civilization 1 thought faith was important, we don’t know and never shall.  When Civilization 2 discovered a Civilization 3, exactly one person from among the faithful of Civilization 2 made physical contact with exactly one person from Civilization 3, and he was not believed by those of Civilization 3, except by those who have faith.  And they did it this way because that was the way Civilization 1 did it, and people of faith know they are not supposed to question why things are the way they are.  Then Civilization 3 did the same with Civilization 4, and so on and so on, until we get to our present civilization here on Earth.  And it all makes about as much sense as a religion in which God leaves no proof of his existence and then requires faith in him for salvation, without which one is condemned to the eternal fires of Hell.  Why God thinks faith is important, we don’t know and never shall.

For those who are inclined to infuse the existence of aliens from other planets with religious significance, this movie is for them.  For those who have no need of religion, this movie will make them feel like an alien from another planet.

3 thoughts on “Contact (1997)

    • No, I’ve never heard of the Drake equation. Thanks for the link. By the way, according to the website you referred me to, the Drake equation applies only to our galaxy, not to the whole universe. Since there are billions of galaxies, there must be a lot of intelligent life out there. Too bad we haven’t heard from anyone.

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