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December 20, 2013

Movie Review: Contact (Jan-Feb 1998)

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God and the Bearable Vastness of Being

by Darryl Tippens
January – February, 1998

30Who would have guessed that Carl Sagan, the highly successful promoter of the TV Cosmos series and debunker of popular religion, wold leave such an inspiring and ingenious legacy as Contact, a film about humanity’s quest to know what lies in the furthest reaches of the universe?

The film offers first-rate entertainment, though it will disappoint viewers who expect sci-fi drama in the tradition of Star Wars, Independence Day, or Aliens. No intergalactic battles, no mannered E.T.-like hominoids, no scary monsters here. Instead, we get something better – an engrossing view of one of the great cultural struggles of the last 400 years, the war between science and religion.

Christians who think they know where Sagan stood on the topic of religion may be surprised by this film; for in this, the scientist’s final gaze into the cosmos, one detects a positively friendly attitude towards theism, at least theism of a certain type.

The “war” between science and religion virtually ends in this end-of-the-millennium drama. Though battles are sure to go on, the contest is no longer between authentic faith and scientific rationalism. The battle lines shift. Now, the conflict occurs between the bravely curious and the paranoiac fundamentalists, between those who imagine transcendent realities and those who cannot; between those who seek to know at any cost and those who use power and fear to enforce ignorance.

Contact focuses on the life of Ellie (Jodie Foster), a scientist on a quest to know whether there is intelligence in deep space. She joins a multi-national team of scientists who build a machine that catapults her 30,000 light years to Vega, the brightest star in the northern sky. There she meets an advanced form of intelligence that communicates with her in the form of her deceased earthly father.

Ellie’s encounter is revelatory and life-changing. yet, once she returns to earth, she possesses no scientific evidence to prove her claims since, in earthly terms, no significant measure of time has elapsed. Christians can identify with Ellie’s dilemma since her plight closely matches their own. Did she meet a higher being, or did she suffer a delusion? How does one prove one’s “close encounter” with a transcendent reality? Contact is an extended discussion of these pivotal questions.

In other words, can religious faith and scientific skepticism be reconciled? Sagan’s final answer is: yes. Through Ellie (apparently, the writer’s principal “voice” in the movie), Sagan reveals his postmodern leanings in suggesting that scientific method is good, but insufficient, to explain all of reality. With hamlet, Sagan seems to be conceding, “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our [scientific] philosophy.”

Contact asks us to feel wonder and humility before the mysteries of a universe, mind-boggling in its dimensions. Like J.B. Phillips who once tried to disturb complacent Christians with the claim, “Your God is too small,” Sagan’s film declares, “Your universe is too small!”

Through provocative conversations between a failed seminary student (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Ellie, the movie presents a parable with a point: Though science and religion may spar regularly, they are not inveterate enemies. In their common pursuit of truth and in there reverence before the unknown, science and religion can be intimate allies.

These allies, science and religion, face a common enemy, however – those fearful fanatics and pushy politicos who love power more than truth; and those prideful, mystery-blind rationalists and reductionists who use politics, science, or religion as a tool to thwart discovery.

Movie-goers should not suppose that Sagan’s film is an endorsement of Christianity. it is not. Closer to New Age than Old Paths, Sagan cannot imagine a deity with special love for just one tiny planet floating among billions. Sagan is loathe to name this superior intelligence “God.” His cosmic intelligence is a bit unfocused and ill-defined, much like the scenes of Ellie’s esoteric experience on Vega.

Though his characters do not name the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sagan deserves some credit for this cinematic parable that occasionally hovers near the spirit of biblical theism. Virtually Pascalian, Sagan suggests the dizzying sense of the numinous as he ponders the microscopic dimensions of humanity pitched against the immensity of the heavens. Like the celebrant of Psalm 8, Sagan even implies that the Artist’s signature is evident in the Creation. Sagan is no simple-minded materialist. He leaves open the door to transcendent realities.

Within the faint noises emanating from deep space, coherent messages of meaning and order can be discerned by searching hearts and curious minds. Through Ellie, Sagan implies that a seeker may encounter a transcendent father in heaven, yet be unable to prove it. Above all, through Ellie’s search for her father, we are led to see the centrality of love (a theme stated movingly in the novel’s final pages): For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”1

Not a bad message for a Hollywood movie. By all accounts, Carl Sagan died a skeptic. However, in his artistic imagination, at least, this scientist-turned-moviemaker was not far from the Kingdom of God.

Carl Sagan, Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985) 430.Wineskins Magazine

Darryl Tippens

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