Filed under: Reviews, SETI.
I got asked yesterday what my favorite parts of the movie Contact were — the questioner took it as a given that I must love the film. Well, I know we’re all supposed to like it because it was based on a book by Carl Sagan, and because, y’know, it’s about a kick-ass female scientist, but I actually have real problems with it.
Don’t get me wrong: I love SETI, and I was the only novelist invited to speak at the SETI Institute’s first SETIcon in 2010 — and was the only novelist invited to speak at the second SETIcon, held this year. But in Rollback, my own novel about SETI, my character of Sarah Halifax, herself a SETI astronomer, reflects on the movie’s problems:
Like most astronomers, Sarah fondly remembered the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name. Indeed, she argued it was one of the few cases where the movie was actually better than the overlong book. She hadn’t seen it for decades, but a reference to it in one of the news stories about the attempts to decrypt the response from Sigma Draconis had brought it to mind. With pleasant anticipation, she sat down next to Don on the couch to watch it on Wednesday night. Slowly but surely she was getting used to his newly youthful appearance, but one of the reasons she felt like watching a movie was that she’d be doing something with Don in which they’d be sitting side by side and not really looking at each other.
Jodie Foster did a great job portraying a passionate scientist, but Sarah found herself smiling in amusement when Foster said, “There are 400 billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone,” which was true. But then she went on to say, “If only one out of a million of those had planets, and if just one out of a million of those had life, and if just one out of a million of those had intelligent life, there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.” Nope, a million-million-millionth of 400 billion is so close to zero as to practically be zero.
Sarah looked at Don to see if he’d caught it, but he gave no sign. She knew he didn’t like being interrupted by asides during movies you couldn’t memorize trivia the way he did if you weren’t able to concentrate and so she let the screenwriter’s minor flub pass. And, besides, despite its inaccuracy, what Foster had said rang true, in a way. For decades, people had been plugging numbers made up out of whole cloth into the Drake equation, which purported to estimate how many intelligent civilizations existed in the galaxy. Foster’s wildly inaccurate figure, pulled out of the air, was actually quite typical of these debates.
But Sarah’s amusement soon turned to downright cringing. Foster went to see a large corporation to get funding for SETI, and, when it initially turned her down, she went ballistic, exclaiming that contacting an extraterrestrial civilization would be the biggest moment in human history, more significant than anything anyone had ever done or could possibly imagine doing, a species-altering moment that would be worth any cost to attain.
Sarah cringed because she remembered giving such patently ridiculous speeches herself. Granted, the detection of the original signal from Sigma Draconis had been page-one news. But until the second message had been received, it had been over thirty years since a mention of aliens had appeared on the front page or main screen of any newspaper that didn’t have the words “National” and “Enquirer” in its title.
It wasn’t just SETI researchers who had overhyped the impact of such things. Sarah had forgotten that then-president Bill Clinton appeared in Contact, but there he was, talking about how this breakthrough was going to change the world. Unlike the cameos by Jay Leno and Larry King, though, which had been specifically staged for the movie, she immediately recognized the Clinton speech as archival footage not about the detection of alien radio messages, but about the unveiling of ALH84001, the Martian meteorite that supposedly contained microscopic fossils. But despite the presidential hyperbole, that hunk of rock hadn’t changed the world, and, indeed, when it was ultimately discredited several years later, there was almost no press coverage, not because the story was being buried, but rather because no one in the public even really cared. The existence of alien life was a curiosity to most people, nothing more. It didn’t change the way they treated their spouses and kids; it didn’t make stocks rise or fall; it just didn’t matter. Earth went on spinning, unperturbed, and its denizens continued to make love, and war, with the same frequency.
As the film continued, Sarah found herself getting increasingly pissed off. The movie had its extraterrestrials beaming blueprints to Earth so humans could build a ship that could tunnel through hyperspace, taking Jodie Foster off to meet the aliens face-to-face. SETI, the movie hinted, wasn’t really about radio communication with the stars. Rather, like every other cheapjack Hollywood space opera, it was just a stepping stone to actually going to other worlds. From the beginning with Jodie Foster’s cockeyed math, through the middle with the stirring speeches about how this would completely transform humanity, to the end with the totally baseless promise that SETI would lead to ways to travel across the galaxy and maybe even reunite us with dead loved ones, Contact portrayed the hype, not the reality. If Frank Capra had made a propaganda series called “Why We Listen,” Contact could have been the first installment.