*** Warning: here be spoilers! ***
To me a good film is like a knot puzzle. Clive Barker creates a good analogy for it in The Books of Blood. Karney, protagonist of The Inhuman Condition from volume 4, observes that, “most knots he had encountered… once loosened in part, yielded the entire solution” and I find many films are like that. Once you have one strand of a film’s fabric, you can just keep tugging at it and either you find the other end of the strand, or you find you’ve disassembled the whole thing entirely. The knot which obsessed Karney was designed in a more fiendish way and loosening one strand only served to tighten others. The only approach, he found, was to consistently and methodically work the whole thing at once, worrying the whole knot in factions until you could see daylight through the twine.
Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1977) was like this latter for me. Much has already been written about the film’s possible endings and lofty intentions, although I don’t see the ambiguity (we’ll discuss the ending in a moment). Much has also been written about the links to Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014). The two films are linked thematically and in terms of personnel – not just Matthew McConaughey, who blesses both films with his irrationally charming grin, but also producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne who provided the treatment for both films.These aren’t separate strands of the knot, they’re just one loop that you’ll follow round and round forever if you’re not careful.
The part that I’ve always felt compelled to tug at is the theme set up by the ending. It never sat right with me and in fact, I always wondered if they’d just used up all the special effects budget by that point and simply looked round for an actor who didn’t seem to be doing much that day (I’ve never read the novel that it’s based on, but it makes no difference). Rather than work through the whole film, I’m going to pick out plot points that contribute to this theme so if you haven’t seen the film, you’re going to wonder what in the name of Nicolas Winding Refn is going on so apologies for that. I’ve always felt like the obvious reading of this film should be through a psychoanalytical lens, rather than a religion versus science lens, and so sadly for you, dear reader, that’s what you have to sit through now as I tug away.
But first, a disclaimer, because these are strange times in which we live. Psychoanalysis and the work primarily done by Freud is invaluable, if limited. In science you can’t advance without a hypothesis to test. Freud’s hypotheses have been tested, with some found to have merit whilst others are rejected or replaced or built upon. I’m not here to stand in agreement or pass judgement on his work, merely to use it as an interesting lens through which to observe other texts. Personally I find criticism of him by applying modern standards to be absurd; it’s like criticizing cave art by saying you could have done something much better in Photoshop. We’re only in a position to correct and improve his work because he did it in the first place, and we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Early in the film’s timeline we see young Ellie (played by Jena Malone, of Donnie Darko, Neon Demon and Nocturnal Animals fame) living with her father and already obsessed with the wonders beyond her immediate world. They spend their evening stargazing and their days talking on ham radio, studiously marking on Ellie’s map the location of the people they speak to. Ellie is excited to talk to someone in Pensacola, her furthest respondent yet, and later she draws what she imagines Pensacola to look like – a beach scene, with unspoiled sand, a preternaturally blue ocean and three palm trees.
Quickly this scene of domestic bliss is shattered. As Ellie impatiently barks at her father to come outside and look at stars, she hears a crash from inside. She fears the worst. Carefully pacing through the house she finds the prostrate corpse of her father. He has died from a myocardial infarction, she later learns, and her whole paradise has been ripped away.
We never see Ellie’s mother. In psychosexual terms, Ellie’s negative Oedipus attitude complex has already been resolved and her mother is already her vanquished foe. Ellie has her father all to herself. The problem with this, from a child development point of view, is that there are defence mechanisms that are supposed to kick in as a result of this complex which ultimately lead to identification with the mother, and the development of a basis for morality based on observations of the mother. Essentially, this complex leads to the formation of the superego and the part of the personality that persuades her to follow the rules first of her parents, then of society. Without this necessary conflict taking place, Ellie’s superego is at best half-formed and we see evidence of this throughout the film.
As a young adult, now played by Jodie Foster, we see a version of Ellie that is intelligent, headstrong and ambitious. She is told that she was a described by a (male, senior) colleague as, “brilliant, driven, a major pain in the ass, and obsessed with a field of study that he sees as tantamount to professional suicide”.
This is not a surprise to the careful psychoanalytic viewer. Without a superego, Ellie is demonstrating two classic behaviours: she is driven by her own primal instincts and following her base desires; and not playing by the rules of society. Or, as we ought really to recognise it here, the patriarchy. It isn’t just the male, senior colleague who belittles her choices, it’s the majority of men. When Kent Clark (yes, they went there) introduces Ellie to the other people using the radio telescope for research, he can’t even bring himself to verbalise what she’s doing and she has to finish the sentences herself – “to look for little green men”. The men she has just met all stare at her.
All too soon we get to see the male, senior colleague, one Dr Drumlin (a very on-form Tom Skerritt). Ellie comes running up the street enthusiastically to meet him – some might say she looks almost childishly enthusiastic in those moments – but she is dispatched with a callous, “ahhh, Ellie, still waiting for ET to call?” which she rejoinders with name calling. There’s a brief exchange with Drumlin later that night which serves to establish one of the film’s underpinning questions about the nature and practicality of science, but the next time we see Ellie and Drumlin together is during a full blown argument. He is withdrawing her funding because her work has no practical application. He sees it as preventing her from wasting her career, to which she replies, “so what, it’s my life!”. I imagine this exhortation will sound very familiar to parents.
As a surrogate father figure, Drumlin cuts a markedly different figure from the one we glimpse in flashbacks to Ellie’s childhood. Drumlin is cold and manipulative, and it’s not entirely clear whether the motivations regarding Ellie are from a paternal concern for her career or simply a wish to not be upstaged by a subordinate woman. There isn’t a lot of evidence for this latter reading save for the interactions with Ellie, in which he consistently interrupts her, talks or shouts over her, or takes credit for her work. These interactions are not accidental. Usually, when Drumlin has done this, the camera goes to Ellie for her reaction. If he is a father figure, Drumlin is of the tough love school. In terms of the film’s deeper meaning and the question of science and religion, Drumlin represents capitalist greed or the practical application of science, depending on your point of view.
Prior to Drumlin’s entrance into the movie, Ellie meets, befriends and has a romantic liaison with Matthew’s McConaughey’s Palmer Joss. He introduces himself as a writer but during one of the scenes with Drumlin, he is revealed to be a priest with an interest in technology and those who deify it (which he sees as a grave danger). Joss’ presence in and travels through the film remains – well, let’s be generous and go with ambiguous. He’s a priest slash investigative journalist, apparently with the ear of the president and his most senior advisors, able to walk into the most secure meetings at the highest level. In terms of the film his presence in those meetings is perfunctorily explained, and I used ‘explained’ in its widest and most generic sense, ie. to mean something that has merely been said out loud in the presence of other sentient beings who may or may not have been paying attention at the time.
He serves as a slightly confused on/off love interest for Ellie throughout but what strikes us here is that Joss is a man of the cloth. In narrative terms he could have been anyone with a deeply held religious conservatism, but instead the character is a priest and the first time that we see Ellie romantically and sexually involved with someone, it’s with a Father. There’s even a direct link between her father and her Father as Joss uses exactly the same phrase that he used about the likelihood of life on other planets – an unfunny quip about it being a waste of space if we were the only ones in the universe.
Following through on his threat Drumlin pulls the plug on Ellie’s funding, which leads her to team up with Kent Clark (still makes me laugh) to find private funding for their work. This leads to another id-fuelled outburst in a corporate blandfest owned by Hadden Industries. The automatons she met turned her request for funding down because as we have already been told, Ellie’s work had no practical application and no one can make money out of it. But there’s a video camera trained on her and following a short call post-outburst, VAR reverses the decision and awards Ellie her funding. She returns back to her radio telescope, not quite knowing who her mysterious benefactor is.
In a plot beat that brings to mind the convenient capture of Wayne Williams on the last night of a long, expensive stake-out in season 2 of Mindhunter, Ellie picks up an actual signal from space just as Drumlin is trying to shut her down again. Ominously, the signal being beamed to earth is one of Hitler speaking at the opening of the 1936 Olympics. Actually, it’s just the first signal we sent into space, but it’s enough to get the attention of the National Security Council (possibly they saw Iron Sky (dir. Timo Vuorensola, 2012) and assumed the Nazis were living on the dark side of the moon and planning an invasion of earth). Whatever the reason, James Woods epitomises the American homeland security apparatus’ twin values of paranoia and incompetence quite perfectly and is a joy to watch.
We jump forward now to a point where the Hitler TikTok has been decoded and found to have multiple layers – literally, there’s a signal under the signal. The team, nominally under Drumlin for the NSC but run operationally by Ellie, have decoded multiple pages of information but can’t work out how to piece them together. Ellie receives an invite to a mysterious rendezvous and because it’s quite sane and sensible for a young lady to go alone to a location given on a faxed map in the middle of the night, she soon finds herself on a stationary plane on an airstrip face to face with her mysterious benefactor.
Here, the film takes its most confusing turn. Said mysterious benefactor is one S. R. Hadden, owner of Hadden Industries and a bit like Jeff Bezos but shorter and not evil. He has prepared a Powerpoint slide deck showing Ellie how he’s been stalking her for most of her life and relates back to her the key points of her own life, because exposition.
Hadden is a bit of a hot mess, narratively. He tells her how key she is to his plans, but then goes and shows her how superior he is by giving her the primer (the crib to how the alien pages fit together, which everyone pronounces “primmer” and My God It’s So Annoying) that the combined brains of her team and the NSC have failed to spot. If Drumlin is a tough love father surrogate, Hadden is a patronising jerk father surrogate. They meet again later in the film, sorry, ‘meet’, because he’s onboard the Mir space station calling via Zoom. Both times he talks to Ellie, he does so from within a giant phallus – a plane, then a spaceship.
We never learn Hadden’s first name, but with a little judicious Googling we find that his name is not unique. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of your ancient Assyrian and Babylonian history, but Esarhaddon was king of both Assyria and Babylon from 681BCE to 669BCE. Apart from the rebuilding of the earthly paradise of Babylon, he led his armies in the conquest of Egypt which at that time made Esarhaddon the ruler of the largest empire on earth (like Jeff Bezos) and we learn that Hadden’s own industrial empire is similarly vast. We know from primary sources that Esarhaddon was known for his paranoia, which is a quality that
Bezos Hadden also demonstrates (excessive secrecy, for example). When we see Hadden describing how the flat alien pages of information should actually be joined and read in three dimensions as a cube, one can’t help but note the similarity to the black basalt monument to Esarhaddon in the British Museum. These continued allusions to Esarhaddon remain a slightly confused undertone for the rest of the film but what is also interesting is this; when we we do finally meet Mr Corporate Greed himself, he comes across as far more of a father figure (if a somewhat patronising one) than Drumlin, a man attached to Ellie’s own field of study. Hadden is nurturing, Drumlin most definitely isn’t. It’s also interesting that the one man who completely accepts Ellie for who she is is Kent Clark (still funny), who like Oedipus is blind. We say, “accepts Ellie for who she is”, but Drumlin might describe that as being blind to her faults.
Let’s skip forward again. The alien pages are decoded and it’s found that they are the space equivalent of an Ikea instruction pamphlet and the BILLY bookcase is – they assume – some sort of transport device, or possibly a transdimensional portal for invading armies a la the Sphere in the Doctor Who Army of Ghosts storyline. Health and safety risk assessment dutifully completed, they make the device and hold an impromptu one-off I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Into Space special to decide who should go. You’d think that Ellie would be the front runner, but Drumlin and Joss combine to shaft her royally and deny her the opportunity. That’s part of the science versus religion reading, so I’m not going to cover it here. Suffice it to say that eventually religious fundamentalists blow up the device, because the one thing that religious fundamentalists and flat earthers have in common is that they don’t want you to go into space and gather evidence of how flawed their beliefs are. I’m never 100% clear why the religious fundamentalists blow up the device beyond their video-recorded suicide message (which I don’t need to tell you looks rather Jihadi in the light of American foreign policy). Maybe it’s the ‘proof denies faith’ argument.
Anyway we discover that Hadden has rebuilt the machine just as Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon. Fundamentally, he owns the machine (and here you get an idea of how wealthy he is. The US Government baulked at the cost of making the machine, which ran into trillions of dollars, so Hadden built two just to prove how much bigger his penis is than yours). He chooses Ellie to travel this time.
And so we come to The Ending.
Ellie is in a round pod, lowered via cables into the heart of the spinning disks of the device. The spinning disks have created some form of spectacular light show and it’s difficult to ignore the visual metaphor of sperm approaching egg to create life, but I’m going to. Ellie travels through the intergalactic version of a water slide tube and ultimately finds herself floating down to a dreamlike beach scene, with unspoiled sand, a preternaturally blue ocean and three palm tr- hang on a minute, we’ve been here before! Ellie has travelled across the void and ended up on the version of Pensacola beach that she drew in her picture, right down to the formation of bent palm trees.
There’s an odd beat where Ellie extends a single finger and pokes at an invisible force field that is just above her head. There’s a visual allusion to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam that is worth 3,000 words alone, but fundamentally we see that Ellie’s surroundings ripple when she extends her arm in any direction and from that we read that what she sees is just a constructed facade. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Pensacola anymore.
As she’s busy jabbing at her artificial universe, a ghost-like shape appears in front of her palm trees. The shape keeps changing but she recognises that it’s a presence. This is it! As it approaches and gradually starts to resolve into something more tangible, Ellie prepares herself for the thing she has most desired her whole life. Since she was a little girl she has been fixated on this one idea, this idea that she has cherished and pursued to the exclusion of almost anything else in her life, the one thing that she wants more than anything else… and it’s her father.
And it’s here that the film’s entire premise collapses in on itself. The alien eventually explains that it simply chose a form that wouldn’t freak her out, because this is the first time we’ve encountered an alien and they simply wanted to create a safe space for her. But what would be a perfectly good premise is absolutely destroyed by the fact that the alien pretends to be her father for the whole time. The first thing the alien says is, “Hey Sparks, I missed you”, which is not something that you’d expect an alien to say on first meeting. Granted, not every alien is going to roll up with, “hey babe, I’m from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelguese, get your coat love, you’ve pulled” but, “I missed you”? Even though Ellie, the ultra-rational scientist, knows that this cannot possibly be her father she still goes along with it and hugs him.
Ellie guesses correctly that the alien has simply downloaded her thoughts (I can’t even begin to think through the GDPR ramifications). As they embrace the alien says, “you have your mother’s hands”. But Ellie’s mother died during childbirth so Ellie couldn’t possibly know or remember what her mother’s hands look like; whose memory is this? Or perhaps there is something else at work here…
Suddenly remembering who he is, the alien says, “you’re an interesting species… capable of some beautiful dreams”. At that, the good Viennese doctor looks at us knowingly, for dreams are of course Wunscherfüllung, the fulfilment of wishes. The alien explains that this is just the first step (“first steps” possibly being another allusion to Ellie’s childhood, aka the time that she had her father to herself) and without so much as pausing for an Instagram Story together, Ellie is whisked back into the water slide.
How are we to interpret this? Was this just wish fulfilment on Ellie’s part as she blacked out inside the pod? If the alien is telling the truth then it could have resolved into any number of shapes in order to make Ellie feel safe and secure. Indeed, it would have made more sense not to look like her father because then the interaction, which the alien had already decided ahead of time would be fleetingly brief, would not require Ellie to spend a large portion of the time dealing with emotions from seeing her father again. Any generic human facade would have achieved the same end, but much quicker and without the emotional baggage.
Mission Control says that she was only out of contact for a split second (Chekhov’s gun was loaded in an earlier scene when we discussed the relativity of time) but we later find her camera headset recorded 18 hours of static while Ellie was ‘away’. That suggests that the interaction did take place, but then against that we have to weigh the evidence of the false memories and the fleetingly vague interaction between them.
It’s not my intention to resolve that argument, merely to highlight the confused psychosexual undercurrent in the film. Looking back through director Robert Zemeckis’ CV is no help either, in fact it probably only adds to the confusion. His 1988 blockbuster Who Framed Roger Rabbit? gives us Jessica Rabbit, an icon of third wave feminism. When we look at the portrayal of Jessica Rabbit and compare that to the treatment that Ellie receives in Contact, there’s a real difference between them. Maybe we’re meant to infer that Ellie isn’t really id-driven, she’s just drawn that way.
Let us summarise. The young Ellie lives the perfect life with her father, but has that paradise taken from her before she has had any chance to develop an integrated and complete psychic apparatus (of id – ego – superego). Consequently, she grows up and behaves in a manner that is consistent in particular with not having a fully developed superego. She finds herself either romantically attached or professionally aligned with a succession of father figures, eventually working with the father figure that most encourages her childhood interests. Then, once she travels through the portal, the shape she sees is not the “little green man” as she herself has already stated that she is looking for, but either an alien pretending to be her father or her father pretending to be an alien. Either way, it gives her the chance to have the one last encounter with her father that she was denied by his sudden death. Even though she knows it’s not really him, and later concedes that the whole event may well have not happened, she goes along with the charade and spends most of the encounter interacting with the father/alien on an emotional rather than intellectual level. The film doesn’t try to present a coherent narrative of what happened; like Karney’s knot, it simply presents a challenge and leaves the viewer to untangle it.