Space Time

Why ‘Contact’ Is the Most Important Space Movie Ever Made

The film inspired a generation of scientists

Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway in ‘Contact.’ Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty

IImagine for a moment that you’re a radio wave traveling at the speed of light. You leave Earth, passing the moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. You’re going so fast — 299 million meters per second — but it still takes you five hours to reach Pluto. A collage of sounds from Earth travel alongside you as you zoom out of the solar system and arrive at a star called Vega, 26 light-years away. This is how the 1997 movie Contact begins.

In a later scene, nine-year-old Eleanor Arroway — played as an adult by Jodie Foster — sits on her bed and talks with her father about the vastness of space and whether people on Earth are alone in the universe. “The universe is a pretty big place,” he replies. “If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

I was a teenager when Contact came out, and after only a few minutes into the opening sequence, I was frozen in my seat, completely awestruck. At 13, I was already captivated by space and the big questions it raised. You know, the ones that can keep a person up at night: Why are we here? Are we alone? What does it all mean? I became obsessed and read everything I thought might give me a hint of an answer: books, poetry, you name it. Then came Contact.

When we meet Ellie as an adult, she’s on an impressive trajectory. She graduated from high school two years early, received a bachelor’s from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from Caltech. She’s turned down a teaching position at Harvard to pursue a job with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence group (SETI) at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. She loses funding but eventually finds her way to New Mexico, where she detects a signal from an intelligent alien civilization. That discovery leads to the construction of a spacecraft, and Arroway fights to be its passenger.

“While I’m sad she’s fictional, I know her spirit lives within many women.”

I’d never seen anyone like Ellie. Most people hadn’t. Twenty years ago, when the film was released, few space odysseys featured women in leading roles. Today, we have films like Interstellar and Gravity, but the depiction of women in popular culture as scientists, engineers, and leaders is sadly still quite scarce.

In the many years since Contact was released, I’ve become a writer focused mostly on space. Through my work, I’ve met several women and men who also came of age around the time of the film, and many of them took careers in science. The film comes up often in conversation, and I started to wonder: How many of us became scientists or took a science-adjacent job because of this underrated sci-fi film from the 1990s?

So, I did what any writer would do on deadline and took to Twitter:

A Twitter poll is pretty unscientific, and while most people who responded said they didn’t go into science because of the movie per se, I received several exciting responses from women in space-related careers who say the film inspired them.

Erin MacDonald, an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer wrote:

Kim Bott, an astrobiologist at the Virtual Planetary Laboratory wrote:

“Seeing Contact left a lasting impression on me,” says Jillian Yuricich, an aerospace engineer who sent me a direct message. “I first saw the movie when I was around eight or nine, and while I didn’t appreciate the nuance of the debate on faith until some years later, seeing a blonde girl be strong and determined and then stepped on by the men around her and then strong and determined even still… she was one of the most important role models I ever had.”

“I’ve watched that movie and read the book countless times since, and I always see myself in Ellie Arroway,” Yuricich adds. “While I’m sad she’s fictional, I know her spirit lives within many women.”

What continues to make Contact compelling is the fact that the character Ellie Arroway remains so relevant today. She’s brilliant and irrationally driven and constantly up against the men who control the purse strings to her research.

Carl Sagan, who wrote the book Contact that the film is adapted from, based Arroway on a real scientist named Jill Tarter. Tarter received her bachelor’s of engineering physics degree from Cornell University — as the only woman in her class — around the same time that Sagan was a professor there. Her graduate work at UC Berkeley and career at SETI inspired Sagan to base his story’s heroine on her. Science writer Sarah Scoles, my friend and colleague, wrote Tarter’s biography, fittingly called Making Contact. It was published last year, exactly 20 years after the film was released.

“I saw Contact when my family got it from Blockbuster,” Scoles says. “I was immediately engrossed and obsessed with the idea that there was a scientist who got paid — kind of — to ask these big questions and investigate them.”

Contact taught me that I wanted to do radio astronomy,” she says. “I got to do an internship at Arecibo and stay in the cabin across from where Jodie Foster stays in Contact, and I felt very proud of myself.”

For me, the film continues to inspire. I think about it often and watch it once a year. It’s not just that Ellie is a woman, but the fact that she represents a person so many of us see inside ourselves. I take great comfort knowing that there are so many women actively seeking answers to questions about space and humanity in part because of a film they watched two decades ago.

Toward the end of the movie, Ellie finds herself onboard a spacecraft, destination unknown. She’s faced with the very real possibility that she won’t survive her quest. The pod shakes violently as it begins to take off, and fear shows on her face as the countdown clock creeps to zero. “I am okay to go. Ellie to Control, do you read me? I am OKAY TO GO,” she shouts.

I continue to wonder: Would I, and can I, be so brave?

Freelance writer in the Bay Area

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