Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Remembering Carl Sagan

You are an interesting species. An interesting mix.
You are capable of such beautiful dreams,
and such horrible nightmares.

--Ted Arroway (after a fashion) in the 1997 movie Contact

It seems so cliched and trite to say that this movie changed my life, and perhaps it is overly dramatic. Weeding out the unneccessary words, though, it is safe to say that Contact profoundly impacted my life.

There are a lot of extraneous factors that affected just how much I enjoyed this movie. I was in the middle of my first summer in Arizona and discovering a deep, almost physical connection with the Southwest. I had just finished my first year studying biochemistry at Notre Dame. I was dating the second of three pre-med seniors who was all about appearance and not much else (the first thought he knew everything, the third dropped the L-word after about three weeks of dating). Each of these factors contributed to making this movie resonate with me beyond its own merits (and being an active Catholic and an active scientist in academia for the following five years only deepened that resonance) so that it has become one of my top 5 movies. (I'm not saying it's my #1 favorite only because my favorites are favorites for particular reasons and each has their own unique connection with various aspects of my life. Translation: My Top 5 fave movies are all #1.)

From the very beginning, the movie separated me from my date and, thus, made me feel as if I were experiencing the movie as a dialog between me and the characters rather than sharing the movie with anyone in the theater. I was entranced by the opening sequence of zooming in to Earth complete with accompanying soundtrack. My date was confused and otherwise discomfited by it. I don't remember if I had to explain it or if he had an aloud "a-ha" moment. All I know is that I gladly left him behind in the theater so I could get absorbed into the movie itself.

And it was quite a ride. The dialog was smart without being hard to understand. The plot was easy to follow without being simplistic, complex without being complicated. The various messages and themes were clear without being preachy or blunt. The effects were seamless and absolutely beautiful. And it ended on a such a fascinatingly bittersweet note that the entire experience felt real, as if it had been my own memory playing out on the big screen.

(I love the placement of the "For Carl" dedication right at the end there with the music, by the way. It makes me grateful to have had such a creative mind in our culture and sad that it is gone at the same time.)

There are many things I love about this movie, but the one I always enjoy the most when I watch it is the religion vs science debate that is woven throughout, particularly in how it is presented. For me there has never been a conflict between religion and science. No, that's not true, used the wrong word. For me there has never been a conflict between faith and science, and really that was what the movie posited if you're paying attention to the way the arguments are framed and the language used. The level of ridicule that Ellie adopted in her tone and word choice when discussing God's existence was pretty much evenly matched for the level of ridicule everyone adopted in their reaction to Ellie's story. The crowning moment of this symmetry--and a moment of pure blissful perfection with the English language, the mechanics of plot structure and character arcs, camera angles and movement, directorial discretion, and interpretation by acting--was during the Congressional hearing. Ellie is asked if the world is supposed to take her story...on faith. I think I might have actually sat forward in my chair (if I wasn't already), holding my breath, waiting to see Ellie's reaction and realization. And when we got it, I may have sighed. I think that's a beat that lives with me in much the same way that the last note of a production of The Phantom of the Opera does. It far better expressed something that I had been trying to say for a long time about the nature of faith and science and their coexistance. I also thought it was a stroke of genius that only Ellie and Palmer seemed to notice the rhetoric being used to attack Ellie's story.

As I continued on in my scientific education, I found I enjoyed more and more the look at the politics of science and the way some use that to manipulate things to their liking. With every year of college and grad school, the portrayal of Drumlin and Ellie's quest for SETI funding/time made more and more sense. Watching Ellie go after something she loved despite how it "trashed" her career, and still only caring about the project when it did hit big...that's what it meant to me to be a scientist. I, unforutanately, discovered I didn't have the patience that Ellie did to balance the passion; I also discovered the power of living for a family and how that alters what you choose to do with your life. Thus I can now better understand why Ellie chose to leave Palmer's number behind.

And, no, it has not escaped my notice that Ellie is just one letter removed from Kellie. Probably why I was so easily pulled into the movie as if it were a private conversation for me.

I've been meaning to read the book Contact for some time now, to see what was unique to the movie and what further wonders could be found in the book. Part of me is afraid to do so. The movie is such a sublime experience for me every time I see it. I'm afraid of marring it in any way. One day I'll suck it up and read the book, and on another December 20th I may have more to say about the genius of Carl Sagan. But until then, I'll end my contribution to the Carl Sagan blog-a-thon with another one my favorite lines from the movie.

The universe is a pretty big place.
It's bigger than anything anyone
has ever dreamed of before.
So if it's just us...
seems like an awful waste of space.

--Ellie Arroway in the 1997 movie Contact


David said...

thank you for sharing your thoughts on the movie. I just watched it and it makes me want to go watch it again to see more of what you're talking about. Faith, science, experience as evidence, relationships - I guess there's a lot in there.

Here's a few thoughts I had:

Ted Arroway (after a fashion) says:
“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone; only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable, each other”

We long to be known. We long to know we are not alone. Is not the scientist who searches for ETI not expressing this desire to know he , she, or we are not alone? What if we really were made to know and be known by an greater intelligence: God. Does not this longing point to something built into us? And if so, by whom?


Kellie said...

David -

I would say that SETI folks--and, really, just about any scientist--is looking for a greater understanding of the world and universe around us. The quest to know how things work and how everything got to this point and posit how it might go in the future. Which is why I would look at your question about humanity's desire to be known and not alone and think about the various ways body chemistry and genes can create that drive, not necessarily a greater, intelligent design.

But, and here's the heart of the matter of faith, just knowing the how of everything doesn't factor out the why, and knowing so much about our surroundings shouldn't diminish the wonder of God in making it to be so. In fact, I think it should increase that fasicnation in the divine, to think that a being could've put all of this in motion from one speck of dust and some energy.

Mel said...

Just happened to run into your blog...Contact is one of my #1's as well. I've probably watched it 20 times.
You mentioned that you want to read the book. Please do. I've read it twice. It's different from the movie, but better in so many aspects, especially with how it addresses the relationship between faith and science.

Kellie said...

Mel -

Oh, sure. Convince me to add another book to my To Be Read Pile of Biblical Proportions. :)