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Making Contact

‘The more we’re forced to look at someone else’s perspective, like on a television, instead of our own, the less perspective we have on the world and the galaxy around us. When contact is made, the alien says humanity isn’t ready.’ ~ From io9

The quote above is from an excellent review of a great film that was based on a great book by a scientist whose understanding of the human condition was uncanny. To read it, go to the end of the article below. But before you do that, stick around, you might find this interesting.

The film we’re looking at is Contact by Robert Zemeckis. The book we’re looking at is Contact by Carl Sagan. Fascinating pieces of culture, both of them, to each their own.

Contact the film is a bittersweet film, perhaps too bittersweet. It plays out like a fairytale, simple and stereotypical, relying on exhausted tropes and devices to tell its story — the idealistic scientist, the charismatic preacher, the jealous and antagonistic boss, the evil government security man, the love interest between chalk and cheese — all of them way too familiar.

But if you don’t let the cliches distract you, the movie delivers, and how.

Although elementary in its philosophy, CtF is profound in a roundabout manner, exploring how the media impact society. How they enable people to tell a story. How they shape, bend and distort said story, preventing it from being told true.

The media are tricky like that, both platform and sinkhole. Both track and corral, gate and prison.

The insight is presented in an io9 article written by an astute writer whose take on the film is brilliant. Twenty years after Contact‘s release, the review sheds light on the filmmakers’ method — the way the film was put together, the devices used to convey its message — and what they hoped to achieve; how director Robert Zemeckis used the media to tell the story, which helped tell a second story, too, about how the media affect human perception.

The idea is that shared knowledge and our capacity to disseminate it on a mass scale via multimedia platforms is a prescriptive, powerful and, in many cases, limiting process, despite our technological sophistication.

Zemeckis, according to the article, works magic in the film. He makes a compelling statement on the human condition and the presence of life on other planets, interesting themes in themselves, but overfamiliar, so he pushes the envelope even further. He ups the ante to explore the way we perceive the world, investigating the manner in which we can ever hope to know it. He asks important questions between the lines: how can we truly expand our horizons and make contact with a new reality; what holds us back and prevents us from making the giant leap that will redefine our world?

It’s a stroke of genius on the filmmaker’s part, perhaps intentional, perhaps intuitive and subsequential. Sometimes a simple story delivers a most profound message, if played out deftly, and Contact achieves just that. Its hidden premise, it transpires, is the significance of personal perspective. Breakthrough can’t take place without it. The notion of seeing something through a lens i.e. through the eyes of another person/organization/dogma, is a limiting arrangement in and of itself, says the film. One needs to break out of shared perspective and be present, see things for oneself. Register events through one’s own apparatus. Peering beyond the veil is a private endeavor, one that involves no records or proof, no massive corroboration. The only ingredient that matters is to be truly and totally present, and to observe the world with an inquisitive mind.

It’s a great insight, one which rests on the backdrop of the film’s surface premise i.e. the conflict between science and religion, knowledge and faith.

Contact engages these issues straight on, exploring the clash of the two belief systems, making arguments for and against them.

It starts off by taking a giant stab at religion, the obvious choice, while depicting science as the soundest of the two approaches. Then, as the plot advances (pun pun) the tables are turned, showing science up: a model that doesn’t have all the answers after all, despite its grand claims. On the contrary, it has shortcomings, enormous ones, many of which resemble religion’s.

In fact, faith has the upper hand by the end of the film. It is depicted as a redeeming, all too human approach, with which to confront life’s uncertainties, comforting in the wake of doubt, perfect for the vast and stressful world we live in.

But Zemeckis goes a step further. He suggests that science, too, deep down, relies on faith — faith in its tenets and axioms, in the principles that constitute the scientific dogma.

It seems that these two adversarial worldviews have more things in common than what separates them, or so goes the implication.

Thus, Contact takes an odd stance. It flips the argument on its head, giving an unexpected and vexing nod to faith, and that’s a legitimate stance to take, although a little surprising for a film based on a book written by a scientist.

Thankfully the film goes beyond that, too — one final flourish — and criticizes dogma at large. Both science and religion are eventually and between the lines shown up as doctrines promoted and perpetuated, to each their own, by perspectives shared between their respective followers, by ideas as revealing and informative as they are blinding and debilitating. Science, the more transparent and intricate of the two models, fails to illuminate the world at large, despite its grandiose promises. There is a cut-off point, after which the system falls short. It fails to deliver absolute truth, just as religion failed in its time, and still does. Science works against itself after a certain point, too strong for its own good, blinding its followers with its teachings, deceiving and misleading its champions and advocates with theories that become all-encompassing and dated and resistant to new information. Scientists’ over-reliance on canonical methodology sabotages their mission in the long-run, turning its great asset — a concrete, shared corpus of information — into a liability, a discourse too massive to handle, too entrenched in its tradition, its lens reduced to a set of blinders that hide the bigger picture.

Science, in other words, like religion, prevents humanity from making giant sudden leaps into the unfathomable. The scientific model relies heavily on a step-by-step methodology that involves painstaking experimentation and research, all of which build toward a consensus. Even though the process is a tremendous tool for validation and fact-checking, it takes forever to play out. Progress is hard to come by, and it involves grueling, time-consuming effort, most of which is directed at a wall of commitment and familiarity that challenges everyone’s investment in the shared and established premises of the world.

A very time-consuming process, it turns out, as progressive as it is resistant.

Zemeckis exposes the limitations of scientific dogma by placing the scientific community in a bind. When contact is made with an alien civilization, scientists around the world gather round to figure out what to do. Their voices are lost in the din of preachers and demagogues, a cacophony of derivative earthly transmissions, each one fighting for its fifteen minutes of bandwidth and the world’s ear.

Science prevails, and the scientists spearhead the operation, assuming control of the mission.

The assignment is clear: decode the alien transmission and follow the thread.

Yet the scientists are unable to break through. They decrypt the message, unveiling a set of building instructions for a gargantuan machine, and then assemble that machine (a transportation device for a single passenger) and fire it up, but that’s about it. Despite their technological sophistication, with all their computers and cameras and recording devices and sundry, their supertech gadgetry, they fail to launch, so to speak, or, to be exact, fail to register the launch.

The irony — which we, the audience, can see — is that something truly amazing happens inside the machine, but the scientists outside are clueless to it. Only the passenger knows, but her apparatus malfunctions, wiping out all physical evidence of the event. All they have is her word, but they don’t believe her, she is not to be trusted. Her senses had been hijacked, they say. Her judgment was compromised, her sanity under question. She is an unreliable observer with no physical evidence and a skeptical world at her heels.

And so goes the denial and backtracking. A committee is assembled to evaluate what happened. The failure of the project, the peculiar and uncorroborated testimony of the passenger, all of it comes under scrutiny. Everything is deemed a lie, a hoax, a delusion. The failure of technology to measure the world behind the veil is a clear sign that the world behind the veil doesn’t exist. The possibility that the apparatus was inadequate, unable to register the new frontier, i.e. not up to the task, doesn’t cross the committee’s mind, and even if it does, they sideswipe it, putting on a show of omniscience for their peers and subjects, keeping a lid on things. They believe only what they see, and because the apparatus didn’t reveal anything, they see only what they believe, what they expect to see. And no one can change their minds. The word of a lone voice who claims to have seen what is out there with her own eyes is not enough.

And the world remains the same, on account of science having fallen short.

The irony is tremendous. The implications vexing. The very tool designed to liberate the human mind from the bonds of ignorance and inertia falls prey to groupthink and bias, flummoxed by its own methodology in a cruel twist of fate.

It’s a punch in the gut, which the film delivers consciously and with intent. For all our knowledge and sophistication, it says, we’re likely to miss the bigger picture and stay clueless, trapped inside our limitations. We can’t take the extra step and make real CONTACT, not if we rely on what everyone sees, on what the apparatus measures. Our manner of perceiving reality is limiting, and it stands in the way of our anticipated quantum leap. We discount subjective experience at our peril. Our systemic need for a scientific consensus cripples us, or at least slows us down.

And there you have it. The limitations of scientific dogma. Contact may be a fairytale of a film, but it makes quite the statement, plenty unexpected.

Contact the book, on the other hand, takes a different path.

Written by Carl Sagan, a man with a vision of Earth as a pale blue dot in the vast expanse of space, the book presents Earth in transition; a planet on the cusp of groundbreaking, extraordinary change. The story focuses not on the media’s effect on humanity per se, although their pervasive effect is important in the grand scheme of things. The story goes beyond the media, taking a wider turn, unfolding over a decade-plus. It becomes a chronicle of sorts, an examination of a game-changing era. There are no overfamiliar cliches — no convenient love stories, no limits to where the characters go and who they meet with. There are no budget constraints or plot limitations designed to tell a story in 120+ minutes on screen. The set is planetary, worldly, and it spans the globe, the characters sweeping the continents in search for answers. The premise is grand by effect and scope, by sheer interaction, in the way books can be (and films strive to be, but often fail).

Above all, there is a distinct idea in the book, and it involves humanity coming together under the so-called Machindo: the way of the machine — a global endeavor that unifies the nations and cultures of the world in their effort to unlock the mystery presented by the alien transmission. The alien message contains instructions on how to build an extraordinary machine, an opportunity which the planet eventually seizes, and the journey begins.

The result is global mobilization unlike anything ever seen. A new economic/business model is born, one that brings everyone together, redefining the world as we know it.

It’s a terrific outlook. Sagan’s premise is optimistic, full of trust in humans and our ability to come together under the banner of a grand project. It’s a refreshing point of view, especially now, in this increasingly cynical, entropic world we live in.

The story is also in favor of science, though not in a didactic or fundamentalist manner. Like in the film, Sagan’s scientists don’t have all the answers. On the contrary, their powers are limited, their aptitude compromised. The narrative is exploratory, toying with the idea of something more personal and spiritual, something able to discern what no dogma can, but it errs in favor of science, our best available tool, while at the same time introducing the element of faith and personal belief.

Faith, it seems, underwrites human endeavor, no matter the belief system.

A few words about Carl Sagan. He was a visionary who predicted the rise of pseudoscience, the comeback of sectarian politics and fundamentalist religion, and the legalization of drugs, among other things. His jargon-free style made science and knowledge and critical thinking accessible to millions of people round the world.

I was lucky enough to have been exposed to his work early on, first through his iconic TV series Cosmos, then through Contact the book. I still haven’t read The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, his treatise on scientific knowledge, but I will soon.

I hope others do, too — delve into Sagan’s work with boundless curiosity.

It’s well worth it.

In the meantime, check out Contact, film and book. Both are inspired and inspirational pieces of work, entertaining and challenging at the same time. They offer a distinct take on the human condition, one that stays with you in the subtlest of ways.

And, please, take a moment to read the io9 review below. It lights up the film with great insight, and unlocks the genius of Robert Zemeckis and his team, reminding us that even fairytales have profound meanings, at least when the set and setting are right, the storytellers up to the task and, most crucially, the audience members ready for them.

From the bays of Pearl Coast, and in conjunction with your ever-watchful Spin Doctor,

Dive in crystal waters, find a shiny pearl, and (don’t forget),

Eyes open, mind sharp.

For the review that inspired this article, click here: