I’ll admit it. I’m a crier. I even cry at movies that nobody else cries at.
It’s so bad that my (at the time) 5-year-old niece turned to me during Little Women and said, “You know Beth’s not really dead, right? You know it’s just a movie, right?”
Recently my now 28-year-old (and still wise-ass) niece watched Gravity with me. During the final act of the film (which I had seen previously) I started weeping. My niece turned to me and said, “Oh, no! You’re crying because the ending of this is really sad, isn’t it?”
No, I told her. Whenever I’m in awe of spectacular filmmaking, I cry. Or great writing. Or a beautiful painting or song.
Consequently, I had a lot of movies to choose from for this blogathon. I doubt most people think of the 1997 sci-fi film Contact as a “tearjerker.” But for me, the first viewing was one of the most moving and cathartic experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.
Context matters. 1997 was a very difficult year for me. I was going through a lot of personal upheaval and change. The worst thing that happened was finding out my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. My entire family was living in another state and I felt very isolated. I think how we react to film (or art in general) is often very personal. Even if the artist(s) did not intend it, our own experiences and situation can cause a uniquely personal reaction. I had that kind of reaction watching Contact the first time.
Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, concerns Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a SETI scientist whose work is mostly focused on finding extraterrestrial life. Ellie was raised by her father Theodore (David Morse). From a young age she is fascinated by the thought of life on other worlds. Tragically, her father dies suddenly when she is still very young.
As an adult, she listens to radio emissions in hopes of finding proof of alien life. The president’s science advisor, thinking the endeavor pointless, pulls funding. Eccentric billionaire S. R. Hadden (John Hurt) funds a new project. A few years later Ellie hears a signal, which turns out to be a series of prime numbers.
Ellie and her team of scientists eventually realize that the information contained in the signal are a set of instructions for a machine that can transport one individual.
Politics, religion, and science converge as the building of the machine becomes highly controversial. Ellie hopes to be the first to go, but is rejected by a panel because she is an atheist. One of the members of the panel is Ellie’s former lover, a religious philosopher named Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) The first machine is sabotaged by religious fanatics and its occupant killed.
It turns out Ellie’s benefactor, now dying, has built another machine in secret and taps Ellie to go on the first journey.
Ellie’s journey through a wormhole system to the Vega star system remains, 20 years later, one of the most beautiful and fascinating sci-fi sequences on film. A rough and frightening ride through space, Ellie finds herself looking at a part of the galaxy unseen by any earthling. She says, her voice catching, “They should have sent a poet.”
Now we get to the part that choked me up so completely the summer of 1997. Seemingly floating down to a planet with a tropical beach, Ellie looks in the distance and sees a figure walking towards her. It’s soon apparent that it’s her father.
I’m grateful to this day that the theater was half-empty, because if anyone had been sitting too near me, they would have thought I had lost my mind. I burst into tears. I can’t quite explain why, but at that moment I finally accepted the one thing I couldn’t imagine up to that point—my dad was probably going to die.
Ellie, after embracing him and telling him how much she missed him, tells the figure that he’s not real, that none of what was happening was real, that they, the aliens, had downloaded her memories and created the illusion of the beach and her dad.
“That’s my scientist,” the alien pretending to be her dad says.
I lost it again. That’s exactly what her father would have said, and I had another epiphany: Ellie’s dad WAS there, he really was, in her memory. He had gone across the universe with her.
I knew my dad would always be with me, no matter what.
Obviously, making the alien look like Ellie’s dad is a bid for an emotional response from the audience. (In the novel this happens but Ellie travels with several other passengers, which dilutes the impact somewhat.) But this hit me on such a personal level at such a low point in my life that I never forgot it. Even writing about it now is making tears run down my face.
There is a great deal more to the movie, of course. Ellie wakes up on Earth and is told that she never left the machine, and the story she is telling about her experience has to be made up. She has to convince the world to take her experience on faith. The basic theme of the movie is reconciling science and faith.
I think the movie cheats a tiny bit (the science advisor admits privately that recording devices recorded 18 hours of static, even though she seemed to never leave the machine).
In the end, it doesn’t spoil my experience of the movie. Even if Ellie had only imagined her journey, it would have had no less impact on me.