Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is There Anybody Out There?

"The universe is a pretty big place. It's bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space. Right?"

Ellie (Jodie Foster)

I am not a science fiction fan. That is something I have said frequently — but I do like good stories, which is something I also say frequently, and I feel that, if you're going to make a science fiction movie, make it plausible.

In my mind, implausible science fiction is something like "Sharknado" or some similar monster wreaking havoc on civilization. Such sci–fi stories are entertaining but not once will you think that it is something that could really happen.

I like science fiction that makes a clear connection to the actual human experience. Violence and destruction need not be part of the equation, particularly if they originate with a make–believe monster. In fact, I prefer it if they do not.

See, I don't believe that a good story needs splashy special effects. And a science fiction story doesn't need to promote the worst kind of fear. The best science fiction stories explore ideas.

Film critic Roger Ebert made an interesting observation after he watched "Contact" again many years after seeing it for the first time. "'Contact' is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith," he wrote. "Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together."

No, they don't, and especially not today when we are so sharply divided along those very lines.

For that reason, I tend to think that "Contact" could not be made today. Too many groups would be offended by something that was said or done — or both — in the story. Any director who took on such a cinematic challenge would almost certainly end up with something that, at best, faintly resembled his/her original vision.

I have always felt that movies were a special kind of free speech, of self–expression. To be intimidated into not doing or saying something in a movie is a denial of one's free speech. As always, of course, there are limits to free speech. One cannot, after all, do the theatrical version of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded public place.

But as long as that line is not crossed, filmmakers should be permitted freedom of expression.

I agreed with Ebert; the movie was a lot bolder than I first thought.

The main character was Foster, who played a scientist searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Foster's character was an atheist who pursued an interest she had cultivated since childhood, inspired by her father who reasoned that, in the vastness of space, it would be a waste if the only intelligent life to be found existed on our planet. Beyond science she had no apparent faith in anything.

Representing faith was Matthew McConaughey, a Christian philosopher and member of a panel charged with selecting someone to travel in a space transport, the schematics for which had been provided to the Earth by aliens many light–years away. He was looking for much the same thing Foster was, but he readily admitted that whoever was sent to explore the heavens had to have faith in God — and that, as far as he was concerned, disqualified Foster.

The political part was represented by Tom Skerritt, the president's science adviser who wanted to halt the funding for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program for which Foster's character worked because he believed the objective was pointless.

Ebert described Skerritt's character and his ilk as "see[ing] aliens, God and messages from space all in cynical political terms. They justify their politics with the catch–all motive of 'national defense.'"

There was a time — not really so long ago — when discussions of religion or politics simply weren't done in public settings and comparatively rarely in private — at least not in the sense of whether one was good or evil for holding certain beliefs. But that time had gone long before "Contact" was made, and whereas, as Ebert wrote, "Hollywood treat[ed] movies like a polite dinner party: Don't bring up religion or politics," the subjects had been raised routinely in the movies for years before "Contact." If anything, the animosity between religion and politics has grown more intense in the intervening years.

In short, "Contact" is a movie that still has relevance to new audiences. And, in the tradition of the best science fiction movies I have seen, it raised questions as it entertained. It retains its ability to challenge once deeply held convictions.

In the movie, Skerritt was originally chosen to pilot the space vehicle, but a terrorist leveled it. A second vehicle, about which the public had known nothing, was revealed, and Foster's character was given an opportunity to operate it in space.

Then, after Foster experienced what seemed to be a remarkably revealing journey but may only have been an hallucination, she was forced to concede that, contrary to her earlier public remarks, maybe she did have some kind of faith in something after all.

An incredulous panel member said to her, "You come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all on faith?"

Foster replied, "Is it possible that it didn't happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that."

Under questioning from a panel member (James Woods), Foster admitted that she had no evidence to support her story, that she might have hallucinated the whole thing and that, if she had been on the panel, she too would be skeptical.

"Why don't you simply withdraw your testimony," Woods demanded, "and concede that this 'journey to the center of the galaxy' in fact never took place?"

"Because I can't," Foster replied. "I had an experience. I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and hope. That continues to be my wish."

In other words, science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they have been explaining the same things in different ways.

A word or two must be said about the movie's director, Robert Zemeckis — although those thoughts have mostly been expressed by Ebert, who wrote that Zemeckis' work "often employs daring technical methods."

Ebert observed that Zemeckis mixed animation and live action in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" years before computer–generated imagery progressed from short to feature–length films and seamlessly inserted Forrest Gump into historic footage (something Woody Allen did in "Zelig" more than a decade earlier).

In "Contact," Zemeckis did something similar, inserting actual news anchors from CNN into the movie, reporting on this development in space travel. Zemeckis even inserted footage of then–President Bill Clinton into the story. Clinton's part was real. He wasn't performing in the movie; his words weren't about what the audience had just seen, but what he said certainly made sense within the context of the story.

Consequently it seemed real — until you remembered that you had seen nothing of this in the news.

Zemeckis didn't just break the fabled "fourth wall." He knocked it down.

"Contact" received only one Academy Award nomination (Best Sound), but, in keeping with the rest of the evening, lost to "Titanic."