David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

Contact - with Jodie Foster

Contact

Starring Jodie Foster

Based on the novel by Carl Sagan

The Plot

In the movie Contact, Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) grows up fascinated with radio messages from distant places. Ellie's father dies when she is 9. As an adult Arroway becomes deeply involved in SETI - the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Arroway works first at the Arecibo radio telescope, and then at the VLA in New Mexico. Just as the government is on the point of closing down the program, they receive a message from Vega. The military rapidly take over the project.

When they decode the message from space, it contains instructions how to build some kind of space craft or star gate. Only one person can travel in this machine, and Ellie is desperate to be that one - but she is rejected.

The first machine is sabotaged by a religious fanatic, and blown up - but there is another, built in secret on an island off the coast of Japan. This time, Ellie gets to go.

In a flight lasting 18 hours, she goes through a series of wormholes to a mystical encounter with a being in the form of her father. The being tells her that there are many intelligent races in the Universe, and

The only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.

But when she gets back, her 'flight' has only taken a fraction of a second in earth time. There is no evidence for what she has seen, and the data recorder that went with her has recorded only static. No-one believes she has really gone anywhere.
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Search for meaning

One of the positive things about this movie is the way it portrays our incurable search for meaning. Both Arroway and Joss are looking for meaning in different ways - one through her quest for extraterrestrial intelligence, the other through his spirituality. The movie also recognizes that science does not provide this kind of meaning. As Joss puts it:

The thing that people are most hungry for - meaning - is the one thing that science hasn't been able to give them.

At one point, he says:

We... surf the Web. At the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history.
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God

The film Contact has a lot to say about God - remarkable for a science fiction adventure. At one stage Ellie asks:

What is more likely? That an all-powerful mysterious God created the Universe and then decided not to give any proof of His existence, or that He simply does not exist at all?

(The voice is Jodie Foster's but the thoughts are Carl Sagan's). But is there any evidence? Are we looking in the wrong place, or closing our eyes to what is obvious?

Organized religion is always shown in a negative light: The terrorists who blow up the space machine are religious fanatics.

People are religious for dishonest reasons. For example, at the selection board for who will fly on the space machine, Ellie is asked if she believes in God. She dodges the question (but by implication, her answer is "no"). The astronaut who is selected talks "god-talk" but he does not really mean it. Ellie says later:

I told the truth. [He] told you exactly what you wanted to hear.

Religious people are unfeeling and incompetent: The priest at Ellie's father's funeral is an unsympathetic character who says:

We aren't always supposed to know the reason why things happen as they do. Sometimes we just have to accept God's will.

Religious people are not open to honest questions. Ellie went to Sunday school as a child, but they asked her to leave because she kept asking awkward questions. Religious people are shown as being anti-science (more on this below).

A key figure is Palmer Joss, theologian and mystic. He enters the story as a journalist and dropout theological student, studying the harmful impact of technology on third world peoples. But he quickly changes into a "spiritual counselor" to the White House, and "God's diplomat".

Religious faith is based on feelings rather than facts. People believe in God because of spooky supernatural feelings, regardless of facts or evidence. At one point, Joss says:

I was looking up at the sky; I felt something; I knew I wasn't alone; I wasn't scared of nothing, not even of dying. It was God.
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Is this hostility to religion fair comment?

Not really. There is a name for it in British politics. It is called "playing the man, not the ball." If you do not have a good argument against what someone is saying, you discredit it by making them look small or stupid as people instead.

Of course there are people who are religious for dishonest reasons, just as there are people who are atheists for dishonest reasons. Of course there are religious fanatics, just as there are many other kinds of fanatics. Of course there are incompetent ministers of religion - just as there are incompetent people in all walks of life. This does not have anything to do with whether the Bible's message is true. I might just as well argue that Sagan's own beliefs were invalid because he was a man and not a woman!

The suggestion that followers of Christ (and even Sunday school teachers) are not open to honest questions is itself dishonest. In my experience, followers of Christ are more open than many others to facing up to honest questions about their beliefs. The trouble is that not all doubts are honest doubts. Sometimes there is a hidden agenda.

The suggestion all through this film is that people believe in God for bad or inadequate reasons (or because they are bad or inadequate people). For example, Joss comes to some kind of faith because he has a spooky supernatural experience. It all ignores the evidence. But the answer to all this is that we can believe the message of the Bible because there is good and sufficient evidence for it. Some of this evidence is described on this site.

Carl Sagan's hostility to all things religious was well known. But it is a pity there is all this anti-religious propaganda (because that is what it is) - because there is actually so much in the film that is very positive.
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The search for Truth

This movie is all about the search for Truth. When one of the characters asks

What's wrong with science being practical, profitable?

Joss replies:

Nothing, as long as your motive is the search for Truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.

But all kinds of people want to find the Truth - not only scientists.
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Keep searching?

Is there intelligent life out there or not? At the end of the film Ellie says to a group of children

The most important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers.

This sounds good, but it is really true? It suggests that we all have "our own answers", or "what's true for me." In other words, believe whatever you want to believe, as long as it makes you feel fulfilled and happy. This is an oddly postmodern comment to come from the pen of such a staunch modernist as Carl Sagan.

But if something is really true (for example, if there really is intelligent life out there) it is true for everyone, always. It is not just a case of believing whatever you want to believe. (This will only work as long as we do not know the answers). So it is not "your own answers" that matter. It is true answers. And the most important thing is not just to keep searching but (eventually) to find. David Duchovny is nearer the mark in the "X-files", when he says "The Truth is Out There".

The key question at the end of the film is whether Ellie told the truth about her experience, whether what she thought happened was real. Although it is said that there is no evidence, the data recorder recorded eighteen hours of static. The implication is that her story really is true. Ellie knows the truth of her experience, but she cannot prove it conclusively to those who choose to disbelieve.
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We all have faith in something

For Ellie, there is 'evidence' (i.e. the 18 hour data recording), but not conclusive 'proof'. In the same way, there is evidence for the message of the Bible, but not absolute proof. Because of this, we will always need faith. But this is not blind faith, or faith based on feelings or wishful thinking. It is based on a level of evidence which is enough to be convincing to anyone who comes to it with an open mind. The problem is that we do not always come to it with an open mind.

This movie makes a false opposition between science and faith in God: Science is real (based on facts); faith is wishful thinking (based on feelings). But believing the Bible's message is not just wishful thinking. It is also based on real facts.
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What sort of facts?

There is evidence in creation, in history, and in personal experience. Truth is one thing - there is not one kind of truth which is "religious" and another kind which is "scientific". Someone once said that 'All truth is God's truth.' (In other words, because God made the Cosmos, anything which we discover about it is part of the truth of what He made). The first modern scientists - people like Newton and Bacon - would not have been able to make any sense of our opposition between science and faith. Bacon said:

No man can search too far or be too well read in the book of God's word or in the book of God's works.

By God's work he meant the natural universe. By God's word, he meant the Bible. There was no contradiction between the two, because all truth is God's truth.
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Related Links

"Contact" - The Movie

SETI

New Mexico VLA Radio Telescope

Carl Sagan

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