Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, James V. Hart, Michael Goldenberg
Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt
Should you watch it? No.
Mishandling a false dichotomy with bumbling insults to the intelligence of scientists and as well as religious folk, this movie tries and fails to be profound, and overall it feels better suited to a mindless action-adventure premise.
A researcher receives a message from space, humanity’s first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life, and then embarks on a journey to negotiate the relations between the whole of planet Earth and this newly-discovered foreign civilization, unveiling the unimaginable mysteries of other planets and exploring the difficulties of communicating with an alien species which might not even employ language as we know it? Sounds like an awesome movie.
That’s not this movie.
On the plus side, there are some aliens.
The sudden but promising beginning demonstrates Earth’s noisiness in comparison to its taciturn neighbors and the silent majority, which is a great start for a film that takes a look at our planet from a wider perspective, which this film is not. However, it always makes the proceedings feel epic and grand whenever the camera pans through outer space. It’s like the visual equivalent of playing dramatic music.
Advanced warning: this is where the movie starts making obvious parallels. Brace yourself.
The shot of shiny galaxies transitions to the eyeball of younger!Ellie Arroway, our main character, as she speaks on an amateur radio, asking if anyone is out there. Whenever she contacts another radio-user, she marks his location on a map, and she likes the idea of talking to people who are very far away. This is how the writers shoehorn in the fact that her mother is dead.
Impressed with having contacted someone in Pensacola, she gets ideas of grandeur and asks about talking to places that are farther and farther away: the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn…
Ellie: Dad? …Can we talk to Mom?
The movie treats the revelation that her mother is dead (which receives awkward handling and had little to do with that scene) as though this is supposed to be tragic and moving, despite that the audience has had no prior bonding with any of these characters (unless you count those two minutes about meeting Mr. Pensacola). In fact, the movie seems to think this scene itself counts as bonding with the characters. Not only are you supposed to care, but you’re supposed to find Ellie more endearing, more real, and more human because the writers killed off her mum. The problem is not that this is unoriginal – it’s that this killed-off-mum gimmick isn’t any more potent here than it is in Cinderella. The rest of the movie, of course, has nothing to do with her mother’s death.
Not to worry. Ellie moves on to whipping up a drawing and asking her father about aliens.
Ellie: You think there’s people on other planets?
Dad: I don’t know, Sparks. But I guess I’d say, if it is just us… it seems like an awful waste of space.
One of the better lines in the movie. Also one of the better taglines of the movie (“Get ready for humans’ biggest discovery ever!”…? Marketing folks, we expect better from you).
Now onto present day: Ellie Arroway is a brilliant scientist. Why? How so? What has she done that is brilliant? Well… she just is. Other characters refer to her as smart, which is the movie’s way of saying “take my word for it”.
She listens for aliens at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, working alongside other researchers including a nice guy named Kent. He shows up again later, but the movie doesn’t pay much attention to him, which is disappointing since he’s more likeable than Ellie.
So while Ellie is at a… whatever kind of store sells both push-pins and beer, she meets a creeper named Palmer Joss, who strikes up a conversation with her. He asks her about her work – with the cover story that he’s researching for a book, but really he’s just a creeper on the prowl. In response to her remark that a Cracker Jack compass might save his life someday, he pauses, smirks, leers at her, and asks, “Will you have dinner with me tonight?”
Silly Eleanor thinks he wants quotes for his book. She blows him off, sort of, but we haven’t seen the last of him.
On the other hand, David Drumlin, whom the movie actually intends for you to dislike, arrives at the Arecibo Observatory. He greets our main character with these words.
Drumlin: Ellie, still waiting for E.T. to call?
Ellie: …Good to see you too.
As can be determined from Ellie’s expression and tone, this scene is the movie cueing us to think he’s a jerk. While perhaps distasteful to the protagonist, is it all that horrible a thing to be dismissive about listening for aliens? Is this really supposed to conjure hatred? Should anyone be rooting for his immediate downfall? Earlier dialogue states he does not believe that listening for aliens is the best use of Ellie’s talents; while perhaps incorrect in the movie’s reality, is it so evil of him to think that?
Ellie sure hates him for it.
Later, Ellie and Drumlin see each other at a party, and just as they’re beginning to argue, Palmer (aka Groper) steps in. Their civil exchange of words—it would be blowing things out of proportion to even call it a disagreement—is supposed to make Drumlin look worse and Palmer look better, but the dude’s still a creep.
Oh, and Drumlin referred to Palmer as “Father Joss”. That’s important. After the bad guy sulks off, Ellie expresses surprise, asking Palmer if he’s a priest. Here’s where we get our dichotomy. Faith Versus Science. However, the construction of this dichotomy is weak at best considering Ellie’s not much of a scientist and Palmer’s not a priest so much as a… quasi-religious humanitarian?
Palmer: I, uh… got my master’s in divinity. Then I dropped out of seminary, went off to do some secular humanitarian work, coordinating the efforts with Third World churches. I couldn’t live with the whole celibacy thing.
Ellie looks pleased to hear this. Oh my. It’s like they’re trying to have chemistry, but failing. Then they go outside and Ellie talks about the stars. This leads to talking about her childhood and when she first decided she wanted to be an astronomer and more talking about stars. This isn’t complaining, mind you. Stars are nice. This scene shows Ellie’s fascination and awe for outer space, which is the kind of thing that’s necessary in a movie like this. And now it’s time for a meaningful echo.
Ellie: You know, there are four hundred billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If only one, out of a million of those, had planets, alright, and if just one, out of a million of those, had life, and if just one, out of a million of those, had intelligent life, there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.
Palmer: Well if there wasn’t… it would be an awful waste of space.
I’m not sure how he happened to use the exact same phrase as her father, but there you have it, folks. Ellie responds to this with “Amen”, which is just a form of reciprocation since she’s even less religious than he is. This isn’t complaining, mind you. It’s nice to see them show respect for each other’s beliefs and—
Oh, they’re kissing now. …Alright, maybe Ellie really likes it when people quote her father, but if they were going for a sense of romance between these characters—
Oh. Now they’re in bed together. No, really. The movie cuts straight to her bedroom. First talking about stars, then kissing, and ta-da, instant sex. It’s… unwarranted. It’s contrived. It’s tacked on, not because this seems like a plausible place for these two characters to end up, but because the writers wanted to force a relationship between the two for the sake of the dichotomy and upcoming plot points. Someone must have thought that a man can’t care about a woman unless he’s been in her bed. Right, because that’s not insulting in the least.
For the sake of argument, say that wasn’t the reason this scene was included. Why is it there, then? Were the filmmakers worried that the story was too intellectual and that the actors weren’t showing enough skin to appeal to the masses? Again, not flattering assumptions. Perhaps not inaccurate assumptions, but this scene is neither romantic nor arousing. It’s tepid and dull. It’s just there.
As they’re lying there, they start having the religion debate. No, really. Also, Ellie tells him that her parents are dead. No, really. This is the romantic couple of the movie, folks. These are the things they discuss as they stroke each other’s hair.
Losing her parents is implied to have made Ellie very lonely, enough to wear down her willpower and make her cave in to creeps, as well as making her so driven to search the stars that it appears she’s no good at making friends or forming lasting relationships. To her, the night with Groper was just a casual fling; she declines his requests to see her again and doesn’t give him her phone number, instead focusing on her work (which apparently does allow enough free time for this fling to happen in the first place, so it’s not as though there’s any real clash).
Time for a flashback to childhood. We see Ellie discover her father’s dead body. It’s supposed to be sad or something, despite the lack of investment in either character. The purpose of all this is to show why Ellie doesn’t like priests.
Priest: Ellie, I know it’s hard to understand this now, but we aren’t always meant to know the reasons why things happen the way they do. Sometimes we just have to accept it as God’s will.
Ellie: Should have kept some medicine in the downstairs bathroom. Then I could have gotten to him sooner.
Thus we have reason trump faith. Ellie has a good point, and oddly enough, this is her coldest, soundest argument she makes in the whole movie, even though she is a grieved child at the time. Why she becomes less mature and rational as an adult is not explained. You haven’t seen adult!Ellie try to make a point yet, but you will.
Maybe the writers realized that young!Ellie was acting rather reasonable for an little girl in grief, enough so to surpass her adult self, and so to compensate they made her try to contact her dead father on the radio. No, really. Being nine years old is a decent excuse, though.
Back in the present day, Kent relays the message that “Drumlin pulled the plug” on their project. Ellie can’t keep listening for aliens here. How terrible. Kent suggests they start researching at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, which sounds like a good idea. It’s the next logical step, right?
But first Ellie has to march up to Drumlin and be furious at him.
Okay, now she can agree with Kent and go to New Mexico. As they get ready to go, they discuss funding and possible donors, and Ellie mentions something about how Hollywood has been “making money off of aliens for years”. Ha. Meta in-joke.
As a precaution, Kent asks Ellie to do him a favor and try not to be too confrontational. So far, Kent seems smarter than Ellie, contrary to what Drumlin keeps saying about her brilliance.
In order to convince people to give her money, Ellie gives a presentation about her ideas. The problem is that no one is taking the bait.
Mr. Executive Seriousface McSuitman: We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.
Ellie: Science fiction. You’re right, it’s crazy. In fact, it’s even worse than that, it’s nuts. You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an airplane, you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it’s ridiculous, right? And what about, what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon? Atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I’m asking is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just step back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history… of history. I’ve spent the last thirteen months coming to rooms like this and speaking to people like you. The truth is, you’re my last chance.
Right, because this irate outburst isn’t a wild display of unprofessionalism in the least. This is the kind of speech you make as a politician to appeal to the emotions of the general population. Even ignoring the way it’s delivered (she’s hysterical), it’s an argument that relies on ethos and pathos, not logos. She points out other risks taken that sounded foolish at the time and happened to produce results, but she doesn’t try to convince them why her project in particular is likely to succeed.
Presenting Ellie Arroway, your bastion of science and rationality.
Oh, and for some reason flipping out on them worked and she gets her funding. This is explained later. Somewhat.
Four years later, they’re still listening at the Very Large Array with no results, and Kent expresses concern that their funding might not continue. Stories are getting out about her doing weird things like listening to washing machines (“looking for patterns in the chaos” is how she defends it). Unlike her, Kent understands that their reputation can have consequences, and he tells her they have three months until the paperwork goes through. He’s ready to “face reality” and be done with the project. Ellie, on the other hand, is supposed to be an inspirational hero who doesn’t give up on her dreams. Will her dreams come true before her time is up? Do you really have to guess?
Hey, look who’s on TV tonight. That’s right, it’s Groper the Creep. He’s written a bestselling book, Losing Faith, and has become a… spiritual advisor to the White House? What? Alright, movie, if you say so.
Palmer: What I’m asking is… are we happier, as a human race? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?
He asks those questions as if they mean the same thing. Although everyone wants to be happy, is pleasure and gratification an accurate measure of whether a place is “better”? It would be interesting if the movie were to explore these questions (much the way Brave New World supposedly does) but they’re just dropped in to further position Palmer as the anti-science guy.
More interesting is that he goes on to talk about people filling the holes in their lives, an obvious parallel to Ellie yearning to cure her loneliness by discovering aliens. It’s like it doesn’t even occur to her that she can make friends on earth. She’s almost like that guy in the X-files episode “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”—the nerd who doesn’t want to get a real job and would rather fly off to another world.
To no one’s surprise, the cosmos rewards Ellie’s determination with a message from space before the time limit is up. That’s not a spoiler. This is about a half an hour in, still nothing more than setting up the plot for the rest of the movie.
She grabs her radio and yells into it! She drives her car fast! Exciting music plays! She runs up stairs! She’s still shouting into the radio! This part of the script has lots of exclamation points!
It is an exciting scene, though. They should have made more of the movie like this instead of taking the botched intellectual approach.
Anyway, they spread the word about this discovery, resulting in news reporters, military personnel, whatever character James Woods is supposed to be, and even David Drumlin showing up on the scene. The camera zooms up on him frowning in sunglasses as if he’s a really bad dude or something.
Oh, okay, here’s why he’s bad: he interrupted someone in the middle of a sentence. That’s unacceptable.
James Woods in a suit: If the source of this signal is so sophisticated, why the remedial math?
Other man in a suit: Exactly. Why don’t they just speak English?
Ellie: Maybe because 70% of the planet speaks other languages. Mathematics is the only truly universal language, Senator.
You tell ‘em, Ellie.
Oh, and it turns out James Woods is Micheal Kitz, national security advisor. Let’s call him Mike.
Mike: Doctor, let me first say that your reputation–
Ellie: Actually, first, could you ask the gentleman with the firearms to wait outside?
Ellie, interrupting people is unacceptable.
For a moment there it seemed like we had our first solid proof that Drumlin is a certified jerk, but our little hero does the same thing to a national security advisor. Maybe it’s a matter of context. “This is supposed to be a civilian facility,” after all.
Oh, and then she interrupts him again to say hi to Kent. Wait, Kent is back now? Good, now if we can just keep Groper out of the movie, this could be nice. It’s not smart of Ellie to keep blowing off the national security advisor like this, however.
Mike and Ellie begin an argument, but Drumlin steps in and defuses it all, clarifying that Ellie made the right choice about announcing the signal to other nations. Hey. Drumlin did a good thing there. Kudos, man. Why are we supposed to dislike him again?
As soon as Drumlin steps away, though, Mike and Ellie almost start back up again, but Kent shushes them so that he can listen to the signal. He discovers that there’s more to the message than prime numbers. There’s a second signal. This reveals a whole new part of the message, which—
Hold on. Kent just figured out something impressive. Why is Ellie considered the brilliant one?
So the second signal turns out to be a recording of Hitler. No, really. As Ellie is explaining the reason for this (it was the first TV broadcast strong enough to be sent into space) to White House staff, Drumlin interrupts her to continue the explanation himself. That’s unacceptable.
Hey look. It’s President Clinton, inserted into the movie Forrest Gump style.
Back at the ranch (that is, the Very Large Array), Kent makes a second breakthrough discovery that there’s yet another part to the message. One could argue that Ellie wasn’t there and would have figured it out too, but Kent deserves a lot more credit than he’s getting. The guy has shown more intelligence than Ellie has in this movie.
Meanwhile, at the press conference…
Rachel Constantine: To better explain to you the events of the last 48 hours, I’m turning you over to the leader of the scientific team that made this remarkable discovery… Dr. David Drumlin, special science advisor to the president.
Ellie is disappointed and confused, but the rest of us are just confused. What made anyone think that Drumlin was in charge of this? He viewed the endeavor as a pointless waste of time. Now he’s taking credit for it, in proper bad-guy style, but… why did anyone think he deserved the credit for it in the first place? How does the movie explain this?
Also as Ellie is discussing the new data (that Kent uncovered) with the White House officials, Drumlin interrupts her again. That’s unacceptable. Then, when Drumlin and Mike suggest that the U.S. government take over the project, Ellie’s voice cracks as she begins to argue with them about it. Rachel Constantine steps in and recommends that Drumlin head the decryption effort while Ellie stays in charge of the operations at the array. While not unreasonable, Ellie’s response to the conflict comes off as emotional, in particular when contrasted with Lady Constantine’s reasonable compromise. If Ellie Arroway is supposed to represent cold, rational science, she’s not selling it.
Clips from various TV channels showcase people’s various responses to the news of alien life. For some reason the people in the movie are convinced that this news carries religious implications. …Like what? Does this really discredit or bolster any of Earth’s religions? What difference does it make?
No answer to that yet, but there are some ticked off Christians here and there raising a fuss for whatever reason. Also, as Ellie drives through the crowd that has gathered around the array, the camera shows some American Natives of some unspecified tribe doing some unspecified dance, and most viewers will have no idea what their opinion on all of this is, but what about the other religions? Surely it’s not just them and the Christians. Where are the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Jews, the Muslims, the Wiccans? Do they not care?
Well, the Neo-Nazis sure look excited.
Oh, there’s our religious implication: a sign says “Jesus is an alien.” Right. Of course. That’s the only possible conclusion. Also, a choir sings “Hail to Vega” (the star where the signal originated). There’s no explanation as to why they’re doing that. The point is people are being weird around here. For example, we have this long-haired man (who looks almost albino) preaching Jonathon Edwards style and blaming scientists for pollution (an unusual stretch—how did the writers even come up with that one?).
Mr. Long-Hair: Are these the kind of people you want talking to your God for you?
Before we proceed, chew on that a minute. The movie is implying that people will misconstrue a message from outer space as a message from God. Have these people not seen what the message consists of? Is there really a Christian sect out there that believes God would speak through coded documents interlaced with a broadcast of Hitler?
When Ellie gets home, she receives a strange email, made even stranger by the way that the movie depicts email. The mysterious person then calls her on the phone and faxes her a map to where they’re supposed to meet. You’d think the mysterious act could be dropped in favor of going straight to the fax machine, but perhaps she wouldn’t have been intrigued enough to obey without the emails and phone call.
She arrives at the meeting place and boards a spacious aircraft, the attendant of which remarks “he hardly lands for anyone.” That’s hardly practical. The point the movie wants to push is that the man who owns this plane, S.R. Hadden, is a larger-than-life power figure who can do whatever he wants because he’s filthy rich. The fact that he’s “had an eye on [Ellie] a long time” is supposed to mark her out as super special. More than anything, though, this is just random and weird, coming out of nowhere.
Hadden: I consider you one of my most valuable long-term investments.
Hadden shows her a series of photos and video clips from her life, narrating various biographical events. Why was this even included? You might think it was to dump information about her and make her look more magnificent, with such tidbits as her declining the offer of a teaching position at Harvard University, but Kent is still the more intelligent one.
So the purpose of this character, Hadden, this is to explain why she ever got the funding to rent the Very Large Array from the government. It was S. R. Hadden who intervened and instructed the board of suits to give her money. Somehow, during their conversation, Ellie deduces that Hadden has figured out the primer for the alien code. He calls her a clever girl, and as patronizing as that is to a grown woman, he’s right about the clever part, although it leads one to question how such a deduction is even possible.
Ellie begins explaining this latest discovery and the decoding process to the government folks, and once again Drumlin interrupts her. That’s unacceptable. Despite his attempts to treat her like a secretary, Ellie claims the floor again and states the message from the aliens might be instructions to building a machine. The immediate concern becomes what this machine might do and whether it would be harmful or dangerous.
Ellie: There’s no reason to believe their intentions are hostile.
Mike: Why is it that the default position of the egghead set that aliens would always be benign?
While it doesn’t make sense to panic at the news of extraterrestrial foreigners, it’s also not rational to place blind trust in strangers of any kind. There must be a cautious but moderate approach somewhere between Ellie’s extreme optimism and the military advisor’s amusing prediction that it might be “a doomsday machine”. Ellie defends her position by saying that we pose no threat to them. There is no proof of that. She does not know what their biology or technology is like. There might be something we’re doing on Earth that somehow damages their bodies or puts a kink in their plans. She doesn’t know enough about them to prove otherwise.
Now let’s watch Ellie try to make a point and fail.
Ellie: It would be like us going out of our way to destroy a few microbes on some anthill in Africa.
Drumlin: Interesting analogy. And how guilty would we feel if we went and destroyed a few microbes on an anthill in Africa?
Why does she specify “in Africa”?
Drumlin is establishing a pattern of better-constructed logical points as compared to Ellie’s tendency for emotional outbursts. He ought to have been the scientist figure in the dichotomy. Also Groper needs a replacement. Speaking of Groper, he enters the room around this point. Why? What is he doing here? What does he want? If he’s some sort of advisor now, why wasn’t he already at the table with the rest of the panel? Even now, he doesn’t join them at the table, but instead takes a seat behind Ellie and lurks in the background, true to form. For now, his entrance into the room is symbolic of religion entering the conversation.
Mr. Rank: We know nothing of these creature’s values. The fact of the matter is, we don’t even know whether they believe in God.
Since when has that ever stopped U.S. relations with countries like China?
Ellie tries to bring reason back into the conversation, which is notable for her, but in denying religious meaning in the message she relies on limiting stereotypes.
Ellie: The message was written in the language of science. Now, if it had been religious in nature, it should have taken on the form of a burning bush or a big booming voice from the sky.
Palmer: But a voice from the sky is exactly what you found, Dr. Arroway.
A good point on its own, but it wasn’t just a voice from the sky. The message also came with the Hitler broadcast, more likely to be sent by aliens ignorant of human affairs than by an omniscient being well-aware of that man’s reputation.
After making a dramatic entrance into the conversation and smirking at Ellie’s surprise to see him, Palmer takes a seat at the table at last. He agrees with Mr. Rank that there are “unavoidable religious implications at stake here”. Why’s that? Are the “Jesus is an alien” folks actually serious?
It’s still unclear why any religion needs to get upset over any of this, aside from the plot forcing that dichotomy again and contriving a reason to get Palmer in the room. He speaks to the panel while looking at Ellie and Ellie alone, grinning at her and making it clear he wants to bed her again. Everyone else in the room, even sardonic Mike and intrusive Drumlin, is oblivious to this.
After the meeting, Groper and Easy Ellie have a casual conversation, he has to leave, and—he wants to know if she’ll be at the reception. She says yes. Why does she say yes? Why doesn’t she blow off this creep? Why does she want to see him again? He’s not even smooth or charming or of similar ideological leanings. Perhaps his physical appearance suits her taste, but it’s a mystery why the story pretends any of this is romantic.
At the reception, there are people outside going nuts, shouting that science is the Devil’s work. Would it be too much of a stretch of the imagination to portray a Christian as something other than a dirty hippie or a flaming extremist?
Inside the reception, we see Groper again, and if Ellie is interested in pursuing a relationship with this man (as suggested by her interest in attending the reception only because he will be there and her interest in procuring “a really great dress”), being this confrontational about his beliefs is a strange tactic.
Ellie: “Ironically, the thing that people are most hungry for, meaning, is the one thing that science hasn’t been able to give them.” Come on. It’s like you’re saying that science killed God.
No, no it is not. Calm down, lady. Try acting like a rational, intelligent being and attempt some analytical thinking skills.
Ellie: Occum’s Razor. It’s a basic scientific principle, and it says all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one… So what’s more likely? …An all-powerful, mysterious God created the Universe and then decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or that He simply doesn’t exist at all and that we created Him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?
Palmer: I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God didn’t exist.
Credibility failure. This man would make a more convincing spiritual authority if he were to at least attempt an argument against Ellie’s assumption that God has not given any proof of his existence. She might shoot down his examples as coincidental or invented, but it would make for a more believable, realistic (and cerebral) discussion that the juvenile chat displayed here.
In response to Ellie’s remark that she personally would need proof in order to believe in God (despite her faith put in the benevolence of aliens even without definitive proof), Groper asks her whether she loved her father, and then he asks her to prove it. No, really. And Ellie has no answer to this. No, really. The movie treats this as a very effective argument.
However, a new discovery rescues us from this banal conversation. The team of decoders has determined that the alien message contains information for building a machine designed to take a single human occupant into space. The American government has decided to build it, but the question is: who gets to go?
Ellie hopes that Drumlin won’t be his over-assertive self and monopolize the selection committee. However, as it turns out, Drumlin is one of the people competing to be selected. She’s devastated to hear this because, as could be guessed, she has her heart set on meeting the aliens herself. It’s just not enough to have one dream of a lifetime realized. You’d think she’d be happy to have participated at all in the first contact with aliens, but no. She thinks her special snowflake uniqueness of informed brilliance and having-been-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time gives her the right to represent the planet, or something to that effect.
More TV clips showcasing various program’s take on all this. In a televised interview, a man asks Ellie about the danger associated with the trip, and the movie again makes this analogy that Ellie treats her passion for science and faith in the aliens like a religion.
Ellie: Well, this message is from a civilization that may be anywhere from hundreds to millions and millions of years ahead of us. I have to believe that an intelligence that advanced knows what they’re doing.
The association the film is trying to make here does not work, and it can even be offensive both to scientists (who would want more evidence of what this advanced civilization knows about what our biology can withstand) and to people who believe in deities, most of whom prefer for their cars to have airbags.
Ellie: Now all it requires on our part is…
Ellie: …I was going to say a sense of adventure.
At the same time, the dialogue drives home the connection and yet reiterates Ellie’s aversion to religion and its verbal paraphernalia.
Concerned about her for some inexplicable reason (the story still wants to be a romance), Palmer confronts Ellie with his concern that if she travels all these light years away, even though it will only be a few years for her, she won’t be back for what will be several decades on Earth. If she comes back, she emphasizes. She’s willing to die for this opportunity, and he, uncomfortable with that, asks her why. Her response amounts to insistence that she’s looking for meaning in her life. Again with the religious overtones. Bludgeon us over the head with it, why don’t you?
Oh, and then they’re kissing again. Correction: they mash faces somewhat and look unhappy as soft music plays.
Now she’s being questioned by the selection committee and all is going well until Groper has another question, intended to bring out an answer that would keep her on the ground. He asks if she believes in God. This is supposed to be relevant to the proceedings because most of humanity believes in at least one deity.
Ellie: As a scientist, I rely on empirical evidence, and in this matter, I don’t believe that there is data either way.
Yet you put total trust in aliens without hard proof of their reliability. This is an instance of what is known as “hypocrisy”.
Drumlin, on the other hand, tells them what they wanted to hear and gets picked. It would be difficult for any of the characters to prove either way whether he was deceiving them or being honest about his beliefs, but what we know of his personality suggests he’s being glib and pragmatic again, considering he took credit for Ellie’s project.
After the committee interviews, Groper shows up at Ellie’s door. She’s not pleased to see him. In defense of himself and The Question, he says the same thing that’s already been said by another panel member: they’re supposed to choose someone to speak for everyone, and most humans (worldwide) don’t share her beliefs.
Palmer: I just couldn’t, in good conscience, vote for a person who doesn’t believe in God.
However, he can, in good conscience, jump into bed with such a person after knowing her for about a day or so.
Sir, a candidate’s religious beliefs may be relevant, but they’re not crucial. We’re not sending someone out on an evangelical mission here. With both Christians and scientists written with unflattering, irrational behavior, this film must be catering to Buddhists and New Age hippie types.
Ellie’s upset that she told the truth and got punished for it, while Drumlin did the opposite. Such stirring tragedy. To indicate that this is supposed to be a moving scene, she returns to him his cheap little Cracker Jack compass, which is a meaningful gesture or something.
Jump to Drumlin’s acceptance speech. He has the cleverness to get what he wants (unlike a certain someone, who needs the help of one mister deus ex machina to even maintain her pet project) and does not exhibit much in the way of ethics, which makes him a bit pesky, and it would be even more irritating if Ellie were a protagonist worth rooting for. Drumlin is not the best representative of the human race, but at least he’s a specimen with smarts.
At the site of the alien machine, Drumlin and Ellie encounter one other. He acknowledges that Ellie does not view his selection as fair; he even agrees with her (implying that he was not honest with the selection committee), and expresses the following sentiments.
Drumlin: I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
In other words, “I’m only a jerk because it’s effective”. This type of argument is difficult to respond to, in particular if you can’t use your belief system to counter that evil will lead to pain and suffering, but it more or less paves the way for assertions about putting moral priorities above material ones. As an agnostic, Ellie might encounter difficulty asserting why people should refrain from Drumlin’s outlook (not to say that there are no such arguments, but this woman has trouble making her case), but as a scientist, she might point toward studies that show altruism and charity correlating with a positive effect on one’s health.
This is a big opportunity for the writers to showcase how Ellie handles Drumlin’s cynicism, and her response is… “the world is what we make of it”. This could be her subtle suggestion that we have the capacity to change society for the better, or it could be interpreted as a scientist, a woman who claims reliance on empirical proof, now denying the existence of any objective reality.
It’s not a strong response, but perhaps it’s the best she has to offer on short notice. Under the circumstances, it’s not bad. If nothing else, it’s an improvement upon her hysterical rant about vision and taking chances.
A thought: it is strange thing that Drumlin is willing to risk his life in this machine derived from a project he had no faith in before. Moving on now.
As testing for the machine begins, some of the staff joke about Drumlin hamming it up for the camera. Then, with an overlay of dramatic music, Ellie notices that something’s not right. There’s a strange man (that long-haired albino extremist) with Drumlin at the machine. Typical. The character who happens to have an unusual phenotype is portrayed as a dangerous freak.
Over intercom or radio or something, Ellie warns him that there’s a security breach. She pans back the security camera and realizes that the man has a bomb. The music intensifies. Security officials have the intruder pinned to the floor and stop him from pressing the button, but then for no apparent reason one of them removes his hand and allows the man to detonate the bomb.
The explosion triggers a chain reaction that takes out the entire space-travel machine. All of it gets destroyed. Just like that, it’s over. This is much more heart-rending than Ellie losing that competition.
But again: why are the religious folk acting this way? This one in particular believes that the aliens are God (lunacy) and that scientists don’t deserve to talk to Him, so despite that Drumlin claimed to be religious, the writers decided that religious extremists would rather blow themselves up than allow scientists to pray in person.
The guy is a nut, we know that, but he had supporters. Why do these people view science as evil? He mentioned pollution earlier, so perhaps they are against certain advances in technology and want to go Amish, but if that’s what they have a problem with, it’s hypocritical to impede science with a bomb.
Stop thinking about this, the writers say; he’s crazy, and we only wrote the this scene to get Drumlin out of the way. For her part, Ellie does look upset, although we can’t determine whether that has anything to do with all the deaths this explosion caused (including that of a man she knew) or whether it is just because her dream machine is no longer usable.
Ellie returns to the Very Large Array, and guess who’s there. That’s right. It’s our man Kent. Nice to see you, Kent. Where’ve you been? And why are you so much more likeable than anyone else around here?
And just like that, he’s gone again, because now we cut to Ellie returning to her house. S.R. Hadden calls her on her television, because he can do what he wants. He looks surprised to see her, because the camera is upside-down. She looks surprised to see him, too, which could either be because he’s calling her on her television or because he’s calling her from a space station. Why is he on a space station? Cancer. You can’t argue with that.
He has something to show her from up there: using the space station’s cameras, he reveals that there is another alien machine built on Earth.
Hadden: First rule in government spending: why build one, when you can have two at twice the price?
Since Mister Moneybags owns Japan or whatever the excuse is, he’s going to arrange for her to use it. Fantastic. So after the crushing setback we just witnessed, instead of having to deal with any of her problems herself, Ellie gets what she wants handed to her on a silver platter.
Writers, are you familiar with the term “facepalm”?
So, after getting everything she ever wanted, Ellie objects to some of the equipment included in the preparations.
Ellie: Okay, the transmitted specs never said anything about any chair, or a restraining harness, or survival gear. You know, why can’t we just trust the original—
Someone interrupts her. This time it is acceptable, because she’s being an idiot.
Later, as she’s waiting in her room (the next morning?) a man knocks on her door and tells her it’s time to get ready, and so she—
What is Groper doing here?
“I had to see you one more time,” he claims. Get out. “Oh, God, I’m sorry.” Get out. “Listen, there’s something I gotta say to you.” Get out. “I didn’t vote for you to go… because I don’t want to lose you.” Get out. Also why are you giving her back that cheap plastic Cracker Jack compass? Stop trying to be meaningful and get out. It’s because of you that we haven’t gotten to the action sequence yet.
Blah, blah, blah from a news reporter on television offering a bit of exposition, and here we go. Ellie’s about to enter the travel pod. The machine hisses, shoots steam, and looks unnerving. In other words, it’s one of the few characters around here having the emotional effect that it’s supposed to, and it’s not even biotic.
With the help of some assistants, Ellie goes through the procedure of installing herself in the pod, while the machine continues its creepy whirring. The vibe is very sci fi. At last, we’re where we should be. Good job, folks. Bravo.
Also it’s a nice touch when Ellie tries to bow back to the Japanese assistants even though she’s strapped into a chair. Not hilarious or anything under the tense circumstances, appropriately, but worthy of a smile. Look at you go, movie. You’re doing swell. Keep up the good work.
Mike and Groper are there at the control station as the preparation continues. It’s okay, though. Kent is there too.
Kent: Nice to smell you again, Mr. Kitz.
Try not to steal the show, man. It’s Ellie’s time to shine.
On second thought, please don’t leave us alone with her.
She’s looking nervous for a few moments here, but when she hears Kent on the control station’s end, a big smile lights up her face. That’s a relatable sentiment there. Then it’s implied that Kent was only able to get in and talk to her only because Palmer intervened and allowed it. Stop showing that man’s face. We’re done with him and his creeping.
When the pod starts vibrating, she looks nervous again. Things get weird. The bottom of the pod flickers in and out of translucence. Trying to keep her voice even, Ellie seems downright scared as she reports these events to control.
Ellie: I can’t describe it. I can’t even explain it.
You should flip those.
As the machine initiates various sequences and other jargon, we keep getting shots of Groper’s annoying worried face and Ellie is sounding more panicked as things escalate and it leads one to wonder: if this character were male, would Dr. Arroway still be portrayed as this frightened?
Maybe yes; maybe no. It’s difficult to determine. The only comparable situation would be Drumlin learning about the bomb. He seemed calm in comparison, although different situations produce different reactions and he had less time to build up anxiety (also, he didn’t have the feelings of helplessness that come with being locked in a chair).
In spite of her apparent fear of the unknown, Ellie repeats that she’s “okay to go”. From the outside, the machine is looking shiny. It really is Ellie’s time to shine.
Initiating drop sequence.
This is it.
The next part is a bunch of intense CGI that’s cool to look at. Trying to describe it to you, though, would be more pointless than you think. Lots of bright colors. Whoosh. This goes on for a while. It’s more entertaining to watch than to read about. For a while, it’s hard to understand what’s going on. Something about a wormhole. Then Ellie almost has an emotional breakdown at the beauty of a celestial event. The camera pans into her eyeball, which might account for the look on her face, and… what? She’s floating through space now? Where’d the pod go? Did the whole thing turn translucent?
Alright, that’s plausible, considering they set up that possibility with the— What? Why is she on a beach now?
There’s something glowing in the sky and she tries to touch it, which reveals to her that the pod is still surrounding her; it’s just invisible. Right. Sounds good. So why does this planet look like Florida?
Wait, there’s something moving over there. Ellie sees it too. It must be an alien. The mysterious blurring of the pod’s surface is making it difficult to tell what it looks like as it gets closer. It’s… It’s… It’s… her father? It’s an alien that looks like her father. Why does the alien look like her father?
From the look on her face, Ellie might be wondering the same thing. On an unrelated note, the actors are looking somewhat rotoscoped here. Maybe the filmmakers are going for the surreal look. Moving on.
The daddy!Alien greets Ellie with her childhood nickname, as if that’s not creepy at all. She looks at him and says, “Dad?” to which he replies, “I missed you.”
Wait. Is this her father? Her real father? Her real dead father? Is this an alien impersonating her father, or was her father an alien all along impersonating a human? Why are they in Florida?
Hold on. Mister Dead-Daddy-Alien just walked up to her and hugged her (creepy) which means… she’s not in the pod anymore? Or he can walk through the pod? Clarification please.
Ellie: You’re not real. None of this is real.
Oh. She’s hallucinating. She determines that the aliens must have downloaded her memories, including the appearance of Pensacola. She still looks overwhelmed by all of this, but for some odd reason she’s not totally wigged that an alien was pretending to be her dead father just now.
Alien: We thought this might make things easier for you.
Yeah, great idea there. Now she can’t even give the Earthlings any information about your real appearance or habitat. Also, it must be easier on the budget to film something like this than to create a whole new set for the distant planet and a creative costume for the alien.
As Ellie and Mr. Alien converse, he (it? …hir? …zhe? …ou? …something else altogether? Way to miss a creative opportunity) remarks that she has her mother’s hands. Stop being creepy. We already have a character like that. It’s unclear why Ellie isn’t disturbed by the alien’s behavior. Perhaps she’s so enamored with them that she wouldn’t care what they did to her. This movie is frightening.
The alien speaks to her about the human race (you’d think this would be the other way around, but these aliens are almost omniscient) and it’s meant to be profound or something like that.
Alien: See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.
Good job. You’ve discovered the basic principle that social interaction is crucial to psychological health. Considering you’re from “a civilization that may be anywhere from hundreds to millions and millions of years ahead of us,” one would think you would call that old news—even the humans know that, so there’s no need to treat it like a revelation. But hold on; you’re an alien. Why do your psychological needs resemble ours so closely? Writers, who are you to say that’s universal?
Ellie: What happens now?
Alien: Now… you go home.
But she just got here. Aren’t you interested in establishing trade relations? No? Why not? Do you really think Earth couldn’t possibly have anything to offer?
Ellie: But… I have so many questions. Do we get to come back?
Alien: This was just a first step. In time, you’ll take another.
Ellie: But other people need to see what I’ve seen. They need to see—
Alien: This is the way it’s been done for billions of years.
Movie, are you hearing yourself? You just told us that even if there’s something obstructive or problematic with the traditional system, we shouldn’t make any alterations to improve upon it simply because it is traditional, even if it’s not the best way. Surely you understand what’s wrong with that. Nobody’s that deep-rooted in absolute conservatism, certainly not a lifeform that’s supposed to be intelligent.
Then the alien, still disguised as her dead father, kisses her twice on the face.
Please stop being creepy. Please.
Then alien obliges at last; the pod falls through the machine and Ellie lands in the sea, back on Earth again. It appears Ellie has taken a trip to Narnia, for no time has passed here on Earth. Now she’s going to make people think she has a concussion by asking what day it is.
Nobody believes that she went anywhere, and her story is met with skepticism at best. The headset meant to record her journey has recorded only static. Everyone present says they saw (and all the cameras show) her pod dropping straight through the machine and landing in the water. Ellie can’t explain this, but she’s convinced that something happened.
Time for more footage of President Clinton making statements vague enough to fit the storyline.
A reporter tells us that the president has ordered a special executive inquiry to determine the truth of the matter. Ellie’s fighting an uphill battle to convince people that she didn’t either hallucinate or make something up to cover up the embarrassing fact that the machine did not work.
Mike: Tell me something, Doctor. Why do you think these aliens would go to all this trouble? Bring you tens of thousands of light years and then just send you home, without a single shred of proof?
Good question. Ellie gives him the alien’s answer of conservatism, which doesn’t cut it, not to mention—why was this system ever enacted in this way in the first place, before they had that excuse?
Mike calls her answer a self-reinforcing delusion. That doesn’t sound too far off. Then he begins implying that someone might have fabricated the signal from space. That’s too far off. If the signal were fake, the other listening stations would have been able to determine that it was coming from Earth. Then Mike asks her if she’s familiar the scientific precept known as Occum’s Razor. Oh snap. Another member of the executive inquiry begins to speak, and here’s where the Aesop gets heavy-handed again, even though the point has been made.
Inquirer: Dr. Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that, to put it mildly, strains credibility.
Yes, yes, movie, we get it. Put down the anvil.
Inquirer: Over half a trillion dollars were spent. Dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all…
You’re going to do it, aren’t you.
Inquirer: …on faith?
Yeah, nobody saw that coming. If you want to be this cheesy, you might as well throw in a spiky red starburst behind Ellie’s face and play melodramatic shock music. Mike wants to know why she doesn’t just withdraw her testimony. She says she can’t. That’s not true. Of course she can. She might feel disinclined to do so, but she possesses the capability. In continuing to claim that what she experienced was real, she describes it as something that “changed me forever”. Wait, what? How? She hasn’t changed at all except— Oh. She was confident in herself before, and now she’s a better person because she has doubts.
Oh, that was wrong. The real way that the experienced changed her is that she got to see “how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are.” Okay. Good for you. It’s sad that it took billions of dollars of government spending for you to realize that, but good for you. At least you learned something, even if it’s nothing new of value to the scientific community.
After the inquiry is over, she sees Groper, but not Kent. Where’s Kent? Why isn’t Kent here?
When she walks outside, she sees that she has supporters. Along with supporters, there are reporters. The reporters want to know what “Reverend Joss” believes. A better question would be why anyone would be calling him Reverend. He’s not a priest, and he doesn’t deserve reverence.
Palmer: As a person of faith, I’m bound by a different covenant than Dr. Arroway, but our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of truth. I, for one, believe her.
Error: he just referred to himself as a person of faith in order to differentiate himself from her, but she’s a faithful person herself. In a way she’s more a person of faith than she is. If aliens told her that total celibacy was the way to go, she’d take it up in a heartbeat.
Anyway, this is supposed to be touching or something as it reconciles their differences and cements their little… whatever is the appropriate term for the quasi-relationship presented here.
After they drive off, we jump to Mike and Rachel discussing how the government should wrap things up, and she asks him whether he’s read the confidential findings report (sounds important).
Rachel: I was especially interested in the section on Arroway’s video unit. The one that recorded the static?
Rachel: The fact that it recorded static isn’t what interests me.
Rachel: What interests me is that it recorded approximately eighteen hours of it.
Spiky red starburst and dramatic music. The government will keep this a secret because they cannot explain it, but because they cannot explain it, they will give Ellie some money.
Eighteen months later, Ellie is leading a tour at the Very Large Array. One can assume the aliens still haven’t gotten back to us yet. When a little boy asks her if there are other people in the universe, she asks him what he thinks, and he doesn’t know. Ellie thinks this is a good answer.
Ellie: The most important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers.
God save us from this woman. This is astrology, not feminist studies. Acknowledging the subjectivity of human experience and varied perceptions, it’s okay to accept the idea of an objective reality. Did your intergalactic acid trip fry all the desire for empirical proof right out of your brain? Science Fiction movies might celebrate the natural sciences or present them as a source of danger, but they’re not supposed to deny their existence.
Ellie feeds us the tagline again. “If it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Okay, that’s plausible enough. Also, it’s an awful waste of space when a movie tells us this and centers its plot on aliens, but then doesn’t devote any time to revealing to us what those aliens are like.
The sexual tension and religious conflict come off as fabricated excuses to eat screen time that don’t do anything to support the story, which had plenty of open-ended questions to answer regarding the nature of extraterrestrial life. However, it chose to ignore those in order to construct an Aesop that says science and religion are not so different. Ellie and Palmer are the representatives of each respective concept. However, because neither of them is the best example of their ideology and because they have trouble making their case in an intelligent and compelling way, their weak stances are already so lacking that their eventual reconciliation does not have the intended impact. The story raises many questions, and the only answer it provides is that there is no answer, an unsatisfying response if there ever were one.