Space Time

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

The film inspired a generation of scientists

Shannon Stirone
Published in
5 min readNov 27, 2018


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…