As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Contact is a science fiction movie that was released in 1997 based on Carl Sagan’s novel by the same name. The movie stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor Arroway and Matthew McConaughey as Rev. Palmer Joss. As one can expect with any work by Carl Sagan, big themes are explored—are we alone, meaning in life, religion, etc.
Early in the movie Dr. Arroway discovers a repeating radio signal coming from the nearby star Vega. As it turns out, the signal is not natural, that is, some intelligence designed it. Part of the signal's message does include images of WWII, specifically Hitler, as these happened to be some of the first messages we broadcasted into space (they simply sent our message back to us). In addition, encoded in the signal was instructions on how to make a machine that could travel to Vega through a wormhole. The issue, well, the machine could only hold one person. So, humanity had to choose the right person for the mission.
Dr. Arroway and Rev. Joss have a bit of an on and off romance going on throughout the movie. About midway through, Rev. Joss meets Dr. Arroway at a party and they have the following conversation:
Dr. Arroway: Ironically, the thing people are most hungry for—meaning—is the one thing science hasn’t been able to give them. (quoting Rev’s book)
Rev. Joss: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Arroway: Come on. It’s like you’re saying science killed God. What if science simply revealed that he never existed in the first place?
They then head outside for some fresh air and discuss Occam's razor in relation to God's existence. Or rather, what is more likely? That there is some magical being that shows us no proof of his existence exists or that we are all just deluding ourselves by believing in God in order to escape our biggest fears—death and aloneness? Rev. Joss responded by asking Dr. Arroway if she loved her father and if so, to prove it.
A bit later the two are found walking in Washington, D.C., which sparks another conversation about why Dr. Arroway wants to be the one to go to Vega.
Rev. Joss: By doing this, you’re willing to give your life. You’re willing to die for it. Why?
Dr. Arroway: From 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 a chance to find out even a little part of that answer …. I don’t know, I think it’s worth a human life. Don’t you?
And, of course, then they kiss. But what is interesting here is that so many people are willing to die for their faith, and here we see the same with Dr. Arroway. The cause is slightly different, but the willingness to end life for the pursuit of meaning, might in part give that life some meaning (recall here Philip Cochran's speech to soldiers during WWII). It is here we also see the universal struggle between science and religion, our hunger for answers, and yearning not to be alone.
Eventually, though Dr. Arroway was not the primary person selected to go to Vega, she gets the opportunity. When she arrives, after going through a series of wormholes, she meets her dad. Or rather, a facsimile of her dad, a facsimile the extraterrestrial created to make it easier to converse with her. One of the things they tell her about the human race is:
Vega Alien: 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.
Dr. Arroway returns to earth and only a few seconds have gone by. In fact, according to everyone here on earth, she never left. From her perspective the trip took 18 hours. The problem is her recording equipment didn't pick up anything except for static and she hence has no proof her journey.
This is quite a predicament. She has no faith in God because there is no proof. Ironically, 90% people on earth believe in God without tangible proof. Yet, they want Dr. Arroway to prove that her journey to Vega really took place, but she has no evidence it took place. She admits during an investigation that as a scientist she could have hallucinated the whole thing, but says this about the experience:
Dr. Arroway: I had an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. But everything I know as a human being, everything I am tells me it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision … of the universe … that tells us undeniably … how tiny and insignificant … and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish … that everyone, if even for one … moment … could feel … that awe and humility and hope. But …… that continues to be my wish.
So, what we have is a scientist that has an experience, an experience that may be similar to a religious experience—neither of which can be proved, but like love, exists nevertheless. What we can ascertain from the movie, like Albert Einstein noted, Carl Sagan may be saying that meaning can only be defined under the context of relativity—and not the special or general kind, but relative to one another. That is, relative to other people or intelligences. Or if meaning cannot be found there, that at the very least, we can find comfort knowing we aren't alone. We can find meaning and purpose as individuals amongst other individuals. Knowing that other societies exist in the universe can help us as a society to shape our meaning in a larger context, but ultimately, it seems the people from Vega, despite their superior technology, also still struggle with the same questions.
Overall - 9
Meaning of Life Relevance - 7
Uniqueness – 7
Did you see the movie? What did you think? What did we miss?