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Contact
By Carl Sagan

Reviewed by Jeff Finlay
Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Those of you that know me pretty well may be surprised that I am writing a review of this movie, and the book it was based upon.  I am mostly into fantasy, not science fiction, and usually do not enjoy hard sci-fi movies.  I much prefer stories about magical objects, mysterious quests, and human faith and failings.  That is exactly what Contact is about, with a technological backdrop.

Ellie Arroway is obsessed with radio communication.  From her first ham radio, she tried to contact people from further and further away.  Her father nurtured and encouraged this interest in his daughter, teaching her the necessary patience to sit with a pair of earphones listening to static for hours on end.  An advanced student, Ellie grew up to get a doctorate in astronomy, making a revolutionary design change to radio telescopes.  However, her obsession with contacting extraterrestrial life forms made her the object of ridicule from other scientists and even her mentor.  Finding private funding from a mysterious source, Ellie went on to become the head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Being a scientist, and having lost her father at an early age, Ellie is extremely grounded in reality with no room for the “self-delusions” of religion.  Given this mindset, it is very strange that she falls in love with a former priest, a man whose faith is extremely important to him. Actually, part of their attraction is their opposing views on this ground, and the numerous “debates” that ensue.

Then, all hell breaks loose as Ellie and her scientific team receive the message...
I first fell in love with this book 12 years ago, and have read it at least four times since.  It is a marvelous work dealing with quantifiable proof that we are not alone in the universe, and how it might affect humans as individuals and as a world-wide entity.  It also deals a lot with personal faith, and Ellie’s discovery that she too can have an experience that others may have to accept with little or no proof.

This screen adaptation is very true to the book, and the story comes across very well on the big screen.  I do not say that lightly, because I usually hate movies based on books that I have read before.  There are very few large changes made in the movie, and overall I believe they were good decisions.

First off, in the book there was a whole international team of people sent off in “The Machine,” not just Ellie as the movie depicts.  In my opinion, this change actually enhanced the story by increasing the pressure placed on Ellie to denounce her faith.  In the book, she was able to eventually receive some strength from the other members of the team.  In the movie, she did not have that luxury, making it harder for her to stick to her guns at the end, and in my opinion, making her a stronger character. Another major change is the political environment from the book to the movie.  The book was written during the Cold War, and as such included a lot more political intrigue and debate between the United States and Russia.  Neither country could get the whole alien message without cooperation from the other, due to the length of the message and the rotation of the Earth.  So a good deal of the book dealt with the politics of cooperating within a hostile environment with what both countries thought might be a description of a weapon.  There was also a large world-wide debate as to the team makeup to travel in the machine.  Trying to carry this story-line over into today’s environment would have been a little bit ludicrous, although I do think the movie could have contained more political strife than it did.

The last major change is the ending, basically the last five minutes of the movie.  I will not go into what specifically the difference is, so as not to ruin the book or the movie for anybody, but I will say that the original ending would not have come off very well on screen.  It would have been very anti-climatic. It also would have made the movie a little too esoteric, since it deals with the possibility that science may lead us to God through the very fundamental physical laws of the universe.

All in all, I highly recommend both the movie Contact, and the book it was based upon.  Both come across well in their own medium, and are very entertaining and thought-provoking.  I am sure Carl Sagan would be proud of this movie.

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