• YEAR: 1997
  • DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
  • KEY ACTORS: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt
  • CERTIFICATE: PG
  • IMDB SCORE: 7.4
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%

Today’s guest post is written by Charlie X (they/he), a blogger I have only recently started reading and who shares the most incredible photos! Follow them on Twitter @CharlieXblog. They have chosen to look at Contact through a Freudian psychoanalytical lens and it is fascinating…

SEX SCORE: 2.5/5

✔️ Contact passes the Bechdel Test.

❌ But Charlie did not want to fuck the cast. (I probably would…)

❌ And we both agree that it didn’t inspire fantasies. It’s not really a movie about sex!

❓ Which is why it’s difficult to say whether it’s sex positive or not. There are no red flags but no are there positive attributes either…

✔️ But is is definitely rewatchable! If only because there are a lot of strands to pick at and lots to think about.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), BFI Player, YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster for Contact

A good film is like a knot puzzle, as Clive Barker says in The Books of Blood. Karney, protagonist of The Inhuman Condition, 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, or you’ve disassembled the whole thing. The knot which obsessed Karney was more fiendish and loosening one strand tightened others. The only approach, he found, was to methodically worry the whole knot until you could see daylight through the twine.

I find Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997) to be like the latter. Much is written about the film’s possible interpretations, and the links to Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014). The two are linked thematically and by personnel – not just Matthew McConaughey, but also producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne who provided the treatment for both films.

The strand that I’ve always felt compelled to tug at is the theme set up by the ending. 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 it, you’re going to wonder what on/off earth is happening. I always thought the obvious reading of this film should be through a psychoanalytical lens, and so, dear reader, that’s what you have to sit through now as I tug away.

Early in the film’s timeline we see young Ellie (played by Jena Malone) 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, marking on Ellie’s map the location of the people they speak to. Ellie is excited to talk to someone in Pensacola, 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.

Image from Contact of young Ellie with her father using a ham radio

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. Carefully pacing through the house she finds the prostrate corpse of her father, and her whole paradise is ripped away.

We never see Ellie’s mother, who died in childbirth. 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 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 not fully formed.

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”. 

Without a superego, Ellie is demonstrating two classic behaviours: she is driven by her basic desires; and not playing by the rules of society (or as we call it, the patriarchy.) It isn’t just the male, senior colleague who belittles her choices, it’s the majority of men. When Kent Clark (I know…) 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 say it – “to look for little green men”.

Soon we meet the male, senior colleague, Dr Drumlin (a very on-form Tom Skerritt). Ellie comes running up the street enthusiastically to meet him – one might say she looks childishly enthusiastic here – but she is dispatched with a callous, “ahhh, Ellie, still waiting for ET to call?” which she rejoinders with name calling. Later we see them arguing. 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!”.

Image from contact of Tom Skerritt

As a surrogate father figure, Drumlin cuts a markedly different figure from the flashbacks to Ellie’s childhood. Drumlin is cold and manipulative, and he consistently interrupts her, talks or shouts over her, or takes credit for her work. These interactions are not accidental. When Drumlin does this, the camera goes to Ellie for her reaction. 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 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. Joss’ presence in the film remains ambiguous throughout. He’s a priest slash investigative journalist, apparently with the ear of the president and his most senior advisors. In terms of the film his presence in those meetings is only perfunctorily explained, and I used ‘explained’ in the most generic sense, ie. to mean something that has merely been said out loud in the presence of others.

An image from Contact of Joss and Ellie

In narrative terms Joss could have been anyone with a deeply held religious conservatism, but 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 them as Joss uses the same unfunny quip that her father used about the likelihood of life on other planets – about it being a waste of space if we were the only ones in the universe.

Drumlin pulls the plug on Ellie’s funding, which leads her to team up with Kent Clark to find private funding for their work. This leads to another id-fuelled outburst at Hadden Industries HQ. The automatons she met turned her request for funding down because Ellie’s work had no practical (ie. money-making) application. But there’s a video camera trained on her and following a short call post-outburst, Ellie’s wish is granted.

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’s James Woods, who epitomises the American homeland security apparatus’ twin values of paranoia and incompetence quite perfectly.

Jumping forward, the Hitler TikTok has been decoded and found to have multiple layers. The team, nominally under Drumlin but run operationally by Ellie, have decoded thousands of pages of information but can’t work out how to piece them together. Ellie receives an invite to a mysterious rendezvous and here, the film takes its most confusing turn. Her anonymous benefactor is one S. R. Hadden, owner of Hadden Industries and a bit like Jeff Bezos but shorter and not evil, although he has prepared a Powerpoint slide deck showing Ellie how he’s been stalking her for most of her life.

Image from contact of Jose foster

Hadden is a bit of a hot mess, narratively. He tells her how key she is to his plans, but then shows 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. They ‘meet’ again later in the film when he’s aboard the Mir space station. 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 you know your ancient Assyrian and Babylonian history, but Esarhaddon was king of Assyria and Babylon from 681BCE to 669BCE. His conquest of Egypt made Esarhaddon the ruler of the largest empire on earth, and we learn that Hadden’s empire is similarly vast. From primary sources we know that Esarhaddon was known for his paranoia, a quality that Hadden demonstrates (excessive secrecy, for example). And when we see Hadden describing how the flat alien pages of information should be joined and read in three dimensions as a cube, we note the similarity to the black basalt monument to Esarhaddon in the British Museum. These allusions to Esarhaddon remain a slightly confused undertone for the whole film.

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. They build the device and you’d think that Ellie would be the front runner for travelling in it, but Drumlin and Joss combine to deny her the opportunity. Religious fundamentalists blow up the device, because reasons. I’m never 100% clear why they 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) but maybe it’s the ‘proof denies faith’ argument. We discover that Hadden has rebuilt the machine just as Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon. Fundamentally, he owns the machine and he chooses Ellie to travel this time. The film may ask questions about whether God exists, but there’s certainly one deus ex machina.

And so we come to The Ending.

Jodie Foster, dressed as an astronaut, walking into the machine

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. 

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. 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 downloaded her thoughts. 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? 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 and 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 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.

An image from contact of the team

It’s not my intention to resolve that argument, merely to highlight the confused psychosexual undercurrent in the film. 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. Consequently, she grows up and behaves in a manner that is consistent 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 a little green man 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 final contact with her father that she was denied. 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.

NEXT WEEK…

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.