The most exciting moment in Contact isn’t Ellie’s trip through spacetime, nor is it the catastrophic attack on the first machine; it’s something far too rare in cinema: a moment of discovery; the first receipt of The Message. It's a joyous, elating, sequence. No other film has so successfully conveyed this essence of the scientific experience. And few have attempted to capture its counterpart, doubt, and the role that faith plays in enduring doubt’s presence.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Contact remains unique in film history because of its presentation and respect for science. But it remains a successful work of art due to its treatment of doubt.
Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan and his partner, Ann Druyan, first wrote Contact as a script outline in the early 1980s. It was rewritten as his first and only novel in 1985. It would be another 12 years before the film version, which was released shortly after his death. Sagan never saw the film.
Contact, the book, is Sagan’s personal act of devotion, a statement of his faith for the Cosmos as of yet beyond our comprehension. His conviction is that seeking the numinous — the feeling of being in the presence of the divine — is the common thread of human experience, his grand unified theory uniting the sacred and the secular. Hearing a voice from the sky, whether a mathematical message or as revelation, triggers the same emotional structures in our brains. And perhaps, through this common experience, our species can find some sense of common purpose and elevated cause.
The film details, of course, humanity’s discovery of a message from an advanced intelligence. It is discovered by Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer, and her small team of true believers: scientists convinced of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. The Message eventually reveals itself as the grand design of a machine. The world is faced with a choice: commit to building a machine, steeped in doubt about its function and purpose, or refuse and remain secure in our provincial cosmic backwater.
As the film progresses Ellie is beset by small-minded men that wish to destroy, leverage, or monetize the machine for their own purposes. But her faith in its nature and the ability of science to transcend those petty desires is ultimately rewarded with a journey through the machine itself, a tour through the heavens, and finally making contact with a projection of her own late father. Returning home she confronts the reality that her trip looks to be a failure. Her journey is only attested to by her experience. In a delightful narrative inversion, her dedication to hard scientific evidence she once used to dismiss religious faith is now levied to undermine her story. Ellie, bound by her scientific integrity, admits her doubt: that the entire experience could have been a hallucination. But she retains the feeling of the numinous. It drives her faith (and ours, as the audience) despite the conspicuous lack of any physical evidence supporting her journey.
By embracing the numinous, Contact evokes a universal human experience shared by the audience. Ellie’s testimony is the substance of things hoped for, her evidence of things not seen. The film not only avoids the tiresome “science vs. religion” dynamic, but subverts it entirely. Instead of a didactic exercise, the film presents the scientific experience as something to be cherished, as a discipline dependent on values and standards, and humility and doubt as a common experience for those who yearn to know the Cosmos and our place within it.
In the years since the film, private funding for SETI searches has increased dramatically. First through the SETI Institute and then through the Breakthrough SETI, supported by a $100 million private gift, are actively listening for signals around the world. The U.S. Congress, once so skeptical of SETI that it forbade NASA from pursuing such work, is likely to pass legislation allowing NASA to put resources behind the search for “technosignatures.” And even as we speak, there are robotic probes and telescopes seeking out signs of unintelligent life — microbes. No signals have yet been found, of course, intelligent or otherwise. Contact remains a work of fiction.
Sagan’s hoped-for Cosmos is one teeming with intelligent life. Life that had survived its adolescence, endured for eons, and yearns to help humanity grow and develop. Contact, by presenting itself as both rigorously scientific and replete with doubt, was Sagan’s way of engaging a broad audience with the universality of human existence. It ultimately represents his faith in us: that when presented with a challenge, we rise to it; that the search for knowledge brings out the best of us, and that the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is the fragile light of each other.