I recently found a copy of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact at the second-hand store. I already knew that Carl Sagan was a brilliant thinker and that he wrote this book of fiction as a way of playing with some ideas he had about what might happen if humans were to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligent life form. I’d enjoyed the film when I first saw it in the late 1990s, so bought the book and gave it my best shot, but had to conclude that brilliant as he was in many respects, Sagan was no storyteller. His novel is a meandering, narrative mess. (The book was a bestseller despite this, and because of its fascinating ideas.)
Professional screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg took Sagan’s ideas and applied basic storytelling structure to his tangle of great ideas and in 1997 released the film version, which is a lot more engaging than Sagan’s novel and scores 7.4 on IMDb.
I’d only recommend a compare and contrast of the book and screen versions of Contact for a great case study into how a great idea can suffer unless you apply (consciously or subconsciously) some basic ‘rules’ of great storytelling.
James V. Hart has also worked on Hook, Dracula and more recently Epic.
Michael Goldenberg has worked on Harry Potter, Green Lantern and Peter Pan, so also has a lot of experience adapting books. (Yes, I know that Peter Pan actually started as a play, which J.M. Barrie novelized his own self…)
Let’s see what Hart and Goldenberg did to this story, which had several major challenges: Listening for E.T. is actually very boring to watch. Scientists finding funding for their projects could also be very boring to watch. Yet these things needed to be shown. There is also the challenge of imagination: If storytellers are going to depict an actual alien world, this has to somehow be both believable and amazing. Although the aliens’ refusal to have much else to do with humanity is a bit of a letdown, I do think the alien world depicted is sufficiently thought-provoking to last in the viewer’s mind long after we’ve forgotten the intricacies of this really quite complicated plot.
The hero has several anagnorises. Also, there seem to be two separate but related threads — one involving the bigger job of communicating with the aliens and the other concerning the personal struggles of Ellie here on Earth. Some might call this the ‘romantic subplot’. But it generally works better not to think in terms of main plot and subplot — instead, both strands of this story are equal in strength.
Anagnorisis, need, desire
Dr. Ellie Arroway at the end will be forced to concede that there will always be unknowable things. That science can’t prove anything more than religion can when it all boils down. At its heart, this therefore feels like a Christian film. Now I wish I’d made it all the way through the book so I could see what Sagan’s message was.
However, why read a messy book when you’ve got Goodreads?
Then there’s the small fact that Carl Sagan hated what Warner Brothers did to his story and wrote them a letter about it. It’s such a shame, in my opinion, that the scriptwriters used their storytelling skills to tell a completely different message. There was no need for that… or was there? Do they know something about Hollywood that the cynical atheists among us refuse to accept? That a large audience would not be happy — and would not pay tickets to see — a story with a non-conservative tale. I wouldn’t be surprised if no one was especially happy with the way Contact turned out. Here’s a bit of the development hell story of getting the thing made.
At the beginning of the story Ellie believes that if she only listens hard enough she, or someone else working for the same cause, will find some life out there. She’s even done the stats on this, which she tells Joss on their first date under the stars. Joss comes out with the line, “Well, if there’s no life out there, that seems like an awful waste of space,” or something along those lines. This line is repeated at the end of the story.
At the beginning of the story Ellie is wrong about the power of science. She thinks even dead people could probably be contacted via science. We’re shown this when, as a little girl, after the funeral, she tries to contact her recently deceased father on her radio equipment. The link between little girl Ellie and adult Ellie is reinforced by the clothing choice; at the funeral Ellie is wearing a red hooded sweater. The reason for this is two-fold: It marks her out as alone against all the people appropriately wearing black, and it stands out as a bright and memorable colour for the adult version of Ellie who is pre-character change. Notice we see Ellie wearing the adult version of the red hoodie near the beginning of the arc:
Whereas the novel’s structure is basically chronological, starting with Ellie’s childhood of course, the screenwriters decided to drip feed Ellie’s background via a number of flashbacks into her childhood.
At first we’re told that she has no mother. We are told much later (by some rather ham-handed dialogue exposition from the mad professor) that Ellie’s mother died in childbirth. In a subsequent flashback we see Ellie’s father dying. We are told later that it’s by myocardial infarction (heart attack). The screenwriters know that the audience will want to know exactly how Ellie’s parents died, in the same way we’re always interested in knowing the means of death of our favourite celebrities. (Audiences want to know how people have died even if the means of death turns out to be not all that interesting.)
So that’s Ellie’s ghost. The death of her parents. We are shown nothing of how she is brought up between the ages of 9 and when we next see her, as an adult. We are to assume therefore that she is all alone in the world. This aloneness becomes a metaphor for Earth, which is itself alone in the universe. Ellie stands for humankind, which is realized literally when she is chosen to represent humanity on her mission to Vega.
This setting is an alternative reality of the 1990s. We’re shown clips of President Clinton talking about the aliens. (All I could think of was how well chosen the sound bytes were — he was no doubt talking about something else!) Technology also, with the big CRT monitors, places this setting firmly in the 1990s.
This is also a very American story. We’re shown a montage of TV news bytes to get a sense of what’s happening all around the world; basically, whatever could happen is happening somewhere. Mass suicides, religious uprising, chaos. Many simply don’t believe there’s been any contact at all.
The New Mexican desert is a good place for Ellie to be because it shows just how alone she is on her mission. As she looks down into a ravine (where she sits in a fairly Buddhist pose when she discovers the contact) the filmmakers are able to recreate the biblical Mount Sinai scene. Because of that story of Moses, filmmakers often use elevated landscapes whenever their characters have a revelation or get some sort of insight.
Shortcoming & Need (Problem)
Psychological Shortcoming: She has already lost her mother. Soon after, she has also lost her father. As an adult woman she is basically alone, both personally and in her field, which many consider a waste of time.
Moral Shortcoming: Driven, perfectionist, prioritizing her work over relationships with other people, as demonstrated early on when Ellie prioritises her work over going out with the handsome Palmer Joss. (The morality of Hollywood movies is very conservative. Characters are obliged to do certain things.)
After sleeping together for the first time:
Joss: “How about dinner tomorrow? I know a great dive.”
Ellie: “No, I don’t think so.”
Joss: “Ellie, did I miss something?”
The most morally reprehensible thing Ellie does in this film is speak angrily to people in authority when asking for science funding. (Kent has warned her not to be too fiery.) She immediately apologises and explains she’s been giving this same speech for 13 months and that this is her last chance. This is a very female thing to do, but the audience expects it, and a conservative audience has trouble identifying with female heroines who get too uppity and full of themselves.
I can’t decide if there is only one inciting incident, or two. Maybe it’s both, in the two slightly separate threads — the ‘alien thread’ and the ‘funding big struggle thread’
- Drummond pulls the plug on Ellie’s project, listening to the sky.
- There appears to be intelligent life only 26 light years away. But then, as suddenly as they found it, they lose the signal. It comes back a few seconds later. Now they have to decipher the signal. It’s all prime numbers so can’t possibly be natural.
Ellie desires to find intelligent life on another planet.
Ken Clarke – Ellie’s blind, German speaking colleague. Clarke’s blindness lends him some of the features of the ‘blind seer‘. He has big vision, just as Ellie does. We’re to imagine this is because his vision is not corrupted by the realities around him here on earth. He also has near superpowers, able to smell people, walk around without bumping into anything and he just happens to speak German.
Palmer Joss – the romantic interest, was going to be a priest but couldn’t cope with the celibacy. “A man of the cloth, without the cloth.” Joss is actually a fake ally opponent for much of the story, but inadvertently saves her life.
The first opponent introduced to the audience is David Drumlin.
Drumlin is the chief science advisor to the President of the United States, and a person who throughout the movie thwarts Ellie’s research efforts and then tries to steal credit and influence away from her when she actually is successful in finding a message from extraterrestrial intelligences. No surprise that Drumlin is an old white guy. He has every privilege possible when it comes to getting ahead professionally and a position of authority in politics. In fact, gender is Ellie’s curse. It’s no accident that Sagan decided to make Ellie a woman — he must have known that a woman working in science is more likely to be considered crazy for thinking big.
The idea of a curse in storytelling comes from the fairytale tradition. In modern stories, the curse is rarely bestowed by a witch; it’ll be something like gender/race/size or any intersectional variation. It would be nice for female audiences to see more stories where a female hero doesn’t carry her gender as a curse, but we’re still not at that point, and certainly weren’t at that point back in 1997. Ellie’s curse is depicted most clearly inside the White House, where the politicians are very obviously avoiding her gaze, talking over her and contradicting what she says. This comes hot on the heels of the scene in which Drumlin is asked to address the media even though it was Ellie herself who made the discovery.
Lest this be considered a fully feminist tale, Ellie is saved by a rich man, who has already cracked the code. Ellie’s main opponent is not overcome by Ellie, but is killed by another man. The only other woman in the story — the black, female politician — is presumably on Ellie’s side because of the shared curse of gender. Ellie’s main psychological shortcoming is that she is alone — the audience is encouraged to root for her finding a life partner, in the same way we are encouraged to root for her finding life on another planet in the mirror plot, so that Earthlings won’t have to feel so alone. In my opinion, the male characters get the best lines — the ones that get repeated and are therefore important. Joss gets to say the bit about space being a waste if there’s no aliens living out there. There is the classic makeover of a glasses-wearing science type of woman during the ball. (It’s very rare to see a good-looking sciencey heroine without her also dressing up and revealing her true beauty at some point.)
Drumlin believes Ellie is wasting her time and she won’t be taken seriously as an astronomer if she continues with it. His motives are therefore clear; it’s the obligation of the storyteller to understand the motives behind a villain. This guy genuinely seems to believe — or to have fooled himself into believing — that he has Ellie’s best interests at heart. He’s infantalising her.
Joseph the Zealot. This guy stands for the general population who are against Ellie’s discovery because they don’t want scientists to be the mouthpiece to, what they think of as, god.
Drumlin ironically gets his comeuppance thanks to the only other character in the film who can be called a villain: a religious zealot based in Panguitch, Utah. (Panguitch is an actual place. I wonder if they were thrilled to see themselves represented in Hollywood.) Joseph is first seen 58 minutes, 10 seconds after the start of the movie — the critical one hour crisis point (as Howard Suber calls it). Ellie has the minor revelation that most of the world is going to be against her; people are not suddenly going to quit their faith in god. But this revelation only galvanises her decision to stay true to her own atheist, pro-science self.
We don’t initially realise that Joss is going to be a stumbling block in Ellie’s career, but we do get a jolt when we see that in the few years since Ellie knew him he’s written a bestselling book on theology and that his worldview is diametrically opposed to Ellie’s scientific one.
Changed desire and motive
“We’re gonna raise some money ourselves and go to New Mexico.”
The audience thinks she’s going to call the cute guy she slept with once, but she puts his number aside and makes calls about work instead.
Revelation and decision
Funding is withdrawn. Ellie can no longer keep listening for life unless she finds a private investor. She’s going to have to fight for this.
Ellie plans to find money come hell or highwater. After 13 months of making presentations she eventually gets the money to go to New Mexico. She is told that her proposal sounds more like science fiction than science.
Not every story needs a mystery, but the writers obviously knew that a story like this one — where the most visually interesting scenes happen only at the climax when she lands on Vega — needed every trick in the book. So we get both an opponent character web AND a mystery. Who is the unknown person funding Ellie’s project? (The one looking at her through the video camera when she delivers her impassioned funding plea.) We’ll find this out later at the same time Ellie does.
In fact, this film is listed on IMDb as being a mixture of three genres: drama, mystery and sci-fi.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
Behind the scenes, people working in the government (probably listening to Drumlin) decide to lease the telescopes out to other projects because they don’t consider Ellie’s SETI project quite sane.
Attack by ally
Ken Clarke when they realize the telescopes have been leased to others: “Just let’s face it, it’s over.”
Without telescopes they can’t continue their research, even with funding.
Ellie continues to listen for life even though her project is about to be closed. A lesser character might get drunk at this point and change careers. Alone – literally on a hill (like the bible story) – and in a wonderfully storybook coincidence of timing which the audience nevertheless accepts — Ellie hears something unnatural in the skies. She rushes off in her car shouting into her walkie talkie.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
Back in the computer lab with her colleagues, Ellie indeed comes across as obsessed, talking quickly and excitedly. She kisses her computer. The aliens are sending back German TV broadcasts from Hitler’s era, the first television signal of any strength.
Someone has broken into the database. She is told to meet at a remote point in the middle of the desert. She goes there by helicopter. We see a mystery person has arrived by plane. His name is Mr Haddon. “I consider you one of my valuable long term investments.” He’s been watching her for a long time. “I can help deal you back in.”
“I didn’t realize I was out.”
Ellie attends a prestigious event where she talks to Joss about theology. It is hammered home (revealed) to the audience that Joss might actually stand in her way.
Setting (how it has changed)
At this point of the movie we see what’s going on around the world (with a montage of TV news clips).
She drives slowly past the religious zealot and sees what she’s up against.
Second revelation and decision
Ellie realises she might actually get the chance to visit aliens. The mad professor guy is about to die and he wants to fund someone’s going to Vega. He’s been cracking the primer for the machine the aliens sent, realising it’s in three dimensions.
Attack by opponent
Ellie has hoped the person to go to Vega on the American mission will be her, but now she has to fight her way onto the space ship. Drumlin has removed himself from the selection panel and will be one of the candidates.
Attack by ally (again)
As ally, in this scene, Joss has a fatherly conversation with her: Just checking you know you could die, kinda thing. “You’re willing to give your life for this, Ellie. Why?” Ellie explains that finding out stuff about other intelligent life is worth a human life.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack (again)
Joss admits this later in the film as a way of tying motivations up, but he is deliberately undermining Ellie because he doesn’t want her to leave him.
When Ellie is asked by Joss about whether she is a spiritual person she is honest, and we all realise this was the wrong thing to say, if she wanted the job:
PALMER JOSS (Matthew McConaughey): Madam chairman, I have one more question. Dr. Arroway, would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
ELLIE (Jodie Foster): I really don’t understand the point of the question. I consider myself a moral person.
PALMER JOSS: Do you believe in God, Dr. Arroway?
ELLIE: As a scientist I, we rely on empirical evidence, and in this matter I don’t believe there is data either way.
COMMITTEE CHAIRPERSON: So your answer would be that you do not believe in God?
ELLIE: I don’t understand the relevance of the question.
ANOTHER COMMITTEE MEMBER: Dr. Arroway, 95% of the world population believes in a supreme being in one form or another. I believe that makes the question more than relevant.
ELLIE: I believe that I have already answered that question.
Apparent defeat (again)
Dr Joss comes to her hotel room and asks her how she can be so arrogant as to not believe in something bigger when 95 per cent of humanity does. She is not chosen. Instead, her opponent David Drumlin is chosen, because he’s said the right things about god. We see him giving his departure speech.
Prior to the launch at Cape Canaveral Ellie congratulates Drumlin and wishes him luck with his mission. She had two choices. Characters often only have two obvious choices in stories, even when in real life there are usually many. Ellie could either turn up and be good for PR (as is expected of her), or she could hide away somewhere and have nothing more to do with it. Drumlin expresses surprise that she turned up, showing us what he would have done in her situation and allowing us to contrast their character.
As Drumlin points out, Ellie has answered the panel according to her idealism and it didn’t get her far in this case. He thinks ‘we just don’t live in that kind of world’ but she replies that ‘the world is what we make it’.
Ellie is an admirable character all the way through the story because she puts the cause ahead of petty personal injustices and egotism. (Also, female heroes aren’t really allowed to be assholes in Hollywood.)
Third revelation and decision
At this point the ship blows up. It comes to light very soon after the event that the Christian cult leader with the long white hair has caused the explosion in Florida.
Ellie goes to some house (her own or Kent’s?) and sees a screen set up. The mad professor guy is on a space station because he’s riddled with cancer and the weightlessness is helping somehow. He’s in cahoots with the Russians, which is how he came to be up there. He reveals that there’s another rocket launcher in Hokkaido, Japan. “They still want an American to go, Doctor. Wanna take a ride?” Of course the answer is going to be yes, so we don’t need to be shown that part. Ellie’s obsessive drive has already been shown.
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
There is an actual gate — we see her walking onto the space ship and getting into what looks very similar to an electric chair.
The gauntlet is symbolised by the crowds of people lining the entryways of where Ellie is going. These are people fighting each other from both sides of the theological fence.
Visit to death: The Japanese give her a pill in case she would like to commit suicide in space. “There are a thousand reasons for you to have this with you, but mostly it’s for the reasons we can’t think of.”
Battle/Attack by ally
Dr Joss darkens her door again. “I know you don’t have much time. As soon as I found out about the machine I called the President….I had to see you one more time… The reason I don’t want you to go is because I don’t want to lose you. Now you find your way home, all right?”
Anagnorisis (on planet Vega)
Ellie feels herself go through what she perceives to be a wormhole. “It’s so beautiful. I had no idea!”
The compass pendant that Joss gives her flies off inside the spacecraft after she’s been thought he wormhole. She has lost her way in the universe and we feel that she’s very far from home. The compass flying away is also a symbol of her moral confusion — she no longer knows quite what to believe.
The aliens take her to Vega where she appears on a familiar beach but with a dark sky and ambiguous light source.
Her dead father emerges from a kind of mirage from forest alongside the beach. She realizes it’s not really her own father but the alien life form is communicating with her via his image. “We thought this might make things easier for you.” (She’s looking at a memory of Pensacola.)
This is very similar to Christian thought, in which the dead appear as they are remembered on Earth.
“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone,” says the dad-alien, because in this film, a lot of the theme is conveyed via dialogue.
Attack by opponent (again)/Battle
The entire world is Ellie’s opponent. The headset only recorded static while she was on the other planet. Most people think she hasn’t gone anywhere and has hallucinated the entire thing.
“The IPV dropped straight through the machine. You didn’t go anywhere.”
It gets even worse when even the government realises they may have just wasted billions on a hoax. There is an enquiry into the difference between Ellie’s experience and the fact that those here on Earth noticed nothing. She feels she was away about 18 hours. The government thinks she’s delusional. Now she is accused of faking a signal from Vega, colluding with S. R. Haddon, in a final bid for immortality. (We are shown that he is dead.) As a scientist, Ellie concedes that this whole trillion dollar debacle might be a big hallucination.
Occam’s razor: “The simplest explanation is usually the right one.” This works both for and against Ellie; we see her utter it first in a conversation with Joss on the balcony at the ball, but we see her opponents in power use it against her when she comes back from Vega with an unlikely tale.
Ellie can’t make sense of what happened. As we see on the panel, she can’t explain scientifically something she felt was so real. This is an anti-epiphany, with the message that humans don’t know everything. We don’t have that capacity.
The ‘new situation scene’ is preceded by quite a few scenes of tying up loose ends. We see a classic ‘Or Was It a Dream‘ trope, used quite often in picture books (such as The Polar Express). The black female politician who was Ellie’s biggest champion at the White House discovers that the rocket recorded 18 hours of static. This is like the final illustration of a picture book in which the character went on some sort of — what we assume was — an imaginative expedition but when they get home they’re holding a magical keepsake. The new situation for the world is that we still don’t really know anything.
“Our goal is one and the same; the pursuit of truth,” Dr Joss says sagely at the end, speaking of the divide between the god loving and the godless. In the end, both religion and science require faith, the movie tells us. As for Ellie’s relationship with Joss, now that the heroine has been brought down a peg on the atheism front, she’s finally at a point where she could happily pursue something with a Christian man. But we don’t really know where that one goes (thank dog).
Ellie ends her story giving tours at the site of the telescopes (in New Mexico?) As she tells the children gathered around her, she doesn’t seem sure of anything, except that the universe is a pretty big place – bigger than anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us, ‘it feels like an awful waste of space.’ (Which is Ellie repeating a line Joss said when the two of them first met.)
As some kind of personal pilgrimage, she sits once again on the hill where she first heard the alien message, the one that looks down into the ravine. She picks up some sand and we can guess she’s thinking something like, ‘There are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on the earth’. (There may also be an easter egg in this image.)