Reviewed by Tom Magnuson
1997 Drama/Sci-Fi (PG), directed by Robert Zemeckis, 153 min, IMDb Info
Many are intrigued by the possibility of other advanced civilizations in the cosmos. The interest ranges from the general public to gifted scientists such as Carl Sagan, whose book Contact was the inspiration for a 1997 blockbuster film. Contact portrays the scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) by the passionate Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster). Although Sagan was a outspoken public champion for a materialistic worldview, this movie raises many interesting discussion questions about the nature of our universe, the nature of reality, and the assumptions behind our worldviews.
The tensions in the film range from the career confrontations between Ellie and her former mentor Dr. David Drumlin, and worldview encounters between Ellie and religionist Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey).
While atheistic scientist Ellie is earnestly searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, Palmer claims to have already made contact with just such an intelligence: God. Ellie seeks empirical proof for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent material beings, while Palmer’s experience with God (intelligent designer) is more faith based. Ellie defines reality as only the space-time continuum, while Palmer is willing to allow for the extra-natural, as evidenced by our every day encounters with immaterial thoughts, emotions, and laws of logic and reason. At one point Palmer asks Ellie to empirically prove that she loved her father. This theme is repeated through the film. Some things or notions cannot be empirically established and, yet, they are just as real as those entities that can be.
Ellie Arroway asks questions and gives advice. “What if science simply revealed that an intelligent designer never existed in the first place?” “There’s no chance that your had this experience (with a personal intelligent designer) because a part of you needed to have it?” She claims that a personal intelligent designer did not give any proof of its existence in the material world, and that believers may be self-deluded. She shows her relativistic worldview, which naturally flows from her atheism, by encouraging young students to “keep searching for your own answers (their individual Truth of reality).”
Father Joss is a thoughtful and bright man. He claims that science cannot give man ultimate meaning, and is supposed to be a pursuit of the total Truth of reality, even if unavoidable metaphysical conclusions arise. He attacks scientific materialism by chastising those scientists who deify technology and limit their search for the Truth of reality to the material realm.
One mantra through the film is that if we are the only intelligent beings in the cosmos, then it seems “like an awful waste of space.” However, very recent discoveries have revealed that the mass density of the cosmos requires that it be as expansive as it is, for galaxies, and stars, and even one life habitable planet to form. In fact, the fine-tuning is astounding, better than one part in 1060. Even more finely tuned to allow for the existence of life in the cosmos is the dark energy density term, better than one part in 10120. This fine-tunedness is important to note, because Carl Sagan made his appeal for millions of advanced civilizations in the cosmos based on the Drake Equation. The equation makes many assumptions, such as the materialist’s view that life springs easily from non-living materials and is tenacious once it does so.
Dr. Arroway’s search of extraterrestrial intelligence is tireless. Early in the film, she is momentarily fooled by the beat of a natural signal source, a pulsar. When Dr. Arroway and her colleagues discover a message of specified complexity, a pulse sequence of prime numbers from 2 to 101, the universal language of math was recognized immediately as coming from an intelligent source. As the signal continued, it became even more complex; the blueprints to build a transport machine to take someone to the Vega system.
In an ironic twist, Ellie experiences an existential dilemma. A life-changing contact occurs, as she travels to the Vega system and is given the materialist’s meaning of life: the only thing we have found to make this emptiness (and ultimate meaninglessness) bearable is each other. But when she returned to Earth there is no empirical proof that she had this experience. The skeptics ask her if she wants them to take her experience on faith. She replies that everything she knows in her mind tells her it was real.
In its own unique way, Contact offers a taste of drama, romance, suspense, and science fiction. It is truly a great film which touches the emotions and the intellect.
- Discuss how Contact could have had a more compelling and balanced discussion on the detection of intelligent agency. For instance, Ellie could have recognized that the DNA information in every cell in every living creature is a hallmark of intelligent agency, being much more complex than the prime number sequence from the Vega system, or the blueprint for the transport machine that she intuitively recognized as coming from intelligence. She would have realized that the personal intelligent designer did leave proof of its existence, and she could have expressed that to Palmer Joss.
- The question regarding a supernatural Intelligent Designer “wasting so much space” by creating the vast cosmos for one advanced civilization is ubiquitous from the materialist’s camp. How would you answer this challenge? (hint: resources available on ARN, such as The Privileged Planet).
- It is important to point out a major error in the film Contact. Ellie claims that there are 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and if only one in a million had planets, and if one in a million of those planets had life, and if one in a million of those planets had intelligent life (totaling one in 1018 planets), then there would be millions of civilizations out there. If you do the math, and assume one element of the Drake Equation (that only ½ of stars will have planets), then you have 200 billion stars (2 x 1011). If only one in 1018 stars having intelligent life in its system of planets, you get zero chance of intelligent life in our galaxy. Even if you expanded that claim to the entire cosmos (1022 stars), half of which have planets, and one in 1018 stars having intelligent life in its system of planets, you have 5,000 advanced civilizations. But, that number may approach zero, because astrophysicists have now determined that there are nearly 100 parameters that need to be fine-tuned for intelligent life to develop on a planet or moon. Find the Drake Equation, and discuss the assumptions that are required to come to a calculation. Can the number vary across a wide spectrum? Does it require faith to posit that millions of advanced civilizations are in the cosmos?
- Appeals to Occam’s Razor are made in the film. Look at Occam’s Razor and discuss the validity of using it to come up with correct conclusions. Notably, in the biological sciences, the simplest hypothesis for the observable facts is often incorrect. Discuss some examples.
- The film attempts to bring to light that there is a certain degree of faith that scientists must exercise in practicing their craft. A claim can be made that science should constantly be questioning its faith in its hypotheses, and look for ways to disprove its theories, even if they do not appear to be lacking or crumbling. Discuss the definition of faith, and whether the practice of science does require a certain amount of faith.