“Interstellar is by far the best sci-fi movie,” said Sooho.
With an amused look, “No, you need to watch Contact,” replied the professor.
And so he did. He understood why the professor said “need” but not “no.”
Contact’s literary life is a bit unusual. Initially, it was drafted as screenplay in 1979 and had contracted with Warner Bros., but production stalled. Carl Sagan then expanded the script into a novel in 1985, which then became an instant bestseller. Production picked up again in 1989, and after some mild firing and hiring, Contact premiered in 1997 with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey and won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. (Hugo is a big name in the sci-fi world.) Such an unusual beginning might make Contact one of the few movies where it is appropriate to watch before reading its base novel—actually, is Contact properly the base novel if it was written after its screenplay? Contact is some literary-cinematic wormhole.
The movie is modest in comparison to its novel counterpart. There’s just much more room to explore and pack things into novels where movies cannot afford (money- and time-wise). For example, in the movie only Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) rides the Machine, whereas the novel takes four others, which allows space to include international politics and to deepen what first contact with extraterrestrial life means for humanity as a species.
Another thing the book went much more in-depth than the movie is religion and belief. Throughout reading, a question a professor posed kept returning: What makes beliefs believable? Ellie is an agnostic empiricist (or someone skeptical without observable evidence but also acknowledges that all the relevant facts might not be readily available or yet discovered). She dismisses subjective experience as universally relevant to scientifically unproven notions, such as the existence of god(s). According to Ellie, subjective experience only makes belief believable for that person but not others. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) has profound religious experiences of God’s existence, but Ellie thinks them insignificant to her own beliefs. Then she rides the Machine. She enters a sphere cockpit and encloses herself in, warps through what might be an Einstein-Rosen wormhole, travels as far as 30,000 light-years away, spends a night in some beach shore simulation, meets an alien in her dead father’s body, learns of the immense vastness of the universe, but returns to find herself without any proof of her experience. Those who monitored the Machine outside counted only 20 minutes with the five spheres and bodies in place, whereas Ellie and the four felt what was a full day away at the center of the Milky Way. Nearly everyone who was involved with decrypting the Message from space and building the Machine end up baffled by the five’s tales of light-year travel and beach fun.
Ellie now finds herself in some religious person’s predicament: profound subjective experience with no objective evidence for universal belief. Palmer Joss, however, believes her. Why and how does Palmer Joss believe her when Ellie didn’t believe him? I think it has to each’s framework for belief. Palmer’s belief in God allows him room to entertain, accept, and reinterpret others’ beliefs. It’s not that Palmer has a lower or weaker threshold to believe obscure things. He’s just as skeptical about Christian fundamentalism’s scientific claims as he is about quantum physics. And it’s not because Palmer is a Christian that he believes Ellie. Instead, Palmer is more open or sympathetic to unproven or unexplained phenomena than Ellie and other hard empiricists. Ellie once faulted Palmer’s and other Christian apologists’ openness as abusing the “God of the gaps” argument, or the argument that if there’s no explanation of some explanatory gap, then it must be God. The most famous example would be the origin of the universe: Big Bang Theory might explain what happened at the beginning, but it can’t explain how or why the massive explosion happened—there’s a gap; therefore, it must be God. I partially agree with Ellie, the God of the gaps argument is not really an argument but a claim or, better, a confession. Therefore, it should not be used in apologetics but in worship. But this openness is not a fault, I don’t think. Better to be open-minded with discernment than all the way closed, I’d say. To be fair, Ellie is not fully closed-mind, and certainly her contact with extraterrestrials blown open her meter of what’s believable.
Apparently, Contact is hard sci-fi, which basically means that it’s still sci-fi but with a heavier load on realistic science. It’s a fascinating take on what happen if humanity made contact with extraterrestrials. Would it unite humanity? Would it end arms race? Would humanity freak out? Possibly, possibly, and mostly likely yes.
There’s this fascinating video by one of my favorite YouTube creatives, Kurzgesagt, called “Optimistic Nihilism.” After creating and compiling some anxiety-inducing videos in a list (affectionately called Existential Playlist), the creators posted their philosophy in a nutshell in “Optimistic Nihilism” as some sugar-coated, Nietzschean will to hope. In short, there’s a lot to be nihilistic about but don’t let that stop you from living life responsibly with joy. I think it’s a fine philosophy of life, though I fundamentally disagree—I’m more realist or nihilistic optimist. In this existential struggle between the vastness of space and smallness of human life, Sagan writes this: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” There’s a lot to be nihilistic about (not limited to universe stuff) but don’t stop love from carrying you on.
Cheers to our smallness, to cosmic vastness, and to the grandeur of love.