I chose “Contact”, the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same, for a recent family movie night. It was new to the kids. I read the book a few years ago, soon after quarantine began. I had been wanting to show the kids this movie ever since we saw “The Martian” earlier this year, but we got off on superhero and monster tangents, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. But I very much wanted to show the kids something about science, to talk with them about the many themes of the movie that have meant so much to me; to get them thinking about the countless questions that this story raises; and to get them, through this very human movie, to begin feeling these questions.
Ava was completely in love with it; and after the movie she started sounding a little like Carl Sagan, talking about how there is surely life out there and it might only be microbes on Mars, but wouldn’t the total absence of life be a waste of space, etc.
Watching “Contact” again, I had a new insight about what Carl may have been trying to say by putting Ellie Arroway in her particular predicament. For those who don’t know, Ellie Arroway is a nontheist and skeptic who, for example, asks a man of faith why would there be an all-powerful God who just decided not to leave any definite proof of his existence; her problem at the end of the movie is that she returns from her journey into space with no proof that she encountered extraterrestrials or even that she physically went anywhere, and her inquisitors are unwilling to take her story on faith.
Now, I’ve always thought that this was Carl Sagan’s generosity toward believers, that it was his way of saying, Look, it’s entirely possible that even a scientist seeing real things might come away with no definitive proof, so if that is your position as a theist, I will still push you to produce evidence and I won’t accept your story unless your evidence persuades me, but I can be sympathetic to your position. There’s good reason to read this as the subtext, and I’ll give another example.
In “Cosmos” — his book, turned also into a 1980 PBS documentary — Carl recounts the story of Flatland, a two-dimensional country populated by entirely flat creatures who lack all height. Some Flatlanders, it turns out, can have baffling but real encounters with three-dimensional creatures, but they cannot provide proof of these encounters when asked for evidence. They theorize about the existence of a third dimension, but in their two-dimensional existence they can’t even point to a third dimension. So they are softly ridiculed for their talk of three dimensions and for reporting, as they might, that they hear voices. Carl explained most intriguingly that if Flatlanders hear voices from three-dimensional creatures standing above, they would perceive those voices as coming from within themselves.
I’ve always prized that bit from “Cosmos” as a scientist’s reflection about how the universe may be structured in such a way that direct evidence can elude us. Of course that doesn’t mean that we can cease being skeptical and not ask for direct evidence. I just take Carl as insisting that, though we should embrace scientific methods, it’s still imperative to wonder, to speculate, to think beyond the box. To think above the flat terrain.
However, watching “Contact” this time, I don’t think he was just making a generous analogy with religion. I think he put Ellie in her ironic predicament because it is a situation that any scientist understands, and that Carl surely experienced many times: trying to explain the most benign evidence or idea, only to be met with either lack of understanding, misunderstanding, even hostility. The latter would range from simple, spontaneous and short-lived varieties to the more creative and persistent kinds, like the conspiracy theory expressed in “Contact” by Kitz, the United States national security advisor. At the formal inquiry set up to investigate Ellie’s claim that she met extraterrestrial beings, Kitz angrily posits that the extraterrestrial signal that’s been received all over the Earth for several years is nothing more than a local hoax masterminded by a secretive billionaire with a motive.
Such a signal cannot be faked and this is already clear from everything we’ve seen in the movie, but it’s even more clear in the book, which allows you time to consider the unimaginable distances between Earth, Vega and all the stars; and even if you’re not a scientist you know that faking these distances is not possible, that no one making the attempt could fool observers at all points on Earth, much less fool them for years. In the book, Ellie is shocked by the “malign” scenario that Kitz has fabricated, but she silently recognizes the fear behind his anger and suspicion, so she simply makes her explanation about the science and lets it go. In the movie, which was made after Carl’s death, she argues with Kitz but ends up making a general concession that her journey — which she passionately believes in herself — could theoretically have been a self-delusion. And I’ve always thought was too generous by movie-Ellie, and too much of a stretch by the moviemakers. Maybe they wanted to drive home the similarities between Ellie’s journey and religious visions, though the point did not need any driving, it was already home.
I do think the movie wanted to present Ellie as humble and objective enough to allow that she might be wrong, even about something that means dearly to her. And yes, in that general sense, we all could be wrong, and all of us should be capable of that type of humility. But in a case like this, looking at the particular physical details can establish what scenarios are probable and which ones are not.
“Contact,” especially this time around, gave me a profound sense of how much fear there is in us when we encounter any type of truth, even when it’s benign; how little faith we have that this truth, or that one, might be friendly and is not a Trojan Horse, or blasphemous, or lethal, or what have you. Ellie Arroway has the courage to move forward, to say no to fear, which is what makes her one of my favorite characters in any book or movie.
Jacob really liked S.R. Hadden. I did too, and when I said how mysterious he was, and how it occurred to me during the movie that he might be an alien (he’s not, but he really feels like one), both kids said yes, they had the same idea too. He’s essentially presented with all the movie tropes of a space alien, right up to the bald head. We had a lot of fun talking about him. Why indeed did he know exactly, as he said to Ellie, “how to think like a Vegan”? Maybe he is one!
I find it interesting how Carl wrote the character of S.R. Hadden: a billionaire, a capitalist king, but in this one case an advancer of science and a respecter of truth, even if he’s a shady character who’s otherwise made enemies everywhere. But then that’s Carl’s immense respect for humanity and its diversity. Only national security advisors don’t come off well in his book. Them, and terrorists.
In our post-movie discussion we talked about the common scientific idea that life beyond Earth might not even be carbon-based, might not even look like us in any fundamental way. I pointed to the bookcase next to me and said, what if life looked to us like this wood? Ava mentioned that extraterrestrial life might be no more than tiny creatures to us. And then I remembered the movie we’d seen the previous night, “Antz,” in which the ants never actually perceive that there are living beings above them; they see shoes and moving objects, and mysterious things, but they don’t see faces or realize that they’re looking at human beings. That was an interesting twist on the common idea that insects may perceive us as terroristic giants. They might not in fact perceive us as distinct forms of life, if they had some capacity to recognize such things.
I love how Palmer Joss, the main character of faith in “Contact”, is not afraid of science. And I love how Ellie’s lifelong search of the skies is bound up with a deep desire to talk to her father again; it shows that even the greatest scientists are human, and that maybe our curiosity is best when it is most human.
The scientist is depicted as logical but made of flesh and blood. The believer is shown as having both faith and a reasoning mind.
I love an exchange between them near the end of the novel, not present in the movie. Ellie begins:
“Don’t you think there’s been a strange . . . reversal of our positions? Here I am, the bearer of the profound religious experience I can’t prove—really, Palmer, I can barely fathom it. And here you are, the hardened skeptic trying—more successfully than I ever did—to be kind to the credulous.”
“Oh no, Eleanor,” he said, “I’m not a skeptic. I’m a believer.”
“Are you? The story I have to tell isn’t exactly about Punishment and Reward. It’s not exactly Advent and Rapture. There’s not a word in it about Jesus. Part of my message is that we’re not central to the purpose of the Cosmos. What happened to me makes us all seem very small.”
“It does. But it also makes God very big.”
She glanced at him for a moment and rushed on.
“You know, as the Earth races around the Sun, the powers of this world—the religious powers, the secular powers—once pretended the Earth wasn’t moving at all. They were in the business of being powerful. Or at least pretending to be powerful. And the truth made them feel too small. The truth frightened them; it undermined their power. So they suppressed it. Those people found the truth dangerous. You’re sure you know what believing me entails?”
“I’ve been searching, Eleanor. After all these years, believe me, I know the truth when I see it. Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God, must be brave enough to accommodate the universe. I mean the real universe. All those light-years. All those worlds. I think of the scope of your universe, the opportunities it affords the Creator, and it takes my breath away. It’s much better than bottling Him up in one small world. I never liked the idea of Earth as God’s green footstool. It was too reassuring, like a children’s story . . . like a tranquilizer. But your universe has room enough, and time enough, for the kind of God I believe in.”