Saturday, February 25, 2012

Contact - The Movie Versus The Book

It was only a matter of time before I talked about Carl Sagan. I long ago placed him in my parthenon of heroes if only because he was the one person who could properly explain science to me. As I have mentioned before, I am phenomenally bad at science, so what he did is no mean feat.

That being said though, I still haven't figured out how to make his recipe for apple pie.



However, there are areas that Carl Sagan goes into where I am a great deal more comfortable, not the least of which is engaged with in Contact.

But first, let's start with a quote from the book that I think should launch us into the discussion:
"The book was better than the movie. For one thing, there was a lot more in it. And some of the pictures were awfully different from the movie."
If ever there was an apt description of movie versus book, I haven't found it. Books certainly have more, and the pictures in your mind do tend to be different from the ones in the movies. I only take exception to the fact that the book is better than the movie.

And of course, the reason I take exception is because I'm not convinced the book is better than the movie at all.



The Danger of Writing Science Fiction in Altogether not to Distant Future/Past:


One of the major pitfalls of the book is that it is almost too speculative, and therefore it makes it somewhat difficult to completely place in our world. In fact, it doesn't even tell you that the year until the end of the book (1999 when the machine is completed and tested). Because of that, you sort of labour under the impression that all of this surely takes place in the 80s.

...Which would be great if it really was a movie about contacting aliens in the 80s. The problem, however, lies in the fact that he's speculative about everything. Sagan invents legal codes, computer programs that mute television programs if they have a specific content (something we are still a long way off from), and floating space colonies that rich people use in order to try to prolong their lifespans.

So essentially, my problem is that there is too much future in Sagan's present. I think it works out just fine when you're in 85 and the millennium seems forever away, sort of like 1984 seemed entirely possible fifty years away from 1930 (though I would argue with the way CCTV is in Britain, Orwell wasn't too far off the mark). Looking back, and yes, hindsight is 20/20, it just feels off. They are using 80s technologies, and doing things we don't/can't do, and it takes away from the believability of the story.

The movie, made over fifteen years ago, has none of these pitfalls (though it has others). Yes, the technology is old, but none of it is unreasonably so for the time period, though the Skype-like phone call with surprisingly good definition and excellent streaming was something I thought was a bit impossible for the 90s (but I could be very wrong). But then again, I never thought that when I saw the movie OPENING NIGHT in 1997.

That being said, it behooves me to mention I was twelve at the time.

Now I understand that turtles can't eat pizza...
...or perform ninjutsu.
But my point is, there isn't really much that takes you away from the story because it is absolutely and utterly situated in our world. Whereas transporting Ellie to a far away space station to talk to Hadden (who somehow dies of anaphylactic shock three chapters later due to an errant space bee) is just to far-fetched for the world Sagan is trying to engage us in. That world being our present one.

Still, you got to give Sagan props for envisioning a female president, instead of a female lovin' president.




Love Interests


There is much ado about the inherent illogicality of Ellie falling for Palmer Joss in the movie, and I try to be understanding of that notion... though, I know lots of people who are on both sides of that particular fence who have dated, and even married. Though I don't think my Dad would admit to it, I'm pretty sure my parents are one of those couples.

Honestly, I don't think Ellie needs to have a love interest at all. But, it's become apparent that it can't be a novel of any sort if the main character doesn't fall in love in some way, and Contact is no exception. In the book, Ellie becomes involved with a man named Ken der Heer, a biologist unwittingly turned politician, who is just as ignorant about her field as Palmer Joss is.

One tells a tumultuous love story that spans nearly a decade. The other, a rather dull and placid relationship between two very rational thinkers. It's easy to figure out which one is the sexier one, and which one is more realistic. I think, then, in this instance, it comes down to just which sort of romantic story you like better.

I am a photoshop BAMF.
But really, Ken der Heer's absence in the movie makes sense, even if you don't categorically dismiss the romantic intelligence of a nation as I may or may not have just done. When it comes to narratives that only span about two hours, the last thing you want is lots of characters for the audience to forget, and then wonder at who they are the next time they show up on screen. But I don't totally agree, and I think this is largely because Ellie is written so clincally in the book, her relationship comes off the same way. Do I get her relationship with Palmer Joss in the movie? No. Do I get her relationship with der Heer in the book? Sort of, I guess.

But you're not killing two birds with one stone. Why not, if you can tie up two points into one, do it?

And honestly, I'm pretty sure I wasn't imagining the romantic/sexual tension that lay between Ellie and Joss in the two chapters they actually meet, but that's sort of besides the point.

Agnostic vs Atheist


Apparently there is a great deal of debate about whether or not Carl Sagan is an atheist. This does not surprise me since he's never been that clear cut of a person. After all Sagan has always been disparaging about UFO sightings... yet, he is known for creating messages to send into outer space because he thinks extraterrestrial life is a possibility.

Pioneer 10 Plaque
I'm glad aliens will be able to read this, because I friggin' can't.
Well, not without help anyway.
But that's really how Sagan rolls, and I think that's why we have a lot of difficulty trying to understand whether or not he was an atheist. I mean, it's hard to say when he's known for statements like this:
An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.

And then, of course, he says things like this:
It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

So, here's the truth of the matter... Sagan isn't an atheist, nor is he a theist, and that's because both indicate faith and belief in the face of absent evidence. [Though, there is an interview with his long-time friend, magician James Randi that suggests he was just too nice to say he was an atheist.] It seems to be more likely he was an "a very serious" agnostic, which brings us to our other idea that we need to discuss:

Agnosticism, which essentially states that God's existence is unknowable, something I would argue is the basic underlying principle to science.

But why do I bring this up? Well, because Ellie is an atheist in the movie, and an agnostic in the book, and therein lies the biggest difference between the two mediums, and the main reason why people tend to like one over the other.

It's an incredibly important point in the movie to have Ellie, queen of the atheists, report on something that the rest of the world must accept on faith. Some might say it is an unnecessary olive branch to the religious world, and somewhat against Sagan's own beliefs, but I'd say it's actually poignant reminder of how pervasive the idea of faith really is; that you can even find it in science. I think people misunderstand that the movie isn't saying that God exists, or that one should respect religion, but rather that faith is not only a somewhat inescapable part of the human condition,  but an ultimately areligious concept. In a way, it's its own agnostic missive: I don't believe in our gods, but I accept the possibilities of other things.

Because, that my friends, is what agnosticism really is. It may have originated in the mid 1800s as a way to explain doubt in the mystical arts and superstition, but it's a word far more interesting than that. Science, itself, is an agnostic practice and that doesn't have to include concepts of God. There is so much that is unknowable, and we must accept that there all sorts of possibilities that we may not have even considered yet.

But then again, agnosticism is not necessarily all that scientific.

Tell'em Carl, what logical fallacy does according your Baloney Detection kit mean?
Appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g. There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

It's commonly misquoted, which seems odd to me because it's very clearly one of the fundamental logical fallacies one learns in any Rhetoric class. Though, now that I think about it, I may be only person who thought "A class in Rhetoric at 8 in the morning? SIGN ME UP!" so maybe I should be a bit more forgiving.

As if I needed to further establish my nerd cred...

But sadly, absence of evidence isn't proof of anything. Though, most agnostics get around this without knowing it by cleverly saying they are "open to the possibilities", which is scientific, but not what the word actually means. What the word really means is that, even with the absence of evidence, you're open to the possibility of something being so.

So what is my point? Well, this is how Ellie is in the book. She accepts the possibility of God, but requires proof. The Palmer Joss of the stories is more persuasive with her, and gets her to accept that maybe there was some sort of a higher power. So, essentially, Ellie is actually more religious in the book than she is in the movie, yet one of the chief complaints about the movie is how she finds faith.

That being said, in the end, agnostic or atheist, the same conclusion can be drawn, and I don't think it was accident. Take what you will, and perhaps it all comes down to hermeneutics, but no matter what Sagan thinks or means, both stories come down to one principle: faith.

And that is a great lesson.

Ellie's Wit:


"What do I think of 'the world population crisis'?" Ellie was saying. "You mean am I for it or against it? You think this is a key question I'm going to be asked on Vega, and you want to make sure I give the right answer? Okay. Overpopulation is why I'm in favor of homosexuality and celibate clergy. A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism."

Ellie is downright BAMF in the book. She doesn't spend a lot of her time waxing philosophical about the possibilities of space, and cry about the fact that no one understands her unbelief in God. No, she doesn't sidestep anyone, but goes for the throat. Ellie in the movie, sadly, only get riled up when pushed (like after months of failing to get funding and even then, she's not as "fuck you and your mother" about it the way Book Ellie is).

Boom's Choice:

Honestly, I prefer the movie over the book a million times over. The book is repetitive about Ellie's values, and not situated in a believable world. The movie is more entertaining, though I know the best place to find it is in the four dollar movie bin in the corner of the Wal-mart DVD section.

When it comes down to message, however, my thoughts are much different. Both the movie and book are absolutely essential to the scientific dialectic, and they approach the same fundamental concept in an engaging, and meaningful way.

So I guess my point to all of this is that I need to stop hating on the book, and people need to stop hating on the movie.

2 comments:

  1. >the book is better than the movie

    My problem with the movie "Contact" is that Sagan died before he could help get a sequel on the big screen. Actually, I'd settle for a T.V. series that would take us in search of "the message inside pi" and scientific proof that the universe was created.

    >One of the major pitfalls of the book is that it is almost too speculative

    When I read the book I had the feeling that Sagan was simply too ambitious, as if one day he decided that, damn it all, he was just going to put all his speculative ideas about the future down on paper… get that all out of his system. It would have been helpful if there had been a collaborating editor of the book who could have imposed some discipline on Sagan.

    >I was twelve at the time

    Did you see the movie first and then read the novel?

    >Do I get her relationship with Palmer Joss in the movie?

    In other books, Sagan wrote about the connection that he felt to his parents even after they were dead. A scientist like Ellie can be intrigued by the concept of an afterlife or the idea that our universe might have had a creator.....but she wants evidence. "Contact" (movie or book) shows a scientist in the awkward position of knowing a truth while not having objective evidence that can be shared with others. The love that Palmer has for Ellie allows him to have faith in her: he trusts her and does not need the objective evidence about her trip to the center of the galaxy. In the movie, that faith that he has in her is very important for Ellie.

    I've long imagined that the ending of the movie "Contact" was a set-up for a sequel in which, with the emotional support of Palmer, Ellie would struggle on against scientific skeptics and eventually obtain some objective scientific evidence (the message inside the number pi) for the idea that our universe was created.

    >the main reason why people tend to like one over the other

    In the movie, when asked about her belief in God (youtube PY8mvjYdsyk), Ellie says that she is not aware of evidence that can allow one to decide if God exists. To me, that sounds like an agnostic. Palmer then expresses his concern: he suspects that she must think that people who do believe in God are deluded and that really pisses her off (she gives him the compass). Later, when she is nervous about going into the Machine, Palmer arrives, gives her his support and the compass…which saves her life.

    Through the whole movie Ellie and Palmer are giving and sharing. Palmer gives her a gift by making the point that Ellie can love someone yet not be able to provide scientific proof of that love (youtube 7a1iKvttEAk). She can't deny that she comes to love Palmer, so she has to admit that there are some truths worth believing in even if you can't support them with objective evidence or rational reasons.

    Palmer does not want to live in a universe without God. Ellie does not want to live without love and she searches for … what? As a little girt she asked about making contact with her dead mother. As an adult, the aliens that she meets can see in her mind that she would love to be able to talk to her dead father.

    Ellie is looking for what is "out there" and her mind is open in ways that are not common for most people. I think that kind of courage to look for the truth is what was most important for Sagan.

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    Replies
    1. >>Actually, I'd settle for a T.V. series that would take us in search of "the message inside pi" and scientific proof that the universe was created.

      That would be amazing. I agree. I want this as well.

      >>Did you see the movie first and then read the novel?

      I saw the movie first. While I like to think myself to be rather smart when I was young, I don't think I would have actually been able to read that book before I was fourteen. :)

      >>I've long imagined that the ending of the movie "Contact" was a set-up for a sequel in which, with the emotional support of Palmer, Ellie would struggle on against scientific skeptics and eventually obtain some objective scientific evidence (the message inside the number pi) for the idea that our universe was created.

      Headcannon accepted!

      >>Ellie is looking for what is "out there" and her mind is open in ways that are not common for most people. I think that kind of courage to look for the truth is what was most important for Sagan.

      I agree ABSOLUTELY :)

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