Coming out in 1997, it was a dramatization of the 1985 Carl Sagan novel (of the same name). As such, it’s message has a mixed audience – partially the 80s readership of the immensely popular book, and partially the movie-going audience of the late 90s.
For the latter, one might have expected that in 1997 the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence was within reach. The combination of decades of development in radio telescopes and the exponential explosion in computing power made this seem like an idea whose time had come. While such projects had seen government funding for decades, a scandal of sorts erupted in U.S. House budget discussions in 1993. The result was several privately funded initiatives, and an increase in publicity, a plot point mirrored in the film. Interestingly, a similar funding incident occurred in the late 1970s, with funding being cut in the 1981 budget, concurrent with the writing of the novel. In that case, Sagan personally convinced Sen. Proxmire of the value in the program, restoring government funding.
First off, when I say it is worse than I remember, there are several levels to this. The most obvious, in the opening half-hour to an hour is that as a film, as entertainment, it isn’t great. In particular, the long character introduction where we find young Ellie driven to explore short-wave radio because her mother died when she was young – it just strikes me a too sappy, and a bit non-nonsensical. It is worth noting that, in the book, her mother did not die when she was young.
However, I also didn’t get the full force of the political angle when I watched it as a younger man.
The political message of the film feels right at home today. Those messages are mostly conveyed through the villains of the movie. The first villain is the government scientist and former mentor of our heroine. He is the one responsible for cutting the government funding to the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project, and says that SETI isn’t “real science.” He seems concerned not only for the taxpayer, but for the general propriety of searching for extra-terrestrial life as well as for the career of our heroine, who should be devoting her talents to something “real.”
Naturally he has to eat his own words when Ellie finds the message from outer-space. It’s a nice little comeuppance fantasy that so often ruins the storytelling when a piece gets too political. Political “utopian” literature often uses this device – contrive a situation, and then use it as “proof” of your political point.
This part of the politics does seem a bit dated. We are, these days, far more acclimatized to private funding of space science and, particularly, scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Also, because the party of the left is now the party of government, when the left takes on a cause, it’s probably not going to be the government bureaucrat that is the enemy.
Because these days the enemy isn’t just anti-some-science, they are now anti-science through and through.
Enter some more villains acted villainously by Rob Lowe and Gary Busey (can you imagine them, particularly circa 1997, playing anything but thoroughly reprehensible characters?) They play the religious right. Lowe is the main-stream religious/political lobbyist who organizes the government to fight scientific progress. Busey plays the crazy-eyed street preacher who ultimately turns terrorist, and kills villain #1 (the bureaucrat) for some further just desserts.
It is this portrayal of the right as mind-blindingly backwards and downright dangerous that is amplified by today’s political environment. As I said, when I was a young man living in a major urban center, this portrayal of the right did not make much of an impact. The character type met my expectations for villains.
Interestingly, when I first watched the film I figured co-star Matt McConaughey for another villain, perhaps the most insidious of them all. At the time, I may have just hated him because he was pretty. I’ve since come to appreciate him as an actor and, perhaps because of that, now more easily recognize that he is a co-hero in our tale. It is because he is pretty that we know he must be good, I suppose. Also, the fact that he is “religious” is tempered by the fact that he’s DTF on the first date, further tipping us off that he’s not so bad.
His part in the story remains a little bit confusing to me. I suspect part of the problem is that the character is from the book. While parts of the book have been changed and other remain the same, the changes in the characters don’t necessarily track. I think his purpose is to be a bridge between “spirituality” and “science,” making a point of Sagan’s that it is the human spirit that transcends all, whether it is expressed through religion or through scientific inquiry.
That point in the story is undercut, somewhat, by how it is presented in the movie. As occurred in the book, Ellie is hauled before a Congressional Committee which accuses her of, at best, hallucinating and perhaps even faking the other-worldly experience with her machine. In the process, she is forced to ask the world to simply have faith; to believe in her experience despite the lack of evidence, forcing her to come to terms with McConaughey’s professions of faith earlier in the story. Problem is, in the movie, it isn’t necessary. We learn in a exchange of two of the “government” characters that, in fact, the video taken during the episode, although it doesn’t record anything, actually lasts for the 18 hours she claims to have been traveling, not the second or so that the terrestrial witnesses saw. I guess the 1997 had an additional point about the lengths the anti-science folks might go to keep the truth from the rest of us.
But much of this is my observation as the 2017 me. The 1997 me also was disappointed in the movie, and it was primarily this other-worldly experience that did it.
To the 2017 me, this new “science” based spirituality has a particularly sinister meaning. One of the foundations of the SETI project is the Drake Equation.
The essence of the argument is that, we that we can plug in values for each of the terms and come up with a number of intelligent civilizations that are “out there,” and that number is frequently startlingly large. Author Michael Chrichton delivered a speech wherein he described this all far better than I can, but essentially while some of these equation terms (in particularly the first three) can be estimated within a reasonable range, the remaining terms are pure guesswork. Producing a large number says nothing about its reliability, and the conceit of saying “even if we are off by a factor of…” only provides an illusion of increased reliability. Are you off by a factor of <whatever that number is.> Are you off my thousands of orders of magnitude beyond that? You have no way of knowing.
The equation was created in the 1960s and was used to justify the SETI project. Contact is one of many efforts to push it forward in the popular consciousness. And successful the push has been. Variations of the equation have permeated all walks of life. I once sat through a marketing meeting where investment in new product development was justified this way. “The [X] market is a $40 billion-a-year industry, and if f represents the fraction of … we can expect a minimum of $2 million per year return on our investment.”
And, of course, a riff on this equation has been at the core of the Global Warming/Climate Change movement from its beginning. It’s a little different. The “equations” of Global Warming modeling are mindbogglingly complex, but like the simpler version have a range of inputs from the known, to the estimatable, and on to the pure conjecture. Fiddling with these inputs produces a range of possible futures, from the boringly benign to the catastrophic. Then, since the catastrophic is one possibility, we can than assign a fractional probability to it to come to the the inescapable conclusion – isn’t it worth spending millions to avoid trillions in future consequences, even if there is only one chance in a thousand that we’re right on the trillions?
Chrichton’s article makes the case, as I said, far better than I could. In particular, this perverted version of science is particularly suited for starting from your preferred conclusions, and then showing how “probable” those conclusions may be.
The good news – if we do make contact with an advanced alien civilization, they will almost certainly be able to fix our Global Warming problems for us.