A Belgian poet named Maeterlinck said that. I confess that I don’t know what events in his day prompted that musing, but it came to mind recently as I took another look at the film Contact. That’s the Jodie Foster movie based on the late astronomer Carl Sagan’s imagined first encounter between humans and an advanced race from a distant star.
A central theme of Contact is the bitterly cold and difficult upstream swim of any idea that is big and dangerous enough to threaten our collective sense of self. In any age it seems, there are those ten thousand men, guarding the past.
It is also the rare movie that distills the overwhelming sense of awe that comes from pondering life’s darkest and gnarliest mysteries. It is a beautiful movie, based on a thoughtful novel. Sagan not only made astronomy and physics accessible to an entire generation, he had an extraordinary talent for reconciling the discipline and rigor of science with our emotional need for wonder. Contact embodies the best of his gifts.
We first meet the movie’s heroine, Ellie Arroway, as a whip-smart and plucky 12-year-old, seated at the edge of a chair that is a bit too big for her, adjusting the frequency dial of a ham radio transceiver. The set produces only static. Her frustration grows.
Ellie’s father stands nearby, on the threshold known well to any parent, between helping find the answer and rushing over and to show how it’s done.
“Small moves, Ellie. Small moves,” Dad advises.
She applies a gentler touch to the frequency dial. “CQ, this is W9GFO. Come back?”
A voice answers in a mild Southern drawl. Ellie’s radio has snatched a signal from more than 1,000 miles away in the Florida panhandle. Her father goes to the sprawling U.S. map on the wall and stretches a blue string anchored by a pushpin at Pensacola, to another marking their house in Wisconsin. And so begins Ellie’s fascination with a voice from afar.
Years later Ellie stands at the edge of a rainforest, looking down on the massive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She is now a scientist with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). We follow her career along a thorny path of skepticism and ridicule.
“You’re far too promising a scientist to be wasting your gifts on this nonsense,” warns a superior.
Ultimately, her work leads to detection of a signal from Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, 25 light-years away. First an endless series of prime numbers, this intricately layered transmission reveals detailed plans for a mysterious device we are apparently meant to build.
Full Disclosure: I have a high level of geekiness around this subject. The Senior Astronomer for the real SETI wrote a book called “Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” He signed my copy with this inscription: “To Mark, a guy who will really understand the stuff in this book!” (Translation: Good grief what a geek.)
Cornell and University of California astrophysicist Frank Drake is the father of SETI. He and Sagan together designed the gold anodized plaque on NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft, the one that describes in symbols and drawings, who we humans are, and where our Earth is located. Fifty years ago Drake devised something now famously known as the Drake Equation, which estimates the potential number of advanced civilizations in our galaxy. It is the basis of this entire quest.
I met Dr. Drake last summer and he was kind enough to notate the Drake Equation for me, in his own hand, with a Sharpie. It is framed in my home. Just putting that out there for context. I’m not impartial. I believe this is important, historic work. I do not know that we will ever make a discovery. But I think it would be a tragedy to have never asked the question.
That said, this movie stands on its own merits, whether these questions interest you or not. You need only have, on some summer night, in pitch darkness, marveled at the stars.
Having watched this movie more than a few times, I cannot imagine anyone but Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway. Contact is strengthened by smart casting throughout. Particularly notable is the great John Hurt. Tom Skerritt, James Woods, William Fichtner and David Morse deliver as well, as does Jena Malone as the young Ellie. Jake Busey is, not surprisingly, ragingly convincing as deranged saboteur.
In a refreshing twist, Matthew McConaughey plays the role usually relegated to The Girlfriend. He serves as eye candy and generally agreeable foil to the heroine. In the tropical scenes, he is shirtless. In snow-dusted Washington, D.C., he wears fun sweaters and pretty scarves. But his character, a prominent theologian named Palmer Joss, is essential to the story, as he and Ellie stand at the intersection of religion and science.
That exotic device detailed in the message from Vega does get built, and after a series of setbacks, much political maneuvering and a disaster resulting from sabotage, Ellie is the representative of Earth ultimately chosen to experience whatever it is this machine is designed to deliver.
From Ellie’s perspective, and ours, she travels through a portal in space-time known as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. The journey lasts some 18 hours, but only a fraction of a second in Earth Time.
The message from the alien race is a simple one, but it is given to Ellie alone. An apparition of her dead father and memories of childhood are drawn from her mind, a frame of reference constructed for an encounter totally outside human experience. Ellie wants others to share her journey, to see what she has seen. But it becomes clear that she is to be sent home with no record or proof.
“This was just the first step,” explains the alien emissary. “Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”
Upon her return, much doubt is cast on whether she went anywhere at all. Many believe her. Many do not. And that’s what makes Contact so interesting. Typically, science puts facts, reason and logic against human belief. Here, the tables are turned as scientist Ellie is asking a skeptical world to accept her story on faith alone. Her experience is transcendent, even redemptive, and she struggles to describe it in words.
At a Congressional hearing it is suggested that it was all an elaborate hoax. In the most intense and poignant moment in the film, Ellie is challenged to defend the objective reality of what occurred.
“I had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not, that none of us, are alone.”
Whenever I think about this movie, I recall a passage from another of Carl Sagan’s books, in which he ponders a famous photo taken by a Voyager spacecraft, some four billion miles from Earth. In the grainy image, our home planet is a tiny dot, a pinpoint, against endless space.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there, on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”
And with these words, I feel humbled, small and isolated. But before I let myself feel too inconsequential, I remember something else he said:
“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Carl, how we miss you.
This essay originally written for my friend Ree Drummond’s food-lifestyle-entertainment website, ThePioneerWoman.com – Check out her television show on The Food Network – http://www.foodnetwork.com/ree-drummond/