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Film / Contact

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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 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on astronomer 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 some months 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, the unrelated pinball Contact, or the trope First Contact. Or 3-2-1 Contact.

This film provides examples of:

  • Activation Sequence: There's a long sequence showing The Machine being activated for Ellie's flight. The rings are slowly spun up, the control center keeps checking for updates as to their status, and Ellie tries to inform them how the Machine is behaving with each new phase. They almost call it off, but finally go through with it when they barely make out Ellie's "OK to go" through the storm of interference the thing is producing.
  • 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 (the video it's embedded in was in German in any case). "Mathematics is the only true universal language." Also the schematics for the FTL machine don't match up until it's realised they're three-dimensional.
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  • Alliterative Name: Kent Clark.
  • 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 she thinks 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. The director stated he had fun with this characterinvoked. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial he'd be a Card-Carrying Villain, in Independence Day he'd be a Reasonable Authority Figure. The point being that his viewpoint is necessary.
  • 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. In the film, he is killed along with several others by a suicide bomber disguised as a mechanic, and even though he gets a funeral, he's still hard to sympathize with given he tried to screw over Ellie.
  • 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 (at least 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 effortinvoked 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. Granted, Sagan would probably have approved.
    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?
  • Broken Record
    Ellie: I am okay to go... I am okay to go! Okay to go! ...I'm okay to go! I'm okay to go!... Okay to go!... Okay to go.
    Kent Clark: I hear her!
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Ellie herself before The Message arrives. Everyone agrees on her brilliance, but her SETI ideas are pretty out there. Some rumors about her behavior don't help.
    Kent: These are government-owned telescopes, they can lease them to whomever they want, and they don’t want the high priestess of the desert using them anymore.
    Ellie: What?
    Kent: Staring at static on TV for hours at a time. Listening to washing machines. Did you really think these stories wouldn’t get out?
    Ellie: I was looking for patterns in the chaos, come on!
  • The Cassandra: Arroway. To add to this, Palmer Joss is representative of Apollo.
  • Casting Gag: Rob Lowe was already known for his liberal causes when he was cast as Richard Rank, head of the Conservative Coalition.
  • Catchphrase: "Small moves".
  • The Chessmaster: Hadden takes a very thorough interest in his long-term investments.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Joseph The Fundamentalist. The first time Ellie (and the audience) sees him, he's one more guy in amongst the crowd that has gathered around the radio telescopes who is preaching fire and brimstone and points out to Ellie as "is this (Ellie) the kind of people you want talking to God?!?" The second time we see him, he's amongst the crowd surrounding a party at the mid-point, and Ellie picks him out because he's the only one giving the scientist congregation a Death Glare. The third time we see him, it's in a security feed as Ellie notices that he's snuck into the alien machine's launch site at Cape Canaveral... with a suicide bomb vest.
  • 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.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Averted with Howard Hughes-expy S.R. Hadden, though even he implies he's not a saint.
  • 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."
  • Death by Childbirth: Arroway's mother died from complications during childbirth.
  • Death Glare: Done thrice by Joseph to Ellie. First at a protest against the SETI project in Utah, and second in front the hotel where Ellie arrives in a sexy dress and third at the Kennedy Space Center before detonating a suicide bomb to destroy the machine.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: After her father instilled a passion for astronomy in Ellie Arroway and passed away, her life's mission revolved around the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This culminates with Ellie meeting an alien disguised as her father.
  • Deliberately Bad Example: Joseph to Palmer Joss. Joss is the Love Interest and his position in the "science vs. religion" arguments he has with Ellie is along the lines of "you believe in the possibility that aliens exist, so why can't you widen your mind just a little bit more?" Joseph is an incredibly creepy antagonist who kills several people and causes billions of dollars' worth of damage in a suicide attack because he believes people meeting aliens will make them forget God (or something similar).
  • Disability Superpower: Kent Clark, the blind astrophysicist with his enhanced hearing skills.
  • Dropped-in Speech Clip: The film opens with a long shot pulling away from Earth into deep space while audio representing radio transmissions are heard going from newest (at the time) to oldest as we move further away. Amid the period music and television audio are snippets of some of the landmark speeches from various time periods, including:
    • Audio from the Challenger disaster
    • Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" statement
    • Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech
    • JKF's first inaugural address
    • The "Day of Infamy" speech
    • Hitler's remarks at the Berlin Olympics (which becomes more significant later in the film)
  • Epic Tracking Shot: Young Ellie running up the stairs to fetch medication for her father who has collapsed.
  • Everything's Better with Spinning: The Machine fits this trope.
  • 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. In the book, 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.
  • Foreshadowing: The religious fanatic Joseph gives a Death Glare to Ellie during protests against SETI's machine project. This is the same glare he delivers to Ellie again while at Kennedy Space Center, just before blowing up the machine.
  • 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.)
  • The Fundamentalist: Joseph. The first time we see him, he's preaching fire and brimstone and decrying that Science Is Bad to the crowd surrounding the radio telescopes. In the Video Will discovered by the FBI after he blows himself (and the machine, and Drumlin among others) up he says that why he did this is incomprehensible right now, but in the times to come before God passes judgment to mankind people will eventually understand him.
  • Gallows Humor: Imagine getting a video signal from aliens in outer space and the first thing you see is a Nazi swastika.
  • 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's death. During his funeral, a priest tries to comfort her by saying it's "God's will". Ellie responds that she could have saved her dad.
  • Hollywood CB: The radio telescope Ellie builds.
  • Hollywood Law: There's no way the fact that the recording held 18 hours of static from a one-second flight, thus proving the core of Ellie's claims beyond question, wouldn't have come out in the hearing at the end. The idea that even Ellie wasn't aware of this is especially ludicrous.
  • Hot Scientist: Dr. Eleanor Arroway, who regularly wears no bra under clothes.
  • Humans Are Special: "You are an interesting species, that are capable of such wonderful dreams and such horrible nightmares".
  • Innocent Aliens: Ellie believes the Vegans are this without question, and gets frustrated when anyone considers otherwise, ignoring their good points about being cautious or her being too trustinginvoked. Though she turns out to be right.
  • 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:
    • Joseph, the blond-haired fundamentalist who blows up the first FTL device with a Suicide Attack.
    • In some ways, Ellie Arroway is this herself, except her cause is For Science!. Critically, she has sufficient self-awareness to recognize this tendency in herself, and acknowledge that she might, in fact, be mistaken: "Is it possible that it didn't happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that."
    Ellie: For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for something, some reason why we're here. What are we doing here? Who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer... I don't know, I think it's worth a human life. Don't you?
  • 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!
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In a movie making money for Hollywood by portraying aliens, Ellie says, "Beg for some of that Hollywood money! They've been making money off aliens for years."
  • 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.
  • Maybe Ever After: At the end of the movie, we don't get a good look at Ellie's hand to see if she's wearing a wedding or engagement ring.
  • 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.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Eleanor, for the first several minutes of the movie.
  • 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.
    • When Ellie first arrives at Hadden Industries, she's dressed in a turtleneck and beige suit similar to what Carl Sagan often wore.
  • 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:
    "First rule of government spending: why build one, when you can build two, at twice the price? Only, this one can be kept secret.
  • 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.
  • Oh, Crap!: Ellie, when she sees Joseph doing a Death Glare at her in the station.
  • 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.
  • Parental Abandonment: Ellie's mother died in childbirth. Her father died of a heart attack in her childhood.
  • 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.
  • Raster Vision: Featured frequently, with a whole scene dedicated to showing a science team trying to make sense of a TV signal from deep space.
  • 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 possibleinvoked reasons why he is helping out with the Machine is to give something back to a world he has taken a lot from.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Ellie for Team Enlightenment and Palmer for Team Romanticism.
  • 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.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Ellie and Joss kiss, then are seen talking in bed together after they clearly had sex offscreen.
  • 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.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: After Drumlin is selected over Arroway because her atheism turned off the selection panel (he learned from her mistake and professed a hitherto-unseen belief in God), he tells her that he wishes the world were a place where her honesty were rewarded, not taken advantage of as he did. Arroway answers: "Funny. I've always believed that the world is what we make of it."
  • Suicide Attack: Joseph, a Christian fundamentalist, blows up the machine with a suicide vest believing that it's somehow against God.
  • 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 like God.
  • Surveillance Station Slacker: Basically Jodie Foster plays a protagonist version of this. See also her two scientist colleagues at SETI.
  • Survival Mantra: A brief one when Ellie is about to be launched by the Machine, as the structure begins shaking violently around her and it seems like it's going to go horribly wrong, she at first shouts over the noise, then quietly whimpers over and over again "Okay to go. Okay to go." half through muscle memory, half through sheer terror. It allows Kent to hear her over the radio and stop Mission Control from aborting the launch.
  • 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.
  • Villainous Valor: Drumlin has his moments. When an angry Arroway barrels down on him with her jeep, Drumlin calmly stands in the middle of the road while everyone else dives for cover. It foreshadows his death when he tries and fails to stop the suicide bomber.
  • 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 Terrorists: Joseph, who suicide bombs the interstellar travel machine at the Kennedy Space Center due to his Christian beliefs.
  • 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?: After Ellie returned from the wormhole:
    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.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: As well as the awe-inspiring sequence that contains the page quote (which even was a former Trope Namerinvoked) — 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.
  • 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. This may be actually foreshadowed - on her way there we see flashes of Ellie speaking lines she's going to say in a couple of minutes, which suggests some serious timey-wimey.


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