25 years ago, the film Contact made its theatrical debut starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey and told the story of Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) who picked up a radio signal from the star Vega and how this discovery impacted not just herself, but humanity as a whole. Over time, she discovers the signal has embedded instructions sent by the aliens to build a device capable of sending one person into outer space, presumably to meet the Vegans.
The device is built, and she is eventually hurled through a series of outer space tunnels where she meets an alien in the form of her long-deceased father. Right before she’s sent back home, the alien informs her, “This was just a first step. In time you’ll take another.” When she awakens, her colleagues inform her the pod she sat in fell straight through the device and she never actually left. With no hard evidence of both her travels and meeting the aliens, Eleanor is left scrutinized by both the public and Congress. She is ultimately given a “healthy grant” to fund further research into finding more signals from ET, and the film ends with her pondering her journey to the stars.
While some moviegoers were bummed that they didn’t see the aliens—who instead downloaded Jodie Foster’s consciousness so they could talk to her easier—the important message of the film, and the book that it’s based on, is to persevere, but also knowing there will be hardships and sacrifices along the way. In the case of Eleanor, she loses her father at a very young age who had gotten her hooked on astronomy. Later, she passes on love with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) to remain in pursuit of her research, all while consistently being roadblocked by her former boss. And even after she reaches her goal of contacting the aliens who sent the message, she’s still scrutinized and ridiculed.
25 years later, Contact still resonates with us. It’s a story not just about whether or not we’re alone in the universe, but about sacrifice and sticking to your beliefs while overcoming roadblocks and ignoring the naysayers at every turn. It’s a story of sacrifice, either personal or professional. If you want to reach a goal bad enough, what will you have to give up? Time away from family and loved ones, and maybe not making time to have a family yourself? How long will it take to reach your goal? Will you be pursuing it forever? Will you get the respect you feel you’re worth, or will you be ridiculed more after reaching your goal?
One line in the film has her debating with Palmer about her willingness to die for the mission if she’s chosen to go, saying, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been searching for something, some reason why were here. What are we doing here? Who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer…I don’t know, I think it’s worth a human life.”
Along with its underlying messages, this film was likely responsible for hundreds—if not thousands—of people who pursued astronomy as a career. Eleanor allowed us to fall in love astronomy, most notably with the famous line, “So if it’s just us…seems like an awful waste of space.” She inspired us, and continues to inspire us, to look at the heavens and keep asking questions about our place in all of this. What are we doing here? Who are we? Is it just us? Are we alone?
Even if we have a definitive answer, Contact might still resonate with us.
As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!