They Should Have Sent a Poet: Faith, Grief, and the Female Mystic in Contact
Natalie Bograd / University of Texas at Austin
We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars. –Carl Sagan, Cosmos.
In one of the most memorable opening sequences in science-fiction film since its predecessor (and obvious inspiration) 2001: A Space Odyssey, the camera pulls slowly away from the Earth into deep space. On the soundtrack we hear the aural artifacts of humanity in reverse order from chart-topping music hits to the rich baritone of Martin Luther King and finally, silence. As we speed through the universe, interstellar clouds, nebulae, and zooming galaxies converge into a single point of blue light; a gleam in the iris of young Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway1 in Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 film Contact. Ellie (Jodie Foster) is a seeker. She goes from a precocious young girl attempting to reach truckers on her HAM radio to a SETI astronomer listening for—in her own words—“little green men.” Contact may be a film about one woman’s journey through space, but it is also about Ellie’s spiritual journey as she becomes a female Columbus in search of much more than a new world.
Notably, the sudden traumatic death of her beloved father as a young girl catalyzes not only Ellie’s atheism but also her deep-rooted desire to understand why things happen. The film’s most memorable sequence—Ellie’s eventual whirlwind journey through space—is both a quest for the answers to our biggest questions (what science-fiction humor writer Douglas Adams deemed “life, the universe, and everything”4) and a deeply personal spiritual experience. In a series of visually breathtaking scenes, Ellie travels through a series of wormholes. At one point, she arrives on the edge of a beautiful peach-tinged galaxy with a bright white-yellow sun in the center giving off unearthly rays of light. Ellie, narrating her experience for the record, is moved nearly beyond the point of the speech. Her voice trembling, Ellie whispers: “Some celestial event. No – no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful…I had no idea.” In a bit of cinematic genius, the face of young Ellie is superimposed onto Foster’s, the expression and voice flickering between that of the woman and child. The implication is that this journey is healing not only for Ellie but also for the little girl grieving the loss of a parent.
Ellie’s voyage becomes even more fantastical when she wakes up on an isolated beach with stars and galaxies hanging impossibly close in the sky overhead. A familiar figure soon joins her: her deceased father. No “little green man,” Ellie quickly realizes that he is actually an alien who has taken on her father’s form. The alien’s appearance as a dead loved one is part of the mystery of Ellie’s experience. Is this real, the ultimate wish fulfillment, or both? Regardless, the alien does what Ellie’s father Ted did for her as a little girl: tries to give her answers to her questions. Their brief conversation reveals that there are “many others” i.e, intelligent species beyond Earth, and that some of them have taken the same journey using the same cosmic transport system. In one of the signature lines from the film, the alien tells Ellie:
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. You see, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found to make the emptiness more bearable…is each other.
Because she is a woman in a mostly male field and the scientific community considers her work for SETI fringe at best, Ellie is often alone and misunderstood. Because of the loss of her father, Ellie imposed isolation on herself, refusing to open up to people for fear of losing them. The alien’s prescription for humanity—that we realize how deeply connected we are to one another and the cosmos—is also a prescription for Ellie’s loneliness.
No longer the atheist defending her lack of belief in God, Ellie is now an evangelist attempting to convince others to believe. This reversal makes Ellie a prophet of sorts. It is significant that in Western tradition most explorers and nearly all prophets are men—Moses bringing God’s law to his people or Columbus discovering the so-called “New World.” In Contact, however, it is Ellie’s combination of scientific reason and female intuition that makes her such a powerful symbol. While Ellie is deeply shaken by the trial, she exits the courthouse to find a crowd of supporters cheering her name and holding signs that say, “Ellie discovered the new world.” Contact is such a significant film in the science fiction canon because it is a female hero’s journey. Ellie is not Uhura waiting by the phone while Kirk and Spock explore the foreign planet—she is the hero, following her destiny through a series of obstacles and returning home to deliver truth to us all.
Luckily, alongside soulless science-fiction blockbusters like Transformers and yes, Avatar—movies with great special effects but no heart—there have emerged a few gems. Films like District 9, Moon, and Her may be smaller in scale, but they share the same generic DNA as the best of their predecessors, making us think and entertaining us simultaneously. In addition, a handful of films and TV series such as Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, The Hunger Games, and Orphan Black have delivered a new generation of female sci-fi heroes. As a female science fiction fan, I am often disappointed. So I hold out hope that there will be another Contact, a film that has stayed with me for over a decade and reminds me how powerful a storytelling tool film can be. I think about that little girl in her Darth Vader costume, lightsaber in hand, and am reminded that each of us has a quest of our own and the chance to seek out greater understanding. To boldly go.
To Coleen Hubbard and Larry Bograd, parents and longtime editors for encouraging all my obsessions from Star Wars to rock collecting to writing and for being the first to introduce me to this film. You are my guides through life, the universe, and everything.
1.website Contact movie poster.
2. Opening images from Contact(Robert Zemeckis, 1997).
3. Author as Darth Vader (photo from author’s personal collection).
4. The machine built from plans sent by an unknown intelligence (Contact Robert Zemeckis, 1997).
5. Jenna Malone as Young Ellie (Contact Robert Zemeckis, 1997).
6. Ellie (Jodie Foster) listens for patterns in the chaos(Contact Robert Zemeckis, 1997).
7. Ellie has a mysterious encounter (Contact Robert Zemeckis, 1997).
Please feel free to comment.
- Young Ellie is played by Jenna Malone who went on to appear in multiple films including Saved! and the Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay. [↩]
- This was later expanded on in the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels: Leia becomes a Jedi Knight in her own right but chooses politics instead, serving as Chief of State for the New Republic and giving birth to three children who all become Jedi Knights themselves. [↩]
- This is the name of the person chosen to test the machine, which is determined to be a spacecraft of some sort. Initially, the seat goes to Ellie’s rival David Drumlin, but he is killed when the first machine is destroyed in a terrorist bombing. Ellie discovers that a second machine has been built in secret and is then given the chance to go. [↩]
- This is part of a running joke in Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: the answer to “life, the universe, and everything,” (also the name of the third book in the series) is the number 42 but know one knows what the question is. [↩]