Astronoetic Cinema: Contact (1997)

by Michael Uhall

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997) postulates a fundamentally anthropomorphic universe, but the cosmos of Contact is far more unambiguously benevolent. Consider the guiding trope that regulates the course of the film, namely, the desire or need to direct one’s earthly senses toward the skies – indeed, toward the cosmos as a whole and one’s place in it – in order to achieve both emotional resolution and scientific assurance. In this regard, the film places the human and its capacity for communicative receptiveness at the center of all things.

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

We begin with Eleanor Arroway as a young girl, observing the roots of her passion for technical means of communication in the form of ham radio operation with her father. Flashing forward, Eleanor has grown up to become Dr. Arroway, a talented scientist driven by her passion for the SETI program and its endeavor to isolate signals from outer space indicating the presence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. A constant theme throughout the film is the power and pull of attempts to communicate, perhaps best represented in the form of the vast dish arrays forming the backdrop for much of what follows. The young Eleanor’s first substantive question to her father is whether or not the radio can be used to communicate with her dead mother, and one of the main narrative devices animating the film is Arroway’s difficult, dialogically fraught relationship with the Christian philosopher Palmer Joss.

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

After funding for her program is terminated by her superior, the antagonistic Dr. Drumlin (“Still waiting for ET to call?”), Arroway acquires new funding from a secretive source, later revealed to be the eccentric billionaire S. R. Hadden. Despite this, four years later, the existence of the SETI program is again being challenged by Drumlin, whose conception of scientific inquiry is entirely instrumental, unlike both Arroway and Joss, both of whom identify legitimate science (albeit in different ways) as a means of pursuing truth about the universe for its own sake. At the very moment of her despair, Arroway’s program receives a signal from the Vega cluster that indubitably signifies alien intelligence.

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Rapidly, power politics and worldwide publicity place tremendous strain on the program, which nevertheless proceeds under governmental supervision. The Vega signal contains tremendous amounts of data, eventually revealed to be a blueprint for a mysterious device intended to transport a single human occupant to some distant location. The device is constructed at Cape Canaveral, but Arroway is not selected to be the occupant after Joss’s public rejection of her appropriateness for the mission given her lack of any religious belief. (This is later revealed to be a ruse, intended to prevent her from undertaking a potentially fatal journey.) Drumlin is selected, but the Canaveral device is destroyed by a Christian terrorist. Can humanity overcome its social problems in order to achieve this project? At this point, Hadden intervenes and reveals that he has constructed a second device in Japan and that Arroway is the sole candidate.

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Entering the device, Arroway enters a series of wormholes, operating “like some kind of a train system.” She is treated to a transcendental vision of the universe (“No words. No words to describe it”) before being deposited in a fetal position upon a hyperreal beach, apparently a reconstruction of Pensacola, the location in Florida she had inadvertently contacted via radio in the opening scenes.

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Awestruck, Arroway watches a figure coalesce upon the beach. It appears as her father, whom she tearfully embraces, although she soon realizes it is an alien intelligence appearing to her in a familiar form. They proceed to have a dialogue about humanity’s place in the universe, the alien informing her that contact with the numerous extraterrestrials occupying the universe is a difficult privilege only to be achieved by maturing as a civilization: “You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Arroway then returns to the Japan location, only to discover that, due to relativity, her eighteen-hour-long journey did not appear to have occurred to those observing her. The veracity of her claims about her encounter with the alien intelligence of Vega is doubted publicly, and she is subjected to tremendous skepticism:

Now, you tell me, what is more likely here? That a message from aliens results in a magical machine that wisps you away to the center of the galaxy to go windsurfing with dear old dad, and then a split second later, returns you home without a single shred of proof? Or, that your experience is the result of being the unwitting star in the farewell performance of one S. R. Hadden?

Except by an adoring public of believers and, of course, by Joss, who chooses to believe her story despite the lack of physical evidence. The irony is intentional, and the film attempts to “marry” or reconcile Arroway’s hardheaded scientism with the underlying epistemic charity of Joss’s Christian humanism.

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

So what is the argument vis-à-vis astronoetics here? Contact proposes an astronoetic vision in which the primary function of space is to provide emotional closure for the human by situating the human properly in relation to a fundamentally benevolent cosmos. It is neither the alien intelligence of Vega nor the stark emptiness of space that poses a threat to this possibility of closure, but only the arrogance and small-mindedness of other humans who refuse to adopt the principles of charity, curiosity, and humility necessary when faced with the vastness of outer space – and with the implied vastness of the human landscape of intersubjectivity. It’s worth noting the degree to which Contact blurs the boundaries between the two. Consider its recurrent fixation on the juxtaposition of cosmic background and the human sensorium (e.g., in the blind Kent Clark’s attuned senses of hearing and smell, or in the constant “listening” for patterns that so preoccupies Arroway, described at one point as the “high priestess of the desert […] staring at static on TV for hours, listening to washing machines”), perhaps encapsulated best in its numerous superimpositions of cosmic imagery and human vision (e.g., in the young Eleanor’s eye at the start, in Arroway’s eyes both at the moment of the signal’s discovery and immediately prior to her encounter on the beach).

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

In Contact, it’s as if space were tailor-made for the expression and resolution of uniquely human concerns, whether they are Arroway’s relatively small-scale traumas or the destiny of a troubled but prospectively starborne humanity as a whole. Ultimately, it is not the force of discovery, but the power of communication that figures as the impetus for human development here, transforming every subject who successfully makes “contact” with both immanent and transcendental agencies (the full range of humans, aliens, and gods). In the former regard, Contact resembles nothing so much as the thematic predecessor of Jupiter Ascending (dir. The Wachowskis, 2015), in which the incursion of a parental loss (in both cases, the loss of the father) engenders a legacy of trauma, the resolution of which requires a fundamental reorientation of the traumatized subject in relation to the universe at large. In Contact, Arroway encounters the alien intelligence of Vega, resolves the trauma of her father’s untimely death, successfully connects with Joss against a shared background of mutual belief in her experience, and becomes a teacherly figure with strongly salvific overtones. In Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter Jones is revealed unknowingly to have been galactic royalty all along, and her birthright is likewise revealed to be the entirety of the Earth itself. In both instances the events and machinations of the cosmos revolve around the focal point of earthly human fulfillment, either in the form of emotional resolution or in the reestablishment of patrimonial norms. It may be that “if it’s just us, it’s an awful waste of space” – as every major character in Contact states at least once – but it’s apparently only not a waste of space as long as it’s all about you. Contrast the cosmic optimism at the heart of Contact or Jupiter Ascending with the persecutory nightmare of Event Horizon (Paul W. S. Anderson, 1997 – tagline: “Infinite space, infinite terror”), in which the void of the Outside also revolves around the human. However, in the cosmos of Event Horizon, this reveals only the torturous underside of existence. The Outside is filled with Dantesque, specifically anthropocentric horrors. Everything’s all about you, and that condition we call Hell: “Liberate tuteme ex inferis.”

Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Event Horizon (dir. Paul WS Anderson, 1997)


* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).