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Perhaps Hollywood's Best Offering at the Intersection of Faith and Science
1997's "Contact" is a philosophical treasure.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a newsletter around a fairly popular, conversation-starting social-media question: What movie changed your life?
At the time, I wrote that — for me — there really wasn’t one:
While there are movies, scenes, and lines that have stuck with me over the years (which I enjoy referring to in my columns and books on occasion), and have educated me in certain areas, I can’t say as though any film has “changed my life” in any meaningful way.
But the other day, I was listening to a podcast where a guest, out of the blue, brought up a specific scene from a movie that had ingrained itself in his mind as philosophically profound. His statement kind of knocked me back on my heels, because I too had not just found strong meaning from that very scene, but also meaning from other scenes in the same movie.
I’m talking about the the 1997 sci-fi film, Contact. And in retrospect, if I had to choose a movie that changed my life (at least in some measurable way), I suppose that would probably be it.
“Contact” was directed by Robert Zemeckis (perhaps best known for “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump”) and based on the 1985 novel of the same name, written by famed astronomer, Carl Sagan.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve never read the novel, but from what I understand, it was originally written in 1979 as a screen-play. When film plans stalled, however, Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan turned it into a novel — a very successful one that compelled filmmakers to give the story a second look. Once things got rolling on the cinematic front again (several years later), Sagan an Druyan wrote the story outline for the film. In other words, the film version aligned very much with Sagan’s original vision.
What’s special and rather unique about the film is how it delves into the relationship between religious faith and science. The word “relationship” may sound weird to some, being that many view faith as being in direct conflict with science, but that’s not the message one comes away with when watching Contact.
To be clear, the film certainly lays out faith and science as competing visions (which is a big part of the story), but it also approaches the topic with respect, maturity, and open-mindedness, sending the message that those led by faith, and those led by science, actually have things that they can both teach and learn from each other.
Perhaps the most meaningful scene for me (different from the one discussed in the aforementioned podcast) is between the main character, Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Ann Arroway (Jodie Foster), and her very complicated love interest, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey).
Arroway is a brilliant scientist and atheist (as Sagan was), obsessed with discovering extraterrestrial life. Her beloved father, whose memory has been a driving force behind her personal ambitions, passed away of a heart-attack when she was young. Joss is a famed Christian philosopher and author. After rediscovering each other following a brief romantic encounter years earlier (before either had achieved any notoriety), the two have an intimate conversation outside of a Washington D.C. dinner party.
Arroway challenges Joss’s belief that “an all powerful, mysterious God created the universe, and then decided not to give any proof of his existence.”
“How do you know you’re not deluding yourself?” Arroway asks. “For me, I’d need proof”.
“Proof,” Joss contemplates. After a moment, he asks her, “Did you love your father?”
Arroway is taken back by the question. “What?”
“Your dad. Did you love him?” he presses.
“Yes, very much,” she answers.
“Prove it,” Joss responds, leaving Arroway speechless as she considers his point.
This theme is strong throughout the movie, including when Arroway is put in the position of having to describe her eventual meeting with alien life, despite not returning from it with any tangible proof of the meeting.
The scene discussed on the podcast had to do with the intergalactic-travel vehicle scientists and engineers construct from blueprints transmitted by the extraterrestrials (with the presumption that it will fly to their planet on auto-pilot). The sphere-shaped vessel is designed for a single traveler, and its constructors follow the design to a T… except for one detail relating to safety concerns. They make and mount a steel chair inside, to keep the occupant stationary and buckled in for the ride. Arroway, the would-be traveler, is uneasy about the customization, but is told by higher-ups that it’s a condition of her involvement in the project.
But when the launch sequence begins, and she’s sent through one dazzling wormhole after another, the chair (with her in it) shakes violently. A toy compass from a Cracker Jack Box, that Joss gave her many years earlier during the first meeting, slips from her necklace and floats away in the zero-gravity atmosphere. Perhaps against her better scientific judgement, she unbuckles herself from the chair and reaches out to retrieve the sentimental object, floating after it. She soon realizes that the vehicle’s velocity is no longer felt at all. It was the chair itself that was making for the extremely rough ride. Seconds later, the chair breaks loose and implodes; she would have assuredly been killed if still strapped to it.
This strikes me as a metaphor for all kinds of things, from a spiritual “leap of faith” to man’s well-intentioned (but sometimes harmful intervention in the natural order of things. It’s thought-provoking to say the least, and I like I said, I do think about this scene from time to time in the scope of certain events.
Of course, organized religion isn’t always portrayed in a flattering light in the film, most notably when a Christian extremist played by Jake Busey (Gary Busey’s son) deems contact with extraterrestrials to be a perversion of his faith, and takes matters into his own violent hands.
But, as Robert Zemeckis says in Contact’s DVD audio commentary, the message of the film is that science and religion can “coexist” rather than be in “opposing camps.” And that’s something I still think about and appreciate, even though it might remain a hard sell to a number of people on both sides of certain faith and science based arguments.
Anyway, if you’ve never seen Contact, and I haven’t dropped too many spoilers for you, I highly recommend checking it out.
Can you think of another film that does an admirable job of exploring these same themes? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
Back to Estes
Last Friday, I returned to Estes Park for a second try at that Macdonald Bookshop book signing. Despite having to move things inside due to rain, it went great! Macdonalds has always been one of my favorite stores to do appearances at, and I enjoyed meeting and signing books for a lot of readers.
The Straight Dope
Bernie Goldberg and I returned last week for another episode of our video series, The No BS Zone. Though I make it a point not to talk about politics in the ‘Daly Grind’ newsletter, I do occasionally link to some of my political commentary. And since this episode, in which we talked at length about the January 6 committee hearings, has been receiving high praise as perhaps our best yet, I figured I’d do so today.
Note: you have to be a Bernard Goldberg premium member in order to watch it. If you’re not already a member, I can’t recommend signing up highly enough. You’ll get weekly columns, audio commentaries, Q&A sessions, and of course the No BS Zone… all at a very reasonable price.
Happy Father’s Day
I hope all of you fellow fathers had a great Sunday.
I’m heading over to my parents house after writing this newsletter to celebrate the day with my pops, who’s always been a patient, reliable, and approachable figure in my life. He turns 87 next month (and very rarely takes a bad picture).
Obligatory Dog Shot
All played out.
Update to Last Week’s Newsletter
I wish I could report good news on the fate of those two little birds from last week’s newsletter, but unfortunately I can’t. Nature is sometimes cruel, and it was for those two little guys. (At least they’re together.)
To quote Forrest Gump: “And that's all I have to say about that."
Have you picked up your copy of RESTITUTION?
Interested in a signed copy? You can order one (or five) here.
Already read and enjoyed it? I’d love if you could leave a review for the book on Amazon.
“You're the disease, and I'm the cure.”
I fully admit that this was a 100% nostalgia-based cover-art purchase.
1986’s Cobra, starring Sylvester Stallone, was a super-cheesy action film. Yet, I have fond memories of it from my childhood, and actually even remember some of the film’s music… not so much because it was good, but because of this minutes-long montage to Robert Tepper’s “Angel of the City.” It bears a certain resemblance to the minutes-long montage in another Stallone film, Rocky IV, that was also to a Robert Tepper song (“No Easy Way Out”). Only, in the Cobra one, Brigitte Nielsen wore less clothes.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!