20 Movies 20 Years Later

A Story About Alien Contact Offers Some Down-To-Earth Truths About Women In STEM

"Contact" turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

Robert Zemeckis' Contact was not alone in its genre in 1997, as there was certainly no shortage of science fiction at the movies. The year brought us blockbusters such as Men in Black and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, along with the cult classics Event Horizon and Gattaca. Even silly family fare Flubber had a scientific premise. 

There were, however, a few things that set Contact apart from the herd. For starters, it takes a deeply philosophical approach to the genre, dipping into questions of religion and politics. In Roger Ebert's review of the film, which he gave three-and-a-half out of four stars, he called it "the smartest and most absorbing story about extraterrestrial intelligence since Close Encounters of the Third Kind," contrasting it with more stereotypical sci-fi movies — such as Independence Day, released a year earlier — which feature "actors being attacked by gooey special effects."

But perhaps even more notable is the film's female protagonist, who just so happens to be a brilliant scientist. First created by legendary astronomer Carl Sagan in his 1985 novel of the same name, Dr. Ellie Arroway comes to life on screen in a powerful performance by two-time Oscar-winner Jodie Foster.

While providing a rare onscreen role model for young women interested in science, the film also depicts some of the challenges women in STEM often face. Ellie perseveres through skepticism and lack of funding in her pursuit for evidence of alien life by listening to radio transmissions from space. When the distant star system Vega yields a promising signal, however, she struggles to earn proper credit and control over her discovery.

At one point in the film, Ellie meets S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), an eccentric billionaire who has provided funding for her to continue her SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) research. He narrates a slideshow of her life, providing an excellent summary for the audience of just how accomplished she is, citing her early "predisposition toward science and mathematics."

"Graduated from high school in 1979, almost two full years early. Awarded full scholarship at MIT, graduated magna cum laude," Hadden says. "Doctoral work, Cal Tech, where you did breakthrough work on the lanthanide-doped ruby maser, dramatically increasing the sensitivity of radio telescopes. Subsequently, offered a teaching position at Harvard University, which you turned down to pursue SETI work at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico."

It's clear that Ellie Arroway is an extremely intelligent, capable scientist, which is why it's frustrating to witness the belittlement of her work as "science fiction," as the president's science advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) continuously threatens the continuation of her research.

As Kelcie Mattson writes in a feminist retrospective on the film for Bitch Flicks, "While the pushback against Ellie's stalwart belief in extraterrestrial life isn't necessarily gender specific (think the mockery Fox Mulder faces in The X-Files for a male equivalent), Ellie is still infantilized and dismissed in a frighteningly recognizable way."

Of course, when Ellie's work finally yields a groundbreaking discovery, Drumlin consistently takes credit for it. He talks over her in explaining the phenomenon to White House staffer Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett), and, to Ellie's shock, is introduced to speak as "the leader of the scientific team that made this remarkable discovery" during a press briefing. Later, an international panel is put together to decide who should be sent to Vega to represent humanity. When a question from theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) reveals Ellie's atheism, Drumlin takes advantage of it, referencing a belief in God during his own hearing, and earning the spot.

Before setting out to test the alien-designed machine meant to carry him to Vega, Drumlin essentially tells Ellie that life isn't fair, and there's nothing that can be done about it. "I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of," he says. "Unfortunately, we don't live in that world."

"Funny," Ellie replies. "I always thought the world is what we make of it."

Sexism even followed Contact's heroine off the screen. In his New York Times review of the film, critic Stephen Holden judges Ellie's character in terms which may sound familiar to many career-minded women. "Although Ms. Foster gives a strong, fiercely intelligent portrayal of a driven scientist, her character exhibits little vulnerability," he writes. "Even when shedding tears, Ellie is shown fighting them back, clenching her jaw, determined to solve the next problem. She never really lets go."

The film's depiction of Ellie's experience is strengthened by the fact that real women in science contributed to the character's development. Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco met with Sagan and the filmmakers to "lend authenticity" to the character, while Foster herself spoke with SETI astronomer Jill Tarter. 

"They would ask me, 'What kind of experiences have you had?' 'Why do you feel you've done well in a field dominated with men?'" Porco said of the experience, according Mental Floss. "I said 'Well, I grew up with four brothers for god's sakes. I've been fighting and spitting and kicking ever since I was a kid.' "

Carl Sagan's wife Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the film's story with him and previously worked with NASA, herself revealed in a 2014 interview with Time magazine that she faced "a huge amount of sexism" in her career. "I remember routinely being dismissed, interrupted," she said. "I'd say something and people at a meeting would turn to Carl or someone else and say, that was a really great idea you had."

It's interesting to note that in Sagan's novel, the president of the United States is a woman. The film's original director George Miller considered casting Linda Hunt in the role, but ultimately, existing footage of then-president Bill Clinton was digitally inserted into the film instead.

One of Contact's most apparent themes is the conflict between science and religion. At the film's conclusion, the U.S. government, led by Michael Kitz (James Woods), questions an experience Ellie insists she had on board the alien machine. Kitz suggests she is "delusional," or the victim of a prank. 

"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," Ellie says, harkening back to Palmer Joss' words about his own religious experience earlier in the movie.

Ostensibly, this moment is meant to suggest that science and religion actually can coexist. According to Den of Geek, Zemeckis himself said in the DVD commentary that the "contact" he wanted to represent in the film was through Ellie and Palmer's connection as representations of two seemingly competing sides.

However, in yet another Bitch Flicks retrospective, Maria Myotte argues that the scene could also be construed as "a demonstration of how patriarchy conditions us to not believe women, even under the most spectacular and compelling of circumstances" — especially considering the film's later suggestion that there actually was evidence to prove Ellie's experience.

Given current initiatives to combat sexism in STEM and encourage more girls to pursue careers in math and science, as well as recent popular media depictions such as Hidden Figures, Contact's presentation of Ellie Arroway's journey, both literal and figurative, continues to be relevant. It may be about communication with alien beings, but the film's themes are grounded in some very human issues.

Contact is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and YouTube.

Cover image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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