Contact


When I was a kid, I was the only one on the block who watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos diligently. While it was boring even given my interest in cosmology, there were moments which really enthralled me and captured my attention. I expected Contact to be similar: a few flashes of brilliance, but mostly boring. I was pleasantly surprised; my attention was held for the entire 2.5 hours.

Contact comes close to being a perfect movie. It has action, effects, a great story, realistic science-fiction, and some great acting. While there a few holes in the science aspect (which I'll discuss later), the story is convincing. The main plot is the interception of an alien communication by Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), the decoding of the communication to reveal a transport, and the actual contact between humans and aliens. Mingled in with all this is a power-play from many ends, those wanting to make the first contact, those wanting to use the technology for their own ends, and those fearful of the technology. Contact is filmed in a highly non-conventional manner, with a slow introduction and a fast-paced ending which makes one want to give up bungee jumping and start listening for signals from outer space.

Every aspect of the movie is brought out excellently, from Arroway's initial interception of the alien signal to her travel through a wormhole and encountering aliens, which is done in the best manner possible. There are some breathtaking visuals.

The acting by most of the characters is great. I'm sure Foster will be remembered during next year's Academy Awards. While I don't like Matthew McConaughey's acting, he is passable here as Palmer Joss (though there are times when he appears to be sleep-talking). The performances by Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, Arroway's mentor with his own ambitions; John Hurt as S. R. Hadden, an eccentric billionaire; James Woods as Michael Kitz, the skeptical National Security Advisor; and Jena Malone as young Arroway are particularly excellent.

One great aspect is the combining of what we perceive to be part of the real world (clips of Clinton, Leno, Bernard Shaw, etc.) interspersed with the fiction of the movie. Robert Zemeckis, one of the directors whose work I've consistently found to be thought-provoking, knows that to weave a good and believable story, one must mingle facts with speculation.

The biggest flaw I found in Contact is with its treatment of the amount of time elapsed during Arroway's encounter with the aliens, which ends up being a fairly crucial part of the movie towards the end. According to Arroway, she spent eighteen hours away from Earth. As far as the people on Earth are concerned, she never went anywhere. This sets up a situation where her experience has to be taken on faith and this is good for the story, but consider this: relativistic theory says the faster your speed, the lesser the amount of time taken for an event as measured by your clock. This isn't platitude, but rather illustrates the notion of relative time. If you travel in a straight path from point A to point B on Earth by an aeroplane and it takes 5 hours, then if you travelled at the speed of light between the same points, and you took a longer, more circuitous route, the time taken, as judged by your watch, would be zero. In fact, this is brought out earlier in the movie: Joss points out that Arroway will be travelling at near light-speeds, and when she returns the people she knew on Earth would no longer be around. This is because travelling at near the speed of light, she would age only a fraction of the time she would have aged had she been travelling at the speed of Earth.

Yet, in the movie, the reverse is what happens, i.e., her "watch" measures eighteen hours, whereas the "watch" on Earth measures a fraction of a second for the loss of contact with her transport (see addendum below). This implies that the speed she was travelling at while she was away was a lot slower than the speed of Earth. This is highly incongruous, to say the least. While this inconsistency can be explained in a hand-waving manner (with emphasis on the waving part), no attempt is made to account for it (which I think is at least necessary given Joss' initial statement). I've not read the book this movie is based on, but I'd be very surprised if Sagan used the same situation to enable people on Earth to discount Arroway's experience. In all but a few other respects (the percentage of people on Earth believing in a god, for example), the writers appear to have taken great pains to ensure a certain scientific validity to their plot.

Arroway's actions at the end, when she is asked to explain her journey, are, in a sense, insulting to the scientific profession. While a scientist may believe life exists on other planets, a good scientist will do their best to falsify hypothesis they come up with (in a Popperian spirit), even in a case where all their senses scream that the hypothesis is true. None of us as scientists would (rather, should) publish or expose our opinion to the world in a formal manner without suggesting ways to prove our hypothesis false (especially in a grant application). In this case, I think Arroway had plenty of opportunities to falsify her hypothesis. The reason Arroway gives at the end for her actions is a cop-out, given her reputation.

Then there is the overuse of Occam's Razor. As any scientist would know, particularly when it comes to living systems, following Occam's Razor is just as likely to make you wrong than right. That is, in nature, it is not necessarily the case that the simplest hypothesis for the observable facts that is likely to be right.

Finally, we come to a topic that is addressed in a seemingly dichotomous manner in the movie: religion vs. science. Science is a matter of faith to many people, and could even be considered one's religion, as the movie tries to bring out. But unlike most orthodox/institutional religions, science not only encourages, but also requires, that you constantly question your faith and find ways to disprove what you believe. I've found that if you stop looking when you've found what you wanted to find, it results in pathological science. That fundamental difference between science and religion alone makes it more likely to find "truths", if they exist, using the scientific method than any other.

This all relates to the question about the existence of a god or God. The problem with that question is that it takes on the form of a bad hypothesis, in that it does not easily lend itself to falsification (to prove it false, one would have to scour the entire universe). The real question is whether God's existence is relevant to our lives, and further, whether a given god's existence is relevant (after all, the notion of a Christian God, or a similar omnipotent omniscient deity, has its own problems in terms of reconcilation with the beliefs of the people on this planet, and also leads to fundamental inconsistencies). Initial answers to these questions can be found in the phenomenal work done by physicists in the 20th century.

All this discussion goes to show Contact is a great movie, in that it is provoking and stimulating intellectually, while providing a nice visual spectacle. While the amount of depth in the story itself is negligible, there's a lot that a viewer can get from it. Don't miss this one.


Addendum

A lot of people have written to me pointing out that travel occured over a wormhole. Nothing in my review indicates otherwise The point is that Arroway's "watch" (in this case her camera) measured 18 hours, whereas the "watch" on earth measured a fraction of a second. Wormhole or not, this means she was, on average, travelling at a speed far slower than that of earth. Even if the Einstein-Rosen bridge was only 1 KM long (resulting in a shortcut of 26 light years), Arroway's travel and her time on Vega took hours.

If people believe a wormhole is really a shortcut through spacetime, then Arroway coming back presents the paradoxes associated with time travel to the past. For example, if Arroway travelled at the speed of light back to Vega (immediately after returning), would she encounter herself?

All these issues can be resolved, at least superficially. I'm just saying the movie doesn't do it, and saying "wormhole" or "Einstein-Rosen bridge" doesn't cut it.