Contact, starring Jodie Foster, tells the story of astronomer Ellie Arroway’s search for extraterrestrial life. It is more however than a movie about aliens. It raises profound questions about life, faith and science.
Ellie’s parents both died while she way very young, and she is left with a keen sense of aloneness and a drive to discover some sense of meaning and purpose to life and existence. Her chosen path to truth is science. She refuses to accept anything on the basis of faith. Only that which can be scientifically demonstrated can be intellectually embraced.
The other central character in the movie is Palmer Joss, a spiritual adviser to the president. Ellie and Joss find themselves attracted to each other, but their relationship forces them both to explore the place of faith and reason in their lives. Ellie challenges Joss to proven that God exists. Ockham’s razor demands that the simplest explanation is the best. On this basis she asks “So what’s more likely? That a mysterious, all-powerful God created the universe, and then decided not to leave a single evidence of his existence? Or that He simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created Him, so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and lonely?”
Joss responds by asking Ellie if she loved her father. She affirms that she loved him deeply. Joss then turns Ellie’s demand back on her. “Prove it”. Joss explains that although he may not be able to scientifically prove God’s existence, he once had a deeply moving experience where he felt overwhelmed by the presence of God. It’s on this basis that he believes. Ellie however can’t accept this. If it cannot be proven it cannot be true.
Then one day, as Ellie is listening for signals from outer-space contact is made. Aliens from deep in space have returned radio signals to earth and then send details for the construction of what seems to be a time machine. After one person has died when the first machine explodes, Ellie is chosen to travel in the second. When Joss asks her whether she is willing to die for this she replies: “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?”
So Ellie finds herself sitting in a small metallic sphere suspended from massive circular arms. The arms start rotating furiously, reaching a point where the sphere is dropped. This time the machine doesn’t explode, the sphere simply falls to earth. Nothing has happened…
Or at least that’s how it appears to inside observers. Ellie’s experience within the capsule is extraordinary. She finds herself hurtling down a “wormhole”, a doorway through space, until she emerges on a beautiful beach. A figure walks across the sand toward her. It’s her father…in fact an alien life form coming to her in the guise of her father so that she will feel comfortable. Finally Ellie has overcome her sense of cosmic aloneness, perhaps found some of the answers she is looking for. In some poignant lines the alien says: “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.”
After 18 hours Ellie has to return. When she does she finds herself confronted by the same skepticism towards her experience that she showed to Joss when he spoke of his experience of God. From the viewpoint of everyone observing from outside the capsule nothing happened. Surely Ockham’s razor demands the simplest explanation – that nothing did happen other than Ellie being fooled? Surely they can’t be expected to accept Ellie’s story on the basis of nothing but faith? Ellie’s confronted with a terrible dilemma. Can she now embrace her experience on the basis of nothing but faith? It seems her answer is “yes”. She says “I had an experience I can’t prove, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was part of 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 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 the hope, but… that continues to be my wish.”
Application: Science and religion, truth, God’s existence, evidence for God, apologetics. The movie suggests that faith and science are not opposed, as Ellie thinks, but can complement each other as Joss believes. Truth can be accessed not only through scientific experiment but also through experience. Indeed, the film suggests that the greatest truths – love, meaning, purpose, etc – are outside the ability of science.
Application: Meaning of Life. Ellie’s closing words represent a wonderful description of the Christian perspective on life. “I had an experience I can’t prove, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was part of 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 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 the hope, but… that continues to be my wish.”
Application: Relationships, Loneliness, God’s presence. The alien in the movie provides a poignant expression of our desperate need for others (and God), when he says of humans, “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.”