Friday, November 7, 2008


"Contact" (Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

In one of his later books,* Arthur C. Clarke tells the story of mankind's first encounter with an alien construct -- a galaxy-spanning robot "starglider" scout passing by our solar system on its way to "God knows what?" Communication is established, transmissions fly fast and furious, and then someone asks "Do you know God?" The probe does its best not to perform a NOMAD version of a spit-take, and its dismissal of the concept** eliminates religion from the Earth in (as Douglas Adams described it) "a puff of logic."

Contact" is a scaled-back version of the Carl Sagan novel about humankind's First Contact: we get a series of blips from Deep Space via The Very Large Array*** and translate them to create a means of meeting. The focus of the film is an agnostic SETI scientist named Elanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) who is a brilliant scientist, but a lousy politician. She struggles with the question of Faith throughout the movie to her detriment and comes away from the experience questioning, but filled with belief.

Religion and Science do not sit in the same pew, but to possess a sense of wonder implies some kind of faith. When he asked what he thought about while waiting to be launched into orbit,
John Glenn replied, "I just sat there thinking that every part and instrument was contracted to the lowest bidder."

You have to believe in some-thing. Arroway is confronted by a crisis of Faith and finds out what it's like to be on the recieving end of a bunch of
Doubting Thomas's. And the entire movie becomes a reverse of its galaxy-spanning opening shot**** (reminscent of "The Powers of Ten"), as we start from Earth orbit with a cacophony of broadcast data, and as we accelerate away past the speed of light, we catch up with the transmissions we have sent out in space throughout the 20th century until we reach the extent of our influence and the Universe goes quiet. We roam through star-clusters and birthing star-systems amidst nebulae, until we reach the goal--the eyes of a child, Ellie Arroway's eyes, specifically. Those eyes will dim in wonder and with worry when Jodie Foster takes over the role (from young Jena Malone). But, in space, when confronted with the sheer splendor of the Universe, Zemeckis will morph Foster's face into Malone's as she stammers "So beautiful. No words. They should have sent a poet."

Perhaps they already did. For
at film's end, as we leave Arroway to ponder her journey of Belief and the Mystery of Faith, she picks up a palm-full of New Mexico sand, and sees a pattern that she has seen before.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake "Auguries of Innocence"

* "The Fountains of Paradise" ©1979

** "2069 June 08 GMT 1537. Message 6943. Sequence 2. Starglider to Earth:"

"The hypothesis you refer to as God, thought not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason."

"If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues."

*** When dealing with landscapes cosmic, it always helps to capitalize...a lot.


1 comment:

Walaka said...

I would think that "Oh, the humanity" would be one of the broadcast snippets included... it seems it would have worked on a number of levels...