This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehnerand Silver Screenings. Day 1 is all about good scientists, day 2 is for mad scientists, and day 3 covers lonely scientists.
Scientists are often lonely creatures. Between the time they spend in labs, doing research, sorting through endless data, and working on equipment, it’s easy to see why. But while scientists in the real world often work in teams with others, movie scientists typically don’t have that luxury, making movie scientists some of the loneliest characters onscreen. In the movies, scientists are often at odds with society or those in power, often serving as the lone voice of reason in a chaotic story. Frequently they have to pursue their studies alone, whether by choice or because they’ve been ostracized from everyone else, and sometimes their passions and beliefs make it hard for them to connect to others when the opportunity arises. No matter if the movie scientist is a good one, a mad one, or even an evil one, loneliness seems like it’s typically part of the journey for these characters. And in my mind there’s no lonelier scientist on film than Ellie Arroway from Contact.
Contact tells the story of Dr. Arroway’s quest to uncover the existence of life out in the universe. She devotes all of her time and effort towards SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, a group that listens for radio signals from deep space. It’s a branch of science that is dismissed by her peers and her superiors, who think she’s wasting not only her funding but also her talents, and who do their best to block her work in the hopes that she’ll pursue something else. She’s the black sheep of the scientific community for refusing to contribute to a project that will produce “real” results. She finds her grant money slashed, her listening time on the antenna cut, and is forced to go begging for another way to continue her dream.
But Dr. Arroway’s loneliness goes deeper than just the professional isolation into which her interests have forced her. Her passion and determination to prove that she’s right stem from her father’s teachings when she was a child, when he told her that if we’re alone in the universe it “seems like an awful waste of space.” As a child she spent her time on a HAM radio, talking to people around the country, wondering how far she would be able to communicate. But when her dad died unexpectedly, leaving her alone as a teenager, she channeled that loss and feeling of abandonment into her search, giving her a personal motivation on top of her professional beliefs. Her obsession with her search even drives a wedge between her and her team, who think she’s gone off the deep end when they learn she’s been staring at television static for hours on end trying to find a signal in the chaos.
What sets Contact apart is that it’s a movie all about loneliness, about answering the question of whether we’re alone in the universe. Ellie is driven by the loss of her dad, leaving her alone in the world and searching for a way to feel like she belongs again, but her search leads her not to her fellow humans but to space. Her personal journey is contrasted with that of Palmer Joss, a writer and religious leader with whom Ellie develops a relationship, whose own journey led him to God. Dr. Arroway does not believe in God, and asks Joss, “So what’s more likely? That an all-powerful, mysterious god created the universe, and decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or, that he simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him, so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” On the other hand, he asks of science, “Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the Web, and at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history…”
When a message from space is finally received, and it’s revealed that the message contains instructions for a vessel designed to transport an individual off of Earth, the differences in the pair’s views drives a wedge between them and further isolate’s Dr. Arroway. As the machine is being built, a variety of individuals compete for honor of journeying to another world, and Dr. Arroway loses her spot when she admits she does not believe in God, putting her at odds with 95% of the world’s population. She feels like she has no place, like she’s destined to be alone with all of her questions unanswered, left in a world she doesn’t understand surrounded by people who don’t understand her. She feels like she was told she’s too different from everyone else to be able to adequately represent humanity.
After an accident destroys the alien device, Dr. Arroway is selected to make the journey on a duplicate vessel built-in secret. She fully understands she may never come back and might not survive, possibly destined to spend the rest of her life alone in a sphere on the other side of the Galaxy. There can’t be any feeling lonelier than when she takes that walk from the tower to the capsule and watches the door close to seal her inside. She is sent through a wormhole to another world, where an alien takes the form of her father to explain to her their purpose in contacting humanity. And in doing so, he answers the very question that set her on her journey, and offers some insight into not only her loneliness but the loneliness that everyone feels.
You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.
When she returns, after her profound and life-changing experience, she’s met with nothing but skepticism. There’s absolutely no evidence that her journey ever took place, and the prevailing theory is that the signal, the message, and the machine were all a part of an elaborate hoax by Dr. Arroway’s investor. Ellie finds herself alone once again, with the entire world against her, with her very beliefs about the nature of the universe derided and mocked. But as she is badgered by a committee into admitting that her experience never actually happened, she gives a speech that both speaks to the loneliness within all of us and within her as well, but also the solution to that loneliness.
I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how … rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not — that none of us — are alone! … I wish I could share that. I wish, that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and hope!
She leaves feeling dejected, as if she’s doomed to go through her life alone in the belief that humanity isn’t alone in the universe. But as she’s escorted from the hearing by Palmer Joss to discover that thousands of people have gathered outside to support her, he is asked by a reporter what he thinks really happens. “As a person of faith I’m bound by a different covenant than Doctor Arroway. But our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of Truth. I for one believe her.”
Scientists are often lonely creatures on film, both as a representation of the nature of science and its pursuit, but also because we as human beings are frequently lonely. We often feel disconnected from those around us, from the multitude of faces we pass every day, believing no one understands us or can truly see us for who we are and questioning our place in the universe. The passionate striving of knowledge that fills scientists of all types can magnify this loneliness, but it’s certainly not unique to that profession. And the reality is that everyone is so caught up in their own lonely lives that it can feel impossible to form any real connections. But while Contact explores that loneliness, both in a specific person in the form of Dr. Arroway and more broadly in its themes and message, it also offers a solution to that loneliness: that our lives may be tiny and insignificant but they’re also rare and precious, and that the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. Contact tells us that loneliness is a part of life, and that it’s natural to feel cut off and isolated from the world, but that we really have much more in common than we could ever imagine. We’re all searching for truth and meaning in the world, whether that’s through science, faith, some combination of the two or something else entirely.
In the final moments of the film, we flash forward a few years and find Dr. Arroway still heavily involved in science, but rather than isolating herself she chooses to connect with others. We find her giving a tour to a group of children, with new meaning in her life, as she answers that age-old question from a child of whether we’re really alone in the universe. “I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though,” she says with a smile. “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. Right?”
*As a side note, one of the things I love about Contact is its visual storytelling, specifically the way it portrays Ellie’s journey through its images rather than flat-out saying what she’s feeling. In the film, any time she’s feeling particularly lonely, she pulls her knees up to her chest and dwells on her solitude. Whether it’s after her father dies, when it looks like her search is going to be shut down, or the night before she’s set to take a ride in the alien machine, she looks like this:
But at the film’s end, after we see her speaking to the children, we find her sitting once again beside the same canyon by herself. But this time, she’s relaxed and open, at peace with the world rather than building walls and withdrawing into herself. It’s a small visual touch that speaks volumes about the change she’s undergone.