Sunday, May 29, 2016

Contact (1997)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Jodie Foster plays Dr. Elli Arroway, a radio astronomer. She was raised by her father, who gave her a strong interest in astronomy. She spends a great deal of her adult life looking for extraterrestrial life, mostly with SETI. Things are rough. Most government bureaucrats aren’t willing to finance the search for little green men, so Dr. Arroway has to spend a lot of time looking for funding. Fortunately, she’s able to secure enough to rent radio telescopes, which scan the heavens for some sort of coherent signal.

Finally, just as everyone’s about to give up hope, a signal comes in. It’s these loud, booming noises. Dr. Arroway and her team realize that the noises are grouped in prime numbers. Prime numbers are numbers that are divisible by only themselves and one, such as 2 and 5. (1 isn’t considered a prime number by many for reasons I won’t go into here.) Any intelligent civilization should know what a prime number is because primes are independent of what base we use for our numbering system. The signal is very interesting. It’s so interesting that the government wants a part of it. Dr. Arroway and her team are allowed to research it, but at the governments direction.

Some interesting things are learned about the clip. First, there’s a clip of Hitler speaking at the 1936 Olympics. The 1936 Olympics was the first TV signal strong enough to go into space. The aliens, whoever they are, apparently recorded the signal and sent it back to us. Is this an endorsement for the Nazis or is it simply a way of saying, “Hey! Look what we found!” After a little more digging, dozens of diagrams are uncovered. No one can figure out what they are. Finally, Dr. Arroway gets the nudge she needs to figure out how they work.

They’re actually blueprints. America is able to construct this big sphere that sits atop a device that can (presumably) send it through space. The scientific community is at a loss to explain how it works. No one is really sure that it will, but we decide to try anyway. After a lot of hard work and sacrifice, we finally manage to get Dr. Arroway into the sphere and through the device.

Here’s where I’m going to end the plot review. There’s still a significant portion of the movie left, and there’s really no way I can handle it without giving away too much. The movie does a good job of setting up the story and leaving us wondering what will come of the events. In a way, I’d like to see a sequel, but it’s just as well that there isn’t one. I think to try and answer the questions I have might spoil the fun.

There’s a constant theme of science vs. religion throughout the movie. Elle Arroway needs proof. She can’t fully accept religion because it offers no real proof. Then there’s Palmer Joss, who’s religious and tries to make the case for religion without trying to force it upon anyone. It almost seems that religion and science are polar opposites. The X-Files did a better job using Scully, who was both religious and a scientist, to stage the question and to show that you don’t have to be one or the other.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by Carl Sagan. In writing the book, Sagan had to deal not only with how a race would contact us but with the logistics of how a meeting would take place. The nearest star to us is 4 light years away. That means that it takes light 4 years to cover the distance to that star, and there’s no way that we can pass the speed of light with our current understanding of science.

The movie doesn’t really explain too much the science. As I said, we’re presented with an option that might turn out to be a fraud. It’s really a story that’s accessible to anyone, regardless of their understanding of physics or astronomy. I think I could recommend this movie to just about anyone.

IMDb page

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