Saturday, November 14, 2009

Contact Apologetics: An Open Letter to Whom it May Concern

To mark the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday, the big man was remembered publicly by those many people who worked with him and knew him best. I especially appreciate the personal remembrances as I have been a great fan of Dr. Sagan’s since first seeing Cosmos in 1980.

But I am less appreciative of, and far more resentful and confused by the glowing references I heard regarding the movie Contact.

So I’d like to ask a few questions… 

Is there a cut of this film of which I am unaware?

I’m no slouch when it comes to movies. I love the smart ones. I even love some of the dumb ones. I am aware that film crews typically shoot more scenes than appear in the final release. And owing to the flexibility of the market, director/writer/extended version cuts are often available with the original artistic vision restored. This is especially true of films with a richness of content that exceed the imaginative limitations of a studio.

I’ve seen Contact a few dozen times now and I honestly don’t know what warrants such universal praise among Sagan devotees. Were we in different theaters, on different planets? Are they blind? Am I? 

It's been some time now and I have yet to see a re-edit, re-release, special edition, tenth anniversary, redeaux... something that would indicate this movie was anything but a lowest-bidder contract job. There are no deleted scenes, no penetrating commentary, and absolutely no one talks about it some ten years later. It is completely forgettable. No one bothers to deconstruct its hidden meaning, its symbolism, its camera-work, because there is nothing to deconstruct. No one cares because there is nothing to care about.

What Contact lacked in content it made up for in superficiality.

Are there other people out there in the universe down here on Earth? 

I was under the distinct impression from episode 13 of Cosmos that ‘We are one planet.' But the radio broadcasts in the opening scene of Contact are from almost exclusively American sources.

Well, are we one planet or not?

Forget for a moment that the scale and position of astronomical objects in the opening scene is all wrong. Never mind the radio/TV signals themselves regress in time too fast compared to the passing astronomical objects. Forget all that. I know America is the greatest nation in the country, but is it also the only country in the world? Is the message actually a person to person call intended just for the American movie going audience? Or, do other people and cultures get to exist? Perhaps are other languages featured in the opening for the foreign film market?

Of course not.

For pity sake, the rushing radio broadcasts in 'Who Speaks for Earth' were multi-ethnic. You'd think Contact could at least get this one thing right. After all, it had already been done by the same author.

There is a sickening ethnocentrism in this film. The ‘in defense of science accuracy in film’ front might spot the logistical errors, but I've never once heard anyone identify the real problem.

The very first scene ignores Sagan's philosophy of global inclusiveness. They get it wrong from the very first shot.

Are people inspired by this ‘heroine of science?’ Is Ellie Arroway an ideal inspirational figure for rational people everywhere? And… is she a beacon of hope that will steer the youth of our nation toward a career in the sciences?

I sure as hell don’t see how.

This movie teaches potential scientists and skeptics one thing, and one thing only…

If you’re curious about the physical world, if you dare to challenge conventional wisdom, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to make the most profound discovery in human history… you will be thrown to the wolves. And no one, not even the beings who reached out to you will back you up. You’ll end up a paria and a laughing stock to everyone but the most credulous.

It is not poignant to be trampled upon, ignored, marginalized, and made the object of ridicule. It’s just sad. The winner of this conflict between science and irrational vested interests is clearly religion and political opportunism. It pisses me off that Arroway is made a redemptionless martyr in the film because she clearly has the tools to make a difference in the book.

But what does that matter when not even Arroway herself has the courage of her convictions. She's spineless in the face of political opposition, and she's embarrassed by her atheism. As a result she's easily crushed by the inquisition. She's left a slobbering cry baby whose only recourse is to make tearful appeals of personal revelation.

Who wrote this? Where's the thousand yard stare? Where's the Sagan I knew in Cosmos?

And what’s with the shitty dialog?

 I’m just spit balling here, but let me give it a shot…

Joss: Do you believe in god, Doctor Arroway?

Ellie: Why? Do I look like an idiot?

Joss: I beg your par...?

Ellie: No, I most certainly do not believe in god. And before you ask I don’t believe in Santa Claus or the magical pink unicorn either. I'm a scientist, not a witchdoctor. 

Pause. Blank stare.

Fat Old Brit: Doctor Arroway, ninety-five percent of the world’s population believe in a supreme being of some kind.

Ellie: Are you suggesting that these important matters be decided by a poll in People Magazine?

Shock and dismay, followed by…

Ellie: OK… As a professional scientist I must be agnostic on this point because such a thing can never be absolutely proved or disproved. But as a free thinking woman with a heart and a brain and a mind of her own I can tell you that I am a scarlet capital letter ‘A’-theist… Why? Because magic is for children. Because blasphemy is good for the soul. Because I think automatic deference to nonsensical beliefs is ridiculous. And mostly, mostly, because I find the idea of compulsory love upon the threat of death repulsive…
…Does that answer your question, Reverend?

Now honestly... was that so hard?

Who did Zemeckis have to frak to get this gig?

The director of this butchery, Robert Zemeckis, is a whore to special effects. To him every other consideration is secondary. He had absolutely no business getting near this material. Case in point: The mirror trick. Ooo, fancy. And pointless. It in no way contributes to, or advances the story. It's a gimmick. (I swear if you look close enough into the beveled edge of the mirrored glass as it passes, you can see RZ yanking himself off.)

And how did Tom Skerritt, an otherwise fine actor, get away with emphasizing the title of the movie… in the movie? It's the cheapest trick in the book and no director worth his salt would have allowed it.

Is it possible no decent director wanted this job because Sagan insisted on being so close to it? I mean as good as he was, sometimes the last thing a movie needs is a doting over-protective parent. Maybe, but probably not. This movie needed a Kubrick, or a Gilliam, or perhaps the film's original director, George "Mad Max" Miller; not a faux-Spielberg hack.

Who loves you, baby?

I love Carl Sagan. I love my cat. But Sagan was not so great that he could do no wrong, and my cat often barfs on my bedspread. Praise of Contact by the scientific/skeptical community is misplaced adoration of Sagan himself, and is dishonest.

I have to admit I felt it, too. I wanted to like Contact, badly. And not simply because it's all I'm likely to get. My own treatment of the material will probably never see an audience because I have such a big mouth with regards to my criticism of the first. I wanted to like it because Sagan himself supervised the project. I thought... Carl won't let me down. He never has before. And with Foster in the lead, how could it go wrong? Even now I can almost force myself to find some glimmer of meaning, of hope, of...

Nah... Where's the Spray 'n' Wash?

What would Jesus do?

Who cares?

Sagan was too polite to the religitards. This was apparent in the novel and was translated into the most extreme deference to irrational stupidity in the film.

I myself don’t make a distinction between the radical right and their moderate base. They are mutually supportive. I think inflammatory language and devastating satirical attack are very effective communicative tools. If the fundies berate and name call, then why can’t we? Why can’t we use our gift of rhetoric to expose their absurdities with humor and withering, blinding, paralyzing sarcasm?

Hitler used tanks. The allies used tanks. Tanks are not the issue. The issue is the issue. Modernity or barbarism? Take your pick. I know who’s side Sagan was on, but I mean… who’s side was he on!? Get in the game, man!

I know that isn’t fair. Sagan was kind, and kindness is it’s own reward. Kindness really does pay. Delivering food, water and medicine to earthquake victims in Pakistan is a great way to win hearts and perhaps prevent someone from going all jihady in the future. But kindness won't help you when you're staring down a 757 about to slam into your cubicle.

People who are nuts now, are nuts now, and no amount of nicety is going to reach them as well as a good ol' fashioned cutting remark about their stupid, violent, bronze-age desert god. Billions and billions of stars can't touch the visceral reaction of humor or the courageous nature of blasphemy, or the nonnegotiable quality of heresy. Everyone needs a little 'fuck you[r god]' in a relationship. (In the 'Panel Discussion' video below, time index ~45:00, it's too bad that Richard Dawkins wasn't permitted to finish his thought. I would like to have heard what he had to say.)

But in this film Sagan tried to reach with kindness people who can only be reached by insult. The radical elements of religion don’t give a damn about this Earth or the people on it. They want us to either convert to radical whatever… or fucking die. They are people to be fought, forcibly educated, and scorned. They are enemies of democracy, of the First Amendment, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, science, modernity, the future, and on and on and on... 

Who cares?

I do.

People ask me why I care so much about this. And it’s usually in a tone of voice as if to say, ‘Who gives a shit,?' followed by 'Why are you wasting your time on this,?' followed by a quick glance at their watch and a desperate search for the nearest exit.

Well, I care because Contact so clearly doesn’t. Movies ARE vehicles by which science and reason can be made exciting and engaging, but only if the movies are exciting and engaging. The mere fact that Sagan wrote it, and Foster starred in it, and Zemeckis directed it, and Druyan supervised it, and the geekoid elite worship it, is not enough to earn my respect... for what it's worth.

I may be acerbic, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. This film is bad. This film isn’t important, because it doesn’t make itself important. Science is important because it is an exploratory endeavor which enormously improves human life. Film is important because it reaches people. Put the two together. Viola! Someone put peanut butter on my chocolate!

This film could have stood next to 2001 (especially 2001), Solaris, The Andromeda Strain, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner... really important hand-made classics that enrich the human condition and advance our culture. It could have been a film that endures and grows in importance over time. Instead, it's an 'instant classic,' sort of like instant oatmeal; moderately filling, but totally unsatisfying.

You won’t catch me apologizing for this tripe.

Where’s the drama?

If Sagan was going for a Hypatia-like heroine, he should have gone for broke and found a way to kill her off, like I am. If he wanted to create family tension, better known as drama, he should have left the mother and step-father in, like I am. If he wanted to end the film with an ending, he should have written... oh, I don't know... an ending, like I am.

But Ellie can neither die or fade away into 'healthy grant' oblivion because she still has work to do. She has to find a way to redeem both herself, and the planet. The book aliens give her that. The movie aliens hang her out to dry.

Where's the payoff? Where’s the redemption? So what if Joss and the blue-rinse brigade believe her? Big deal. In science, mere belief isn’t what counts, and in movies something actually has to happen.

But there’s no ending, no clincher, no drama, just… see ya, roll credits. 

Where’s the science?

Remember that ‘gotcha’ moment when Joss asks Ellie to prove scientifically she loved her father, and Ellie just sits there staring back at him like a dumb little shit? Yeah, I don’t get that. What kind of rationalist can't cut through that? Is this really what counts as an argument stopper in an alleged socially conscious science movie?

Who we love is a matter of opinion. Heliocentrism is not. Simple. Anticipating a counter argument is the writers job. For a polemicist like Sagan this should have been a slam dunk. But he blew it. Why?

It is NOT the most important thing for each of us to search for our own answers to the big questions about the physical world. All answers to such things are not equally valid. By glossing over what is an obvious kick in Joss's balls, Sagan panders to the gullible.

And another thing, there is no such thing as 'technology rights' when the technology is falling from the sky. The opening scene is logistically and ethnocentrically wrong. The first contact scenario is outdated in light of singularity theory. Instead of a cool space-based retirement home for Hadden, we get a rusty tin can; Mir. Instead of a faster than light journey through the galaxy, we get bounced around in a washing-machine spin-cycle.

...And what the hell's going on with her face?

You'd think a movie about big science might include a few big science ideas. Where's the cool stuff the aliens share about slowing down the expansion of the local universe. Where's the bit about the message embedded in Pi that would give the film a proper ending and a reason for being and reveal a larger mystery that really challenges our way of thinking and creates drama? Where are the geological and stellar-evolutionary timescales, the astro-engineering, the cosmic perspectives? Where's Hadden's great escape? And why don't the aliens tell us anything that we don't already know? Because in this hack job they're not aliens, they're gods. And gods never tell you anything that you couldn't have figured out all by yourself.

'When we're alone, we get lonely.' Really? That's what a billion years of evolved intelligence taught you?

And why is Ellie left, like so many alien abductees, with nothing but a fanciful story? Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Not in this movie they don't. We get the claims all right, but no evidence to back them up besides eighteen hours of static that get buried in bureaucracy. Static begets static. Ellie isn't Hypatia, she's Betty Hill.

Sagan has turned his wonderful story about real contact with extra-earthly beings into an elaborate alien abduction hoax. Cover-up, suppression, conspiracy theory... Class, we can do better than this.

Where’s the rest?

That’s exactly what I thought the first time I left the theater, and I still think it. Were so many of the more interesting concepts in the book so cerebral as to be unfilmable? I don't think so. But maybe Sagan did. I think he actually tried very hard to pick an aspect of the book that would be most accessible and deliver the greatest punch. He just picked the wrong one.

'Do science and faith share common ground?'



For Carl, or for us?

In my view Carl Sagan’s best legacy is honesty; scientific, historical, even religious and political honesty. I gather he had a tremendous ego but I doubt he ever considered himself above criticism. Sagan is the last person for whom I wish to express feelings of anger and disappointment. But this movie appeals to our worst instincts of baseless belief and suppression of ideas. In the end Ellie is not ennobled, but defeated.

I hate this movie and am astounded by self-styled film critics, none of whom seem able to grasp that a good movie has to contain genuine human emotion and an actual plot, who applaud Contact as an example of scientific realism... as if that were the only measure of success.

So Sagan only wrote one novel before he left us. Sorry, but that’s all we get. That novel was made into only one movie, so far. And that too, is all we get. Is that sufficient reason to coddle it and pretend it is what it isn’t? I feel the very people who ought to know better are here suspending too much disbelief. Carl Sagan gave us so much. What do we owe him in return?

How about a little honesty?

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