This film, based on the late Carl Sagan’s novel about a young scientist’s efforts to make contact with intelligent life beyond our world provides a sharp contrast in tone to slam-bang shoot-’em-ups like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” Sagan, a scientist who consulted on the space program and hosted public television programs about the universe, raises important questions about the connection (and sometimes obstacles) between science, business, politics, and notions of God. If he does a better job of asking them than answering them, that is at least consistent with the scientists creed that the only sin is to be afraid to ask the right questions — and to be open-minded about the answers.
The movies’ heroine is Ellie, played by Jodie Foster. Devastated by the loss of her parents by the time she was eight, she yearns for contact with extraterrestrials, but shies away from contact with anyone on earth. Having been hurt by feeling, she relies entirely on science, on what can be proven. After a one-night-stand with Palmer Joss, a charismatic divinity school drop-out (Matthew McConaghey), she leaves, to continue to listen for whispers from the universe, despite short-sighted bureaucrats who cut her funding. When she finally hears something, the government steps in (including President Clinton, appearing courtesy of the same kinds of computer tricks director Zemeckis used in “Forrest Gump”). The message is to build a machine, apparently to be used to go to the source of the message.
Joss turns up as an advisor to the President who is assigned to the panel that will select the person who will make the trip. He does not believe that Earth should be represented by an atheist. And he does not want to lose Ellie again. Ultimately, she does make the trip, and finds that she is profoundly changed by it. She finds herself asking others to believe what she says without evidence, on the basis of faith. This is a thoughtful movie, and it provides a good opportunity to discuss how we know what we know, whether on the basis of faith or on what we can prove. Kids may want to talk about whether the reactions of the people in the movie to evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence are what they would expect. Why do some people object so strongly to communicating with creatures outside our world? What do scientists think about God and what do theologians think of science? What is the role of government? What do they think of the way the extra-terrestrials shaped their communications to reassure Ellie?
NOTE: Parents should be aware that there is one episode of sabotage that results in violence, in addition to the one-night-stand (Ellie and Palmer shown in bed together), and some strong language.