Many of us of a certain age will remember the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film Contact very well. I personally recall going to see it on opening night (which was July 11) and being profoundly inspired. At the time I was doing bioorganic chemical research over the summer between undergrad and grad school, and deeply into science in every way. But I still had strong interests that went beyond science and was already struggling with finding my own place between all those intellectual and philosophical worlds. The point is that I wanted to be seduced by the film, and it didn’t disappoint.
Then, the very next year, I get to grad school and 100% of the intelligentsia or too-cool uber-intellectual people who were my fellow students spent serious time making sure I understood what a piece of garbage the movie was. The vitriol was quite astounding. The film went from being one of my favourites to possibly the worst film ever to be allowed to escape from a major studio. There was something about this film that hipster grad students found appalling.
I know what they didn’t like. I’ve since developed a system of hipster detection that has yet to let me down. “Hip” people never like anything that displays a) technical skill and b) sincerity. Contact, with its A-list cast, technically-minded director (Robert Zemeckis) and its protagonists’ utter sincerity is precisely the opposite of what a hipster wanted to see in 1997.
All these years later, I can now look back and see that the film is intellectually fairly simplistic and hollow, and it relies on way too many plot conveniences and suspensions of disbelief to be truly effective. But the film is far from garbage, and represents a noble if too-reverential attempt at hard science fiction. Like all big Hollywood productions (this one had a $90 million budget), Contact was compromised from the very start, having to hit a big chunk of a market in which intellectual ideas don’t count for much. Thus, all the action sequences and adventure elements, and a view of religion that borders on the cartoonish. Subtlety and nuance don’t sell movie tickets, and when $90 million is at stake, no responsible company is going to take big chances. (The film did go on to make money, although it wasn’t a gigantic hit.)
But there’s one element of Contact that does seem prescient and even subversive: Tom Skeritt as David Drumlin, scientific advisor to the President. This character, a real mustache-twirling villain, is one of the best-drawn characters in the film and a glimpse into the darker side of government-funded science.
Contact, for those of you who would love a refresher, is based on the 1980 novel by Carl Sagan, the famous popular science personality of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s the story of Ellie Arroway (played here by Jodie Foster), a radio astronomer who receives an intelligent message from outer space. A deeply cynical rational humanist, Arroway has no time for religion or religious types until she meets the dreamy “Father” Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a former seminarian and Christian missionary with whom she develops a deep mutual respect and eventually a romantic relationship. The signal contains within it instructions for the building of a machine, presumably for transporting one human being to the source of the signal, but this is unclear. Governments get involved, and eventually they decide to build the machine. The question becomes: who gets to go? Being a government project, there’s a long and tedious set of drawn-out public meetings and committees to pick the potential astronaut candidate, and finally the decision comes down to politics, as it so often does. The political issue is religion. If humanity is going to send one individual to represent them to another species, so goes the thinking, then that person shouldn’t be an atheist. Ultimately the question becomes moot as the machine is destroyed by religious fanatics. Just when things seem lost, it is revealed that private investors built a second machine, hidden from public view, and Arroway is offered the seat on that one. She goes to Vega (where the signal originated), but it turns out to be a way-station through hyperspace and she winds up having a surreal encounter with a powerful alien intelligence in the form of her dead father. Upon returning to earth, there’s no evidence of her journey. In front of a government tribunal, she fairly pleads to be believed, and the chairman says the magic words, “You mean we’re supposed to take what you say… on faith?”
Contact isn’t a particularly nuanced bit of philosophical filmmaking. Even the supposedly deep conversations between Joss and Arroway about the nature of faith are extremely superficial catchphrases and platitudes. But its earnest and honesty and deeply heartfelt, and Foster in particular seems fanatically committed to the role. Tom Skerritt’s character, Drumlin, is introduced early on as a former supervisor of Arroway who plays politics better than he plays science. That makes him the sort that is likely to rise quickly in any corporate organization. (And, of course, he happens to be a white male. That never hurts.)
Drumlin’s very first major scene involves him ripping apart the justification for the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), spouting the usual conservative tropes about it being a waste of money and resources with little or no chance of success. “What’s wrong with science being practical, or even profitable?” he muses. This is music to the ears of government types, who are in their hearts simply anti-intellectual. Academics is seen as a waste at best, a malicious, dangerous laboratory for subversive ideas at worst. And Skeritt plays Drumlin with the perfect combination of “mansplaining” and narrow-mindedness to make his character thoroughly reprehensible, right from the start.
Drumlin’s finest hour comes after Arroway, having been forced to seek private funding for her SETI program, actually does receive a signal. Almost immediately, the opportunistic parasite claims credit for it, places himself in a management position and gets away with it because, as we’ve mentioned, he’s a white male and he knows politicians and speaks their language. Later, when the selection committee is seeking an astronaut candidate and the subject of religion comes up, Drumlin sings that tune, turning himself into an all-American churchgoer and, naturally enough, he’s selected as the first interstellar traveller. Before his death in the attack on the first machine, he oozes condescension all over Arroway, explaining that the world is not ideal and that we don’t live in a good world yet. He doesn’t mention that his success is a demonstration of that principle, but he doesn’t need to. Arroway has been taught that lesson her entire life: virtue isn’t rewarded in the world of corporate science.
Sagan wrote this material in the late 1970s, when the topic of the day would have been nuclear disarmament and the cold war. When the film was being made in the late 1990s, the hot topic was genetic engineering and “biotechnology”. Today, it’s climate change. Being an atmospheric scientist, Sagan knew all about climate change, and in fact his research in the 1960s on the atmosphere of Venus helped lead to the phrase “greenhouse effect”. But in the end it doesn’t matter: the culture is the same. Drumlin types, who tell politicians what they want to hear and mercilessly tear out any true creative innovation at the roots, still succeed in the corporate world. The frustration many people seem to feel towards science today is largely born out of dealing with patronizing “mansplainers” like Drumlin, who personify the vile corporate weasel. Luckily, there’s also the counterbalance of a smiling, welcoming, effortlessly intelligent personality like Neil deGrasse Tyson, obviously Sagan’s heir apparent in public dissemination of science. We’ve been without someone like him for a while, and with any luck, his efforts and the new Cosmos series will put science back in the public consciousness in its proper context: as an intellectual adventure and a way of getting information about the universe that actually adds to awe and reverence and gives one a universal perspective.
It’s tremendously ironic that the character in the Contact story that still rings true, and who seems in his own way the most accurate, is David Drumlin. Let’s hope that someday we can look at the film and recognize more positive parallels with our own world.