Film: Contact

If it's just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.

"Some kind of celestial event. No... no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful... I had no idea."
Dr. Arroway

Contact is a movie based on biologist Carl Sagan's novel of the same name, although in an odd case, Sagan wrote it first for the screen, then turned it into a book after it ended up in Development Hell. Unlike most Hollywood science fiction adaptations, this attempted to stay true to the original and get the science right. Sagan died before the film was finished, so we don't know what he would have thought of it.

Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a driven yet gifted scientist on the failing SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, who confounds her critics when a powerful signal is received from Vega, 26 light years away. The signal is encoded with technical instructions for building a Faster-Than-Light Travel device which can send a single ambassador to the stars. The film explores issues of science vs. faith, and whether the two are mutually exclusive.

Not to be confused with the unrelated game Contact or the trope First Contact.

This film provides examples of:

  • Alien Sky: The aliens create a beach based on the drawing Ellie drew as a child.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Averted. The so-called 'Vegans' make contact with a signal based on mathematics. When the National Security Advisor asks why these Sufficiently Advanced Aliens don't just communicate in English, Arroway responds that 70% of Earth's population speak other languages. "Mathematics is the only true univeral language." Also the schematics for the FTL machine don't match up until it's realised they're three-dimensional.
  • Alliterative Name: Kent Clark.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: Even in-universe, nobody's sure what Hadden was really after, especially considering how close to death he was. Money? A charitable contribution to mankind's future? Manipulation for its own sake? Scientific discovery? All of the above?
    • Drumlin is very politically savvy and much of what he does lampoons Ellie. However he never does anything bad and unlike Ellie who is very condescending to those (pretty much everyone) who don't understand the science as well as she does he is very good at explaining things so regular people can understand.
    • Kitz is the National Security Advisor. He would be blatantly derelict in his duties if he wasn't skeptical and cautious about everything going on. It is a theme of the movie of course, but Ellie puts a lot of faith in the aliens.
  • America Saves the Day: Lampshaded by showing some of the background politicking and controversy over the US dominating the construction of the Faster-Than-Light Travel machine. In an attempt to alleviate this an international committee is used to select Earth's ambassador, but it's mentioned that the Japanese (who are also contributing significantly to the half-trillion dollar project) are bought off from insisting on their own candidate by promising them a significant percentage of the technological spin-offs from First Contact. Presumably other behind-the-scenes deals were made to ensure an American candidate was sent.
  • Analogy Backfire: When Kitz asks Ellie why does she think the aliens have to be benign Ellie answers that the human civilization poses no threat to them, and that it would be like us being hell-bent on obliterating some microbes on an anthill in Africa, to which Drumlin replies: "Interesting analogy. And how guilty would we feel after obliterating some microbes on an anthill in Africa?"
    • Which makes this film a reversal of the first Species.
  • Arc Symbol: When Ellie arrives on the "beach" to meet the Vegans, she picks up a handful of sand, and a few particles shimmer brighter than others. The shape formed by these shimmering grains is the same as the shape made by the popcorn her father dropped when he collapsed. They also appear once again in the final scene, as the first stars to appear in the sky as the sun slowly sets.
  • Arc Words: "If it was only us, that would be an awful waste of space."
  • Armies Are Evil: National Security Advisor Michael Kitz comes closest to filling this role.
  • Asshole Victim: Dr. Drumlin. In the novel, he died saving Ellie, causing greatly mixed feelings in her. He was still a jerk, but she remembers that she wished he was dead.
  • Based on a True Story: The workings of SETI are realistically depicted, and the character Eleanor Arroway is loosely based on Real Life SETI director Jill Tarter. Of course, everything following the eponymous First Contact is, obviously, not based on a true story.
    • Until we've calculated sufficiently down into pi, we won't know.
  • Benevolent Precursors: The Vegans. They've been doing this for a long time. It's actually played straight twice, because even the Vegans don't know who built the transportation network they're using.
  • Broken Aesop: After the laborious effort to establish total equivalence between faith in religion and faith in science - representing both as mere personal choice in the absence of any hard evidence - the film breaks that Aesop by definitively showing that Arroway, as opposed to the more religious characters across the aisle, actually has some evidence of her claims, and the evidence is being suppressed by the government officials involved.
    Constantine: I assume you read the confidential findings report from the investigating committee.
    Kitz: I flipped through it.
    Constantine: I was especially interested in the section on Arroway's video unit. The one that recorded the static?
    Kitz: Continue.
    Constantine: The fact that it recorded static isn't what interests me.
    Kitz: [pauses] Continue.
    Constantine: What interests me is that it recorded approximately eighteen hours of it.
    Kitz: [leans forward so he is looking directly in the camera] That is interesting, isn't it?
    • Also, before they realize she does have evidence, Arroway fully admits that the whole thing could have been a hallucination.
    • Of course, as evidence goes, static, no matter how much of it isn't exactly impressive.
      • Until one realizes that Time is also a dimension. The Machine allowed Ellie to travel in a manner outside the flow of space/time in the Earth dimension (i.e. near-instantaneous interdimensional travel, so the Vegans have some ability to travel not only through space, but Time as well.
  • The Cassandra: Arroway. To add to this, Palmer Joss is representative of Apollo.
  • Catch Phrase: "Small moves".
  • The Chessmaster: Hadden takes a very thorough interest in his long-term investments.
  • Close on Title: The title card and the rest of the opening credits immediately precede the closing ones.
  • Cool Old Guy: Hadden again. He's the reclusive billionaire who bankrolled the continuation of Ellie's SETI work and treats her as a personal protégé. He's also instrumental in helping decipher the Vega codex and ensuring Ellie is the one who takes the trip through the backup Machine.
  • Cyanide Pill: Jodie Foster's character is given a suicide pill to use if anything goes wrong, such as being marooned or an incomprehensible Fate Worse Than Death. According to the film, every NASA astronaut and test pilot is given one of these, for emergencies where dying quickly would be a mercy. In his book Lost Moon, Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell mentioned that this had been a rumor for some time, and that it was not true — it would be much easier simply to open the main hatch and depressurize the spacecraft. Sagan insisted that they've "been giving these to the astronauts since the beginning of the space program, it’s never been made public, of course."
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Averted with Howard Hughes-expy S.R. Hadden, though even he implies he's not a saint.
  • Death by Childbirth: Arroway's mother died from complications during childbirth.
  • Death Glare: Joseph at Ellie.
  • Disability Superpower: Kent Clark, the blind astrophysicist with his enhanced hearing skills.
  • Everything's Better with Spinning: The Machine fits this trope.
  • Evil Albino: Joseph.
  • Exact Words: Hadden tells Arroway that many people would like to see him depart this world, and says he'll grant them their wish soon enough. Next time we see him, he's staying in the MIR space station. Though he does actually die not too long after.
  • Fiction 500: S.R. Hadden seems almost ridiculously wealthy-toward the end he reveals he bought up all the companies that got subcontractor deals for the FTL Machine, in order to build his own backup copy and choose who gets to go.
    • He even builds a duplicate of ancient Babylon in upstate New York and arranges to have prostitution legalized so that he can run an adult theme park.
  • First Contact: Although as the Vegan points out, Humanity contacted them. They are the ones replying.
  • First Contact Math: The alien signal starts with prime numbers.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: The Vegan takes the form of Arroway's dead father, and the meeting takes place on a Floridean beach. The vision ends with the meteor shower she and her father were supposed to see together.
    • The Florida beach isn't even a real one, but a more realistic rendering of the one Ellie imagined and drew in one of the flashbacks to before her father died. Every single exterior to the transit capsule after it enters the second wormhole is a picture previously shown somewhere in the film. For example, the alien city below four suns first appears in a poster in her quarters at Arecibo.)
  • Happier Home Movie: Hadden shows Ellie video footage of her happy childhood.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: Ellie listens on her headphones at the Very Large Array. It is when she first hears the Signal.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Ellie, ever since her father died and a priest comforts her by telling her it's "God's will". All Ellie said to him was she should have helped her dad sooner.
  • Hollywood CB: The radio telescope Ellie builds.
  • Hot Scientist: Dr. Eleanor Arroway.
  • Humans Are Special: "You are an interesting species, that are capable of such wonderful dreams and such horrible nightmares".
  • Invisible President: News footage of Bill Clinton was expertly spliced into the film, much to the annoyance of the White House. Averted in the novel, in which the President is a woman, and implied to not be the first.
  • Ironic Echo: Ellie brings up Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one) to Palmer as an explanation of her skepticism. In the senate hearing at the end, Occam's Razor is brought up to Ellie regarding the most likely explanation regarding her claims.
  • It May Help You on Your Quest: The toy compass Ellie is given by Palmer before her journey first looks like a Gentleman's Favour but later becomes a plot point. In the scene where she separates herself from the restraint chair in the pod to retrieve said compass, which had come loose from her neck, the chair breaks violently apart from its fastenings, fulfilling Palmer's prediction that the compass would one day save her life.
  • Jumped at the Call: Humanity eagerly jumps to the challenge of building the Machine, despite the cost mounting in the Trillions. It's even admitted during the first test, they still don't know what it'll actually do.
  • Knight Templar: The blond-haired fundamentalist who blows up the first FTL device with a Suicide Attack.
  • Lady in Red: Ellie wears a burgundy outfit when speaking about her "trip." It is intentionally the same color as the outfit Hadden is wearing when they first meet.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Dr. Drumlin's death at the hands of the fundie suicide bomber. Drumlin and Arroway have been rivals for years - Arroway attains high-end positions at SETI projects, and Drumlin uses his connections and charisma to criticize and ultimately shut those projects down so the equipment can be used for his own conventional radioastronomy projects. When the Message arrives, Drumlin then uses those same connections to take Arroway's hard-earned place heading the team deciphering it. And when the Machine is built and the selection hearings are choosing the candidate to be sent, where Arroway simply states her case as if testifying before a jury, Drumlin approaches it like a job interview and easily beats her. Arroway's atheism makes her unpopular as a candidate, while Drumlin claims a belief in God he showed no indication of before to help gain the spot. He then rubs it in, saying that though Arroway deserves the position more, Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: When Ellie is knocked out, she awakes in her personal paradise. Apparently, the aliens used her childhood painting and the image of her late father as the setting for their first contact.
  • Meaningful Echo: Arroway's father used his Catchphrase "small moves" to call upon her patience when operating the CB radio. During the Alien projection, the phrase is used to call upon the patience of humankind in moving ahead with the contacting:
    Arroway: But other people need to see what I've seen...
    Alien: This is the way it's been done for billions of years.
    Arroway: But I...
    Alien: Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.
  • Meaningful Name: Arrow-way.
  • Mythology Gag: Sort of-Ellie speculates that the message could be Tome One of an Encyclopedia Galactica. She also mentions the term Technological Adolescence, both of which are seen in Carl Sagan's series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: There's a certain amount of alarm when the signal turns out to be a retransmitted television broadcast of Adolf Hitler giving a speech. Kitz even suggests it comes from Scary Dogmatic Aliens who find his views appealing. Cooler heads point out that aliens wouldn't understand the context of the transmission — the speech is Hitler opening the 1936 Olympics, which would have been the first strong TV signal sent into space. Sending it back is simply their way of showing the message was received. But that doesn't stop the Neo-Nazis from believing "Hitler lives".
  • New Tech Is Not Cheap: A terrorist attack destroys the first device. There are plans, but building the device was so expensive for the entire world that the prospect of building a second one is summarily dismissed. It is then that a second, backup device is revealed to have been built in secret. It is explained with the Crowning Moment of Awesome line:
    "First rule of government spending: why build one, when you can build two, at twice the price? Only, this one can be kept secret.
  • Not So Different: As is pointed several times below, one of Contact's themes is that religion and science are Not So Different after all. The film culminates in the heroine describing her experience in very religiously sounding terms.
    • Ellie Arroway spends the first quarter of the film demonstrating firm belief in the existence of alien life, even at the detriment of her career, despite the fact there is no empirical proof, the exact thing she stated as the reason she doesn't believe in a god. Her later objections to the inclusion of a safety chair in the sphere is that that they should trust the aliens would keep the traveler safe, which is certainly an act of faith. Her impassioned speeches on scientific principles often approach a fervor one would expect from an evangelical preacher, while she repeatedly treats Occam's Razor as though it were dogma. In the end, with no proof that she didn't just hallucinate only the Christian minister she'd argued religion with previously believes her, just to drive it home.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Vegans, arguably. "It's been done this way for millions of years." Although it's heavily implied, all throughout the film, that they know what they're doing and are benevolent.
  • One-Liner, Name... One-Liner: "Small moves, Ellie. Small moves."
  • One-Word Title
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Vegans. They aren't from Vega at all (nor are they shown to have an aversion to eating meat), as it is pointed out that the system is far too young to have created life. It's just that one of the hubs for their Portal Network is located there, which is how they became aware of humanity's presence.
  • Place Beyond Time: The Machine loosely fits this trope.
  • Precursors: Whichever alien race built the Portal Network. It wasn't the Vegans.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Palmer Joss in the movie. In the book, Ken der Heer (the President's science advisor) serves as the Love Interest, while Joss is something of a minor character.
  • Refused The Call: According to the Vegan who appears as Ellie's father many but not all races they contact choose to respond.
  • Retired Monster: Possibly. Hadden has made enemies of a lot of people, industries, companies, and governments. One of the possible reasons why he is helping out with the Machine is to give something back to a world he has taken a lot from.
  • Rule of Cool: The opening sequence shows a pull-back from Earth where we hear 10-year-old music before we've even left the solar system, completely missing the real propagation times for the radio signals, but it doesn't matter because it gets the message across so powerfully.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Hadden thinks that rules and laws don't exactly apply to him... turns out he's right, but that's only because he owns half the damn planet.
  • Shout-Out: William Fichtner's character in the film, a blind astrophysicist with enhanced hearing as a result of his condition, is named Kent Clark, a play on the name of Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. The character is based on a real-life blind SETI scientist, Kent Cullers.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: This is the central conflict of the film. The main character is an atheist and believes in rational explanations for everything, but at the end her journey to the center of the galaxy is revealed to be in every respect a religious experience, where the alien beings are God.
  • Surveillance Station Slacker: Basically Jodie Foster plays a protagonist version of this. See also her two scientist colleagues at SETI.
  • The Svengali: Hadden could be seen as one, depending if it was him who cooked up this Batman Gambit of a scheme.
  • Techno Babble: When the signal comes in, Arroway is shouting all sorts of scientific instructions into her walkie talkie.
  • They Should Have Sent A Poet (former Trope Namer): As well as the awe-inspiring sequence that contains the page quote — a staggering symphony of visual effects and music built around Jodie Foster's note-perfect performance — the movie opens with an amazing pullback that, starting from Earth orbit, proceeds to give you the faintest hint of just how INCREDIBLY HUGE the universe is, complete with a kind of audio time-travel, backwards through the history of broadcasting as the signal travels away from Earth at the speed of light.
  • We Come in Peace — Shoot to Kill: It's suggested by Kitz that the machine might be a Trojan Horse doomsday device, meant to eliminate any potential rival civilization.
  • Western Terrorist: Joseph.
  • Wham Line: "Why build one when you can build two...?", followed in the end with another: "Wanna take a ride?"
    • "The fact it recorded static isn't what interests me... What interests me is that it recorded approximately eighteen hours of it."
  • What Year Is This?:
    Ellie Arroway: What day is this?
    Director: I'm sorry, did you say "what day"?
    Ellie Arroway: How long was I gone?
    Director: Ellie, the IPV dropped straight through the Machine. You didn't go anywhere.
  • When Things Spin, Science Happens: The Machine is a giant gyroscope that generates a wormhole by spinning its rings at tremendous speed. The last ring is brought to speed via rocket propulsion.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Dr. Arroway's trip through the Portal Network, conversation with an alien, and return home seemingly took about 18 hours. But as it took less than a second as time is reckoned here on Earth, quite a few people ended up strongly doubting that she actually traveled anywhere at all, since no one on Earth saw Arroway's pod disappear and her recording equipment displayed only static. This suggests that what Arroway experienced was All Just a Dream, but unknown to her and the general public it turns out that the camera recorded a full eighteen hours of static.
  • You Imagined It: Or so Ellie's led to believe.