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Random ramblings

Contact: Random ramblings

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Last Thursday, I spent an afternoon with around 20 students watching the movie Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997). I have tried to supplement my course teaching in popular religion(s) with informal lecture-and-a-screening of various movies seen in the light of Religious Studies: The Wicker Man, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (pure methodology), What the Bl**p Do We Know and latest Meggido: Omega Code 2 (as Yuletide fun). One danger I have tried to avoid is reducing the movie to pure exemplar, as a lot of “Religion and ‘X'”-studies do. As an object of analysis, we need to respect the structural and aesthetic aspects of the material studied and not just dissect the content. Nevertheless, most of my lectures have been inspired by important relations between popular culture and religious creativity with the movie as interface.

In the case of Contact, the implications of the SETI programme (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) are told through the eyes of one woman, Ellie Arroway. But what is scientific fiction for about an hour turns into science fiction when aliens finally make contact through a radio signal (with prime numbers, an audiovisual of Hitler and blueprints for a transportation machine). Ellie, against all odds, gets the ticket for the wormhole device and travels around the galaxy for 18 hours before returning home. Here, she is considered a nut, as the device seemed to fail from an Earth-bound perspective. Thus she travels from the position of scientific skeptic to revelatory gnostic.

As Slavoj Zizek remarks in his critique of Avatar ( (in Danish)), mainstream Hollywood has a predilection for translating thematic conflicts into embodied ones, often in the form of romantic love between a man and a woman (little homo- or xenosexuality as of 2010). This is an effective strategy, but also a dumbing-down of the thematic subtext. When watching the movie, it is obvious that the philosophical conflict between religion and science is personified in open-shirt Palmer Joss (M. McConaughey) vs. buttoned-up Ellie Arroway (J. Foster).

They meet in the Puerto-Rican jungle and have sex, but things go sour due to circumstances (Ellie’s boss David Drumlin (T. Skerritt) is pulling the plug on the project) and Ellie’s lack of emotional maturity (a rather masculine trait, see below). 4 years later, they luckily meet again, get involved (more emotionally than physically this time), grow apart (ideological differences and emotions get in the way) but end up together as she learns what it’s like to be spiritual (that is, not believed by skeptics… but having powerful experiences anyway). A recurrent thematic symbol is the plastic compass that changes hands a few times, as they challenge each others “moral orientation” throughout the film. This is analogy on the run, and surely an evocative way of describing the intellectual and emotional battles between “religion” and “science” in western history; whether it reflects reality is another matter.

Anyway, he has an MA in Divinity “but dropped out of seminary to do some secular humanitarian work”, which is nice. He is a cool Christian then, open, talkative and later special advisor to the President. He is a writer and social critic rather than preacher, a perfect contrast to the evil Christian fundamentalist with long blonde hair (J. Busey) who ends up blowing the first Machine to bits. On the other hand, Ellie’s tough personal history (mother lost at childbirth, father when she was nine) has made her ambitious, driven and rather focused on the sky (she misses mom and dad), as well as a firm advocate of atheism, Occam’s Razor and skepticism. Hence she is lacking in both emotional and “spiritual” connection to other people; she is curious and knowledgeable, but obviously has problems with public speaking and intimate relations, although she ends up talking to children on “their level” at the end, when she is spiritually (and romantically) “awakened” (luckily, the producers pass on the idea of introducing a baby as coincidentia oppositorum).

As such, the lonely atheist and the worldly “faitheist” meet, first in the flesh (which fails), later in a shared belief in numinous experiences (which is apparently a much more solid ground for romantic involvement). Palmer Joss had his experience early in life (or at least before the movie begins), as he tells us in bed. He interprets it through a de-mythologized Christian frame and acts it out through social engagement. Ellie’s experience is shown in the movie as a visit to the stars, where she reconnects to her childish yearnings and direct understanding of beauty as well as her father (see below). She interprets it through a scientific frame, but it is unsuccessful in coping with the power of emotions, as the scientific and political reactions show (science is a collective and easily politicized endeavour). She ends up acting the experience through an intimate relationship (that is only suggested) and a professional embracing of teaching. Curiosity is filled with spiritual meaning.

Before discussing this thematic resolution in more detail, let’s extend the “character cloud” surrounding the happy couple of Palmer and Ellie. Palmer represents Good Religion or Faith, exhibits good masculine traits, and has a moral trajectory from belief to reason during the long movie. In contrast, Ellie represents Good Science or Reason, is androgynous (but female when the right male is around), and has a moral trajectory from reason to belief. “Behind” Palmer are three male figures with ambiguous relations to the androgynous femininity of Ellie. First off her absent dad, in some sense responsible for her curiosity but also her lack of faith and her amputated femininity. Nevertheless he is all good. A bit closer to the action we find the polar opposites of David Drumlin, a bad (but good) father figure and politicized scientist (bad bad!!), and S. R. Hadden, a good (but bad) father figure and trickster figure. He too is a politicized scientist (a rich engineer involved in subversive activities), but he has cancer, which is a get-out-of-jail-free card in Hollywood; his money and influence, while bad, is good when used to facilitate Ellie’s quest and to combat the establishment – we don’t believe the hoax angle played in the end. Similarly Drumlin’s negativity is absolved through his sacrifice and his reflexivity; although his pragmatism regarding faith and scientific worth is destructive (that is what the world is like), he silently acknowledges Ellie’s idealism before meeting his doom: The world is what we make of it. In essence, the two represent bad science that can be transformed.

“Behind” Ellie are three androgynous figures that extend on Ellie’s complicated thematic role. First of all is the Alien-as-daddy, as the alien Vegan uses this image to ease first contact. Mirroring the father in the masculine triad, the alien’s superior moral, spiritual and scientific knowledge is the enzyme initiating Ellie’s resolution, and it is thus all good. Closer to Ellie are another polarity (although not as pronounced as Drumlin – Hadden), namely Ellie-as-child, which represents hope and pure curiosity, versus the blind SETI researcher Kent Clark (COME ON!), who has sublime hearing but a bad case of despair. They represent good science that is still embryonic.

Regarding the thematic resolution, what does religion and science aka Palmer and Ellie agree upon? Ellie travels 26 light-years to be told that intimacy and personal relations are all that makes life bearable; it is the meaning of life. This “spiritual” message stands in glaring contrast to the engineering feats necessary to build a wormhole production device, but is nicely underscored by the beauty of the universe. The message seems to be that micro-and macrouniverse is connected in the eyes and heart of the beholder, technology notwithstanding. Luckily science is reserved a small place in the meaning of it all, as mathematics, physics and chemistry are shown to be the galactic lingua franca alongside emotions. You just have to use it truthfully, which takes us to Palmer Joss.

Several times in the movie he equates religion and science as a “search for truth” (beginning and end, good script writing there. This phrase is thematically tied up with the sentence “if we’re alone, it is an awful waste of space” in the beginning, middle and end and the aforementioned compass). The normative criterion for religion and science then becomes a philosophical goal that balances neatly between uppercase Truth and lowercase truth (both are something universal and spiritual, but intellectual Truth is tempered by emotional and intimate truth), and both science and religion are apocalyptic in the sense that they are paths to revelation of this truth. Only then, in the embodiment of truth, can religion and science truly meet.

One could argue that this is an amputation of both religion and science. Religion becomes something cognitive (although also embodied and felt), a watered-down Protestant “faith”-based morality – private truth, not practice or politics (remember Talal Asad’s critique of Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion). In fact, the only acceptable religion in the movie is this privatized “spirituality”; religious practice in the movie is either silly (as Ellie’s drive to Cape Canaveral illustrates – the road is filled with idiots chanting and singing), dangerous (the fundamentalist becomes a terrorist) or ideological (which is suspect; Drumlin’s fake religion is a case in point). Palmer Joss, our guide to better living and the representative of acceptable religion, has precisely dropped out of seminary (he “couldn’t handle the celibacy thing”) to do “secular humanitarian work”; he writes books, gives interviews and helps the President, that is he is doing politics without being political. He is humanitarian (something moral and spiritual), not religious.

Ellie (and by extension science) has meaning, truth, longing and seeking in common with this religiosity, but she has too much reason and ambition to see this truth. Luckily she meets an alien that can show her the right balance – space-dad resembles dead earth-dad and alive earth-lover that is also dad (“father” Joss; he even says the same thing as dead dad did). Science is amputated from both its methodological framework and the context of justification (the imagined community of scientists writing articles etc.) to be nothing but philosophy aided by giant machines.

In this way, the initial contrast between religion and science understood as narrow-minded fanaticism (bad and thoroughly male as in the blonde fundamentalist or the bad father figure of David Drumlin) vs. empirical curiosity (good and androgynous as Ellie is masculine but also female (girlish) as contrast to male religion) is mediated by a very cool Christian. Both religion and science becomes bad when seen from the middle position of “faith” or spiritual belief – religion is dogma and science is politics. Faith is experiential and mediates male and female (while cementing the gender roles; Ellie is weak in the end and is protected by Palmer, a fine contrast to her very masculine attitude to one-night stands in the beginning of the film) as well as experience and belief. In the end, Ellie is alone in the desert contemplating truth, in a sense having assimilated Palmer to reach completion. A harmonic conclusion to science and religion indeed!

Perhaps there is enough for an article anyway?! I’ll stop here and return later with more reflections on the ultimate father figure of Carl Sagan, the SETI project as spiritual revelation, the movie as an appropriation of New Age mythology and the various resolutions of science and religion found outside movie narratives.


Written by Jesper

March 6, 2010 at 23:29

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