Saturday, January 1, 2011


It would seem like every time a really good book comes out, Hollywood rushes to make a film version of it (and most of the time they come out with success if you compare the number of books being made by Bollywood into film that had proved to be disasters). On rare occasion, the movie surpasses the novel. But in most cases it fails to capture the book's charm. This is no surprise, really. First of all, it's difficult to cover the contents of a 500- or 600-page novel even in a three-hour film. And secondly, many of the things that readers revel in leave moviegoers bored.

Contact falls into the category of films that don't live up to their printed predecessor. But it's still a really great flick. It's also unique in that it's a story that was originally intended for the silver screen rather than the printed page. Mind it that I only saw this 1997 film just a few weeks ago and I re-read the book to confirm all that I had seen in it to put up this review.

In 1980 and '81, the late Carl Sagan, along with his wife Ann Druyan, developed the story for a motion picture project. But the film never materialized and Sagan turned it into a novel that was published in 1985; and as I said in my review of it, this may just be the best book ever written. So when Robert Zemeckis began production of the long-awaited film version, released in 1997, he had some big shoes to fill.

It isn't suprising that the science in "Contact" is fairly accurate. Carl Sagan was actively involved in the making of the movie. Scientists from the SETI Institute provided techncal advice (and props). The real surprise is how well the movie captures the excitement, frustration, romance, and inspiration of scientific exploration. SETI is one of the few science projects dealing directly with one of the great questions: "are we alone?". It is a question that we all understand. The answer to that question would have an impact on all of us.
When presenting a complex story involving science and technology, it is inevitable that some accuracy will be sacrificed for the sake of the art. "Contact" is no exception, but unlike most, it stays well within the bounds of artistic license. Here are a few of the minor departures from scientific accuracy.

In the opening sequence, as the perspective moves back form the Earth, we overtake TV and radio broadcasts from the past. By the time we are zooming past a beautifully rendered image of Jupiter, we hear broadcasts from years ago. In reality, at Jupiter we would pick up broadcasts only a few hours old.
When Ellie estimates the number of communicating civilizations (the Drake Equation), she uses the phrase "one-in-a-million" too many times. With those numbers, we shouldn't be here.

Ellie routinely uses headphones to monitor the output from the radio telescope. Assuming that the human ear can process a bandwidth of 20 kHz and that the spectrum analyzer processes 20 MHz, there is a 0.1% chance that she would be listening to the frequency range containing the signal. In reality, radio astronomers use headphones to listen to CDs. Carl Sagan objected to the idea of using headphones but Robert Zemeckis persuaded him with the following argument: if I take out the headphones, I'll make you and a dozen astronomers happy; if I leave them in, five thousand kids will want to be radio astronomers.

When she hears the signal, Ellie uses a cell phone to alert her colleagues in the control room as she races past the antennas. Radio transmitters, e.g., cell phones, are taboo at radio observatories.

There are probably other scientific/technical errors, but I've only seen the movie once (so far). On the whole, I was tremendously impressed with the effort to achieve accuracy. The techno-babble dialogue in the discovery scene is quite believable and even has a reference to a FUDD (follow-up detection device). At one point Ellie kisses a computer screen and says "Thank you Elmer". Those little touches add to both the drama and the believablity.

Thus, this for me is a masterpiece. I have enjoyed it more with each viewing. Carl Sagan was a great man. He promoted science in the way it should be, portraying the profound mysteriousness of our universe with humility, and without dogma. In his book, the Demon-Haunted World, he quoted Einstein:

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have".

Contact conveys this simple message in a subtle yet immensely powerful way. The performances are some of the most compelling I have seen, particularly by Jodie Foster and David Morse.


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