Contact is a 1997 science fiction drama film adapted from the Carl Sagan novel of the same name and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Both Sagan and wife Ann Druyan wrote the story outline for the film adaptation of Contact. Jodie Foster portrays the film’s protagonist, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact. Supporting roles are played by Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett and David Morse.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan began working on the film in 1979. Together, they wrote a 100+ page film treatment and set Contact up at Warner Bros. with Peter Guber and Lynda Obst as producers. When the film ended up in development hell, Sagan published Contact as a novel in 1985 and the film adaptation was rejuvenated in 1989. Roland Joffé and George Miller had planned to direct it, but Joffé dropped out in 1993 and Miller was fired by Warner Bros. in 1995. Robert Zemeckis was eventually hired to direct, and filming for Contact lasted from September 1996 to February 1997. The majority of the visual effects sequences were handled by Sony Pictures Imageworks.
The film was released on July 1, 1997 to mixed reviews. Contact grossed approximately $171 million in worldwide box office totals. The film won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and received multiple awards and nominations at the Saturn Awards. The release of Contact was publicized by controversies from the Bill Clinton Administration, CNN, as well as individual lawsuits from George Miller and Francis Ford Coppola. The California Courts of Appeal dismissed Coppola’s claim that he had developed an unproduced version of Contact as a children’s television special with Sagan in 1975.
Dr. Ellie Arroway is a scientist for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She and her colleagues listen to radio transmissions in hopes of finding signals sent by extraterrestrial life. Government scientist David Drumlin pulls the funding from SETI. After eighteen months of searching, Ellie gains funding from reclusive billionaire industrialist S.R. Hadden, which allows her to continue her studies at the Very Large Array in New Mexico.
Four years later, with Drumlin pressuring to close SETI, Arroway finds a strong signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers, apparently emitting from the Vega star. This announcement causes both Drumlin and the National Security Council, led by National Security Advisor Michael Kitz, to attempt to take control of the facility. As Arroway, Drumlin and Kitz argue, the team at the VLA discover a video source buried in the signal: Adolf Hitler’s welcoming address at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Arroway and her team postulate that this would have been the first significantly-strong television signal to leave Earth’s atmosphere, which was then transmitted back from Vega 26 light years away.
The project is put under tight security and its progress followed fervently worldwide. President Bill Clinton and Drumlin give a television address to downplay the impact of the Hitler image, while Arroway learns that a third set of data was found in the signal; over 60,000 “pages” of data. Government specialists unsuccessfully attempt to decode it. It is later decoded by Hadden and is revealed to be technical drawings. He explains that the pages are meant to be interpreted in three dimensions, which reveals a complex machine allowing for one human occupant inside a pod to be dropped into three rapidly spinning rings.
The nations of the world come together to fund the construction of The Machine at Cape Canaveral. An international panel is put together to select a candidate (including both Arroway and Drumlin) to travel in The Machine. While Ellie is one of the top selections, her lack of religious faith is noted by Palmer Joss, a trusted friend (one-time lover) and one of the panel members, resulting in Drumlin being selected. The machine is then destroyed during a test in a suicide attack by a religious fanatic, killing Drumlin along with many crew members. Afterwards, Hadden reveals to Arroway the existence of a second identical machine hidden on Hokkaid? island, Japan, informing her that they “still want an American to go.” Arroway accepts.
Arroway begins her journey, outfitted with several recording devices. When the pod travels through a series of wormholes, she is separated briefly and can observe the outside environment. This includes a radio array-like structure at Vega, and signs of a highly-advanced civilization on an unknown planet. She finds herself in a surreal landscape similar to a childhood picture of Pensacola, Florida, and approached by a blurry figure that resolves into that of her father. Arroway initially embraces her ‘father’ and then rejects the illusion, deducing that her memories had been downloaded. She then continues the conversation firing off many questions. The Alien tells her that there are “many others” while explaining that this journey was just humanity’s “first step” and that eventually, in time, humans will take another step. The Alien describes humans as an “interesting species that are capable of such wonderful dreams and such horrible nightmares”. He concludes by saying that in all their searching the only thing that makes the emptiness of the universe bearable, is the company of each other.
Arroway considers these answers and falls unconscious, finding herself on the floor of the pod where she is being repeatedly called by the machine’s control team. She learns that from all external vantage points, she and the pod merely dropped through the Machine. She insists that she was gone for approximately 18 hours, but her recording devices only show static. Kitz resigns as National Security Advisor to lead a congressional committee to determine if the Machine was a fraud by Hadden, who had the resources to set up an elaborate hoax, but has since died. Arroway admits the lack of evidence to support her perception of the events, but maintains the validity of her story. Kitz and White House Chief of Staff Rachel Constantine together reflect on the fact that Arroway’s recording devices contained 18 hours of static. Arroway is given continued grant money for the SETI program at the Very Large Array.