Random thoughts on most things from A. M. Craig.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Final Paper for Comms 482: Mass Media and World Religions

Contact is one of my favorite movies, and has been since I first saw it. I read the book immediately after. It still gets me, every time..

If you actually read this (I doubt anybody will) then let me know what you think.

Austin Craig
Dr. Quint Randle
Comms 482

From Skeptic to Evangelist: The Apologetics of Faith in the film Contact

Science fiction has almost always been the safe haven of outcasts, weirdos, and social dissidents. But whether that audience knows it or not, the genre has grown in popularity as (generic) conventions are adopted by more mainstream fare. Despite it's reputation for the outlandish, unbelievable, and often just silly, sci-fi will always be fertile grounds for broadly appealing and deeply meaningful material. At it's core, it's an outgrowth of Enlightenment ideas; that the natural world is a product of physical laws, and that the enlightened can learn virtually everything that is from observing the world with a logical, rational mind (CLARK 2005). By in large, the notion of some power or entity outside the natural system simply isn't grasping the size of the natural system. For most sci-fi, there is no truly supernatural, metaphysical, or divine. Some science fiction dealing directly with religion, either outright or in loosely veiled terms, makes the assumption pronounced rather than implicit, as in Frank Herbert's Dune series. But occasionally, a work comes along in the genre that defies the elitist convention, and explores religion and religiosity in earnest. Even noted theologian and scholar C.S. Lewis wrote a space trilogy featuring scientists and space explorers who mirror priests, angels, and demons (CLARK 2005). A more contemporary and recognizable example is the 1997 film Contact by Robert Zemeckis. Unlike the previously mentioned work, however, Contact originates with Carl Sagan, a popular astronomer and noted agnostic (HEAD 2006). Believers need not be defensive regarding Contact, however. The film is surprisingly apologetic toward religion. In fact, Contact presents academic science as a religion, complete with articles of faith, dogmas, and martyrs, and as fundamentally based on belief in unseen things as any of the Abrahamic creeds.

The film centers on Dr. Ellie Arroway, a gifted scientist searching for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Her mother died before Ellie can remember, and her father died unexpectedly when she was nine years old. Her penchant for reaching is shown in her precocious youth, searching for the furthest discernible signal on her CB radio. As an adult, her search for E.T. is ridiculed by the overwhelming majority of her peers, but Dr. Arroway's passion won't be subdued. The persistence pays off when a powerful interstellar signal is received, apparently proving that we are not alone, that our planet is not the only one harboring intelligent life.

Contact makes no pretense of its identity. It is science fiction with an eye toward religion. The science of Contact is clear. The filmmakers went to painstaking effort to portray a scenario that was entirely plausible. Ann Druyan, wife of Carl Sagan, co-author, and consultant on the film, said, “Carl's and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would actually be like, that would convey something of the true grandeur of the universe” (DRUYAN 1997, emphasis added). The setting is primarily in real places, using real, even dated technology. The Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico was used by Ellie in Contact before losing funding, but was also used by the real life SETI initiative led by Carl Sagan for several years before it lost funding. The film even uses archival footage of President Bill Clinton, when he spoke following the discovery of supposed primitive Martian bacterial fossils on the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite in 1996 (DAY 1998).

The fiction of Contact is equally clear. The movie's namesake and center is the message received from an alien civilization. However, nothing whatsoever of this sort has ever even remotely happened. It would be, as Ellie says, the biggest discovery in “the history of history”.

The religion of Contact is almost as pervasive as the science. Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey) is a spiritualist and theologian, self described as “a man of the cloth...without the cloth” and characterized as “God's diplomat”. He is Ellie's love interest, and the movie's positive face of religious faith, just as Ellie is the image of a “good” scientist. They embody virtues we hold dear in fiction, virtues that enable societal advancement. These “substantive” virtues contrast what we see in the film's other characters, who are much more self serving (KUPFER 1999). They portray “bad” religion and science. After the alien message is decoded as instructions, blueprints for a machine, the first attempt to follow the instruction is thwarted by a religious extremist (a Christian suicide bomber from Panguitch, Utah, of all places). The ill-fated, would-be first interstellar traveler from Earth is David Drumlin, scientific aid to the U.S. President. Through the whole movie, he alternately derails, then overtakes Ellie's research. While Dr. Drumlin isn't ever framed as morally bad as the religious zealot is, he is shown as lacking the same faith that Ellie embodies. He demonstrates a lack of faith in scientific possibilities as well as humanity’s virtue, not unlike the religious extremist. Science and Religion are shown side by side as comparable quests for truth. Both have their faithful disciples and heretics (though the identity of each depends which camp the observer stands). Both are used for what others might see as Good or Evil purposes. Perhaps the surface conflict between the two approaches stems from their underlying similarity.

In Contact, we see the main character undergo a fundamental shift in her world view. She has always been a devout scientist, but maintained that science is objectively better than religion. That view may become a little less hard-lined after her voyage to the stars. Mike Alsford discusses in his book, What If? Religious Themes in Science Fiction, how frequently science fiction protagonists experience such a change. “Invariably, the catalyst that triggers the paradigm shift in these stories, a change from one world-view to another, is the introduction of an element which begins to break down the sense of order previously accepted by default” (ALSFORD 2000). The characters in these examples of sci-fi undergo a conversion of sorts. Near the end of the film, Dr. Arroway bears testimony as fervently as any evangelical missionary ever did. Her witness is challenged, and she is asked to concede that the whole voyage was a hallucination and the signal an elaborate hoax. To paraphrase her response would do the testimony injustice.
“Because I can't. I had an experience...I can't prove it, 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 given something wonderful, something that changed me...a vision of the universe...that tells us undeniably how tiny and how insignificant and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something 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 that hope. That continues to be my wish.”
The scene is a turning of the tables. It recalls earlier in the film when Ellie challenges Palmer Joss’ faith, saying he may have emotionally needed such a religious experience, so he unwittingly fabricated one. She cites Occam’s razor, the principle that, all factors being equal, the simplest answer is the most likely. Now the same logic is returned to her. Before the journey, she is asked if such a traveler would have “faith” in those sending the message. She responds that she’d rather say a sense of adventure. The same question is posed after her journey, and the answer is entirely changed. She perfectly plays out what Stephen Clark explains in his essay, Science Fiction and Religion. While organized religion itself is often derided, “There is nonetheless a religious theme that seems to be widely endorsed by science fiction fans and writers; that humanity, if only it can mature, will give the world, the universe, significance” (CLARK 2005). The meaning she finds is a perfect analog to the religion she so readily dismissed earlier. The role reversal manifests itself also during her journey, when scientific objectivity escapes her; “some celestial event...no worlds to describe...they should have sent a poet. I had no idea...” (ZEMECKIS 1998).

Zemeckis uses not only religious rhetoric throughout the film, but accompanying religious imagery. When Ellie is escorted to the second machine, she wears what can only be described as armor, a strange precaution for a space traveler. She is followed by two Japanese men, ostensibly technicians, but they appear almost as guards. She stands in as Joan of Ark, a fellow visionary and martyr for her cause, to be escorted to the fires of her doom and exaltation. She fills an archetypal role, as the strong woman. Similarly, Palmer Joss gives Ellie a pocket compass that ultimately saves her, at least from severe injury. The image of a compass is used by Freemasons and other ancient religious orders (GILKES 2004). It is pointed out by Palmer Joss after Ellie objects to the Christian Coalition demanding to know where the aliens stand on God, that she did in fact find a literal booming voice from the sky, just as any number of Biblical prophets. Ellie even offers an unwitting prayer of sorts after her father dies. On her CB radio, she calls out to the void for the only parent she has ever known. “Dad, come back.” The climax comes later, when she meets the alien as her father in their constructed ideal setting, her personal heaven. He explains to her a plan, and how those from all creation have grown to knowledge and become exalted as he is. Time ceases to hold meaning there, but the significance of her experience can't even be fully expressed by her afterward.

Contact intertwines so many religious symbols and dialog so densely, that to catch them all would require a careful scene by scene analysis. Yet the story is fluid enough and outside any traditional religious context that it could draw in religiously skeptical audiences. It may even be veiled enough to draw in, and change, people as skeptical and doubting as Ellie herself was until her converting interstellar (and spiritual) journey. As an audience, we take that journey too, and come away with greater a faith in science, god, humanity, or all of those and more.

Works Cited

Alsford, Mike. What If? Religious Themes in Science Fiction. London. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2000

Clark, Stephen R.L. “Science Fiction and Religion.” A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden: Blackwell Ltd., 2005. 96-97.

Contact. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. DVD. Warner Home Video, 1998.

Druyan, Ann. “About the production.”Contact Production Notes. 1997. Warner Brothers. 21 Apr. 2009 .

Gilkes, Peter. Masonic ritual :Spoilt for Choice. 2004 Masonic Quarterly Magazine (10). 21 Apr. 2009

Head, Tom. Conversations with Carl Sagan. Skeptic 13 (1), pp.32-38 Univ. of Mississippi Press 2006.

Horsfield, Peter, Mary E. Hess, and Adan M. Medrano. Belief in Media. Burlington: Ashgate Company. 2004.

Johnson, Robert K. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000

Kupfer, Joseph H. Visions of Virtue in Popular Film Boulder: Westview P, 1999

Marsh, Clive. Theology Goes to the Moview; An introduction to critical Christian thinking. New York: Routledge, 2007.

McClain, Carl. Morals and the Movies. Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1970.

Sagan, Carl. Contact: a novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985


SamYam said...

Ha! I read it! Loved the paper, loved the book and loved the movie. You brought up aspects of the movie that I had never thought to consider. Interesting. I would love to hear your take on the book as it explores up so many of these issues in a deeper level, especially the ending. We should talk about it sometime.

pam said...

As you may or may not remember, your dad and I didn't go to many movies. Funny, we do watch the old ones on T.V.now. But I do remember this one. Bruce and Janet Beck went to a lot of movies and Bruce talked a lot about this one is his Sunday School lesson. So we went and really liked it. Glad I finally know something about what you're talking about!

Austin said...

Wow, glad somebody read it! Thanks.

Jenna said...

Great paper, Austin. I also love Contact, mostly because it so closely parallels my own beliefs.