Film - Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

Today (9th November) is Carl Sagan Day and, to honour the man of the stars, our own starstuff Nate McKenzie writes about what the man himself and the film Contact means to him...

As a child, I dreamed often of growing up and becoming an astronaut. I have always written but I did not know until I was much older that I wanted to be a writer. While many of my childhood friends dreamed of being football players, firemen, veterinarians, and police officers, my eyes were constantly drawn to the giant expanse above me, my head floating amidst the clouds. This dream was further reinforced by one of my other obsessions: movies.

With a myriad of space-related films that came out during my formidable years I had a great stock from which to glean inspiration. From Explorers to SpaceCamp, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apollo 13, Flight Of The Navigator and even the ridiculous The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, this list could continue on ad infinitum.

However, one film has always stood out to me as the personification of all of the elements that first attracted me to the stars.

Carl Sagan's Contact.

Today, November 9th, is Carl Sagan Day; declared so by the Center for Inquiry, an institution for which Sagan himself was a founding member. In honour of the man who was an inspiration to millions I wanted to revisit the reason of my admiration for him, and his quintessential story about falling in love with the stars.

Contact is, on the surface, a movie about an astronomer hoping to somehow establish communication with extra-terrestrial life-forms in outer space. This was not a new concept when Contact was produced and filmed - I already mentioned numerous earlier films with the premise - but where the other films fall short is where Contact not only succeeds but, in fact, excels.

Carl Sagan had an ability to explain the intricacies of the universe in ways that are both simply understood and wildly colourful, challenging the abilities of imagination.

In 1990, as the Voyager 1 space probe was leaving our Solar System, NASA commanded it to turn around and take a photograph of our planet - at the behest of Carl Sagan. The photo was then titled The Pale Blue Dot.

Carl Sagan

In the opening scene of Contact the camera seemingly pans back from Earth (the pale blue dot), going deeper and deeper into space, accompanied by audio of voices singing, speaking, preaching. The tracks are a trace, breadcrumbs, backwards in history; the Spice Girls, Martin Luther King, Jr., Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, and many more. Then, as we get beyond our own solar system, the camera emerges from the center of the eye of a young girl, Eleanor Arroway (Jena Malone). The significance within is that Sagan famously once said, "We are all made of starstuff."

This entire scene is not only a beautiful illustration but is also a direct tribute to Carl Sagan and his words.

Many times in our world, science and religion collide. For a lot of people, the two are mutually exclusive. The strength of Contact is that Sagan tried, with absolute aplomb, to reconcile this discord without alienating either side of the debate.

As the movie fast-forwards, grown-up Ellie (Jodie Foster), now an astronomer, sits with former seminary student Palmer Joss (Matthew Mcconaughey). She explains her belief in the existence of life on other planets via mathematical support. Joss, a devout Christian (echoing the voice of her long-since-passed father) declares, "Well, if it is just us... it seems like an awful waste of space." Poignantly, Ellie responds, simply, "Amen."

In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Ellie and Palmer are on a balcony discussing her disbelief in god. She states that, as a scientist, to believe in a deity, she would need proof. Palmer then asks if she loved her father. "Yes. Very much." Ellie replies. To which Palmer demands, "Prove it."

Carl Sagan

That is a line in the sand that no one, whether they believe in a god or not, can lightly cross. As a story, Contact is a science-fiction adventure. But, if you listen long enough, you begin to hear Sagan trying to relay something more significant: a message.

It is not often that a movie attempts to convey a particular message without taking a definitive stance on one side of the fence or the other. Even more recent animated children's movies (The Lorax comes to mind) have a staunch social or political skew. Contact presents both patterns of thought without trying to force an opinion on the viewer. Therein lies the intrinsic value of the film. Carl Sagan wanted people to simply be curious and search for answers to their own questions.

Through Palmer Joss we are presented with the alternative mindset regarding modern scientific advancement: "I'm not against technology. I'm against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth." Sagan understood that even within the ranks of his own peers were people who lose sight of the true reason for discovery - to break down barriers and find the common narrative that benefits and propels the entire species.

Contact's thesis statement could easily be: Like time, truth is relative.

Eventually, Eleanor's dream of contact comes to fruition. The culmination of her life's passion results in a trip through the cosmos where she is met with a manifestation of her father. The being that has taken the form of her deceased parent elaborates on their reason for contact.

The message that Sagan has been trying thus far to communicate reaches its zenith as the image of her father distills sentiments.

"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."

Contact is a movie of many layers. It is one part science-fiction, one part morality tale, one part inspirational fantasy. Some people may believe it to be a tribute to astronomy and the purity of wonderment; it would not be wrong to suggest that.

But, for all of Carl Sagan's star-gazing, he was at heart a conscious secular humanitarian. So then, Contact is, for me, not so much a love affair to the cosmos above... but rather a love letter to his fellow humans. Eleanor's journey is a plea to find the commonality that unites us and separates us from the more daunting and harsh organic forms that exist in the universe. In the end, the religious Palmer Joss and the scientific Ellie Arroway unite in their faith - not faith in their respective belief systems, but in their faith in each other.

I believe this is the message that Carl wants us to hear: have faith in one another, lest we end up alone, flying through space at 66,000 miles per hour "on a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam". My words will never feel as if they've done justice to what Carl Sagan has meant to the world or what Contact has meant to me personally.

Truly then... they should have sent a poet.

Image - IMDb.