"Some kind of celestial event. No... no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful... I had no idea."—Dr. Arroway
Contact is a movie based on astronomer Carl Sagan's novel of the same name, although in an odd case, Sagan wrote it first for the screen, then turned it into a book after it ended up in Development Hell. Unlike most Hollywood science fiction adaptations, this attempted to stay true to the original and get the science right. Sagan died before the film was finished, so we don't know what he would have thought of it.
Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a driven yet gifted scientist on the failing SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, who confounds her critics when a powerful signal is received from Vega, 26 light years away. The signal is encoded with technical instructions for building a Faster-Than-Light Travel device which can send a single ambassador to the stars. The film explores issues of science vs. faith, and whether the two are mutually exclusive.
- Alien Sky: The aliens create a beach based on the drawing Ellie drew as a child.
- Aliens Speaking English: Averted. The so-called 'Vegans' make contact with a signal based on mathematics. When the National Security Advisor asks why these Sufficiently Advanced Aliens don't just communicate in English, Arroway responds that 70% of Earth's population speak other languages. "Mathematics is the only true univeral language." Also the schematics for the FTL machine don't match up until it's realised they're three-dimensional.
- Alternate Character Interpretation: Even in-universe, nobody's sure what Hadden was really after, especially considering how close to death he was. Money? A charitable contribution to mankind's future? Manipulation for its own sake? Scientific discovery? All of the above?
- America Saves the Day: Lampshaded by showing some of the background politicking and controversy over the US dominating the construction of the Faster-Than-Light Travel machine. In an attempt to alleviate this an international committee is used to select Earth's ambassador, but it's mentioned that the Japanese (who are also contributing significantly to the half-trillion dollar project) are bought off from insisting on their own candidate by promising them a significant percentage of the technological spin-offs from First Contact. Presumably other behind-the-scenes deals were made to ensure an American candidate was sent.
- Analogy Backfire: When Kitz asks Ellie why does she think the aliens have to be benign Ellie answers that the human civilization poses no threat to them, and that it would be like us being hell-bent on obliterating some microbes on an anthill, to which Drumlin replies: "Interesting analogy. And how guilty would we feel after obliterating some microbes?"
- Which makes this film a reversal of the first Species.
- Arc Words: "If it was only us, that would be an awful waste of space."
- Armies Are Evil: National Security Advisor Michael Kitz comes closest to filling this role.
- The director stated he had fun with this character. In ET the Extraterrestrial he'd be a Card-Carrying Villain, in Independence Day he'd be a Reasonable Authority Figure. The point being that his viewpoint is necessary.
- Asshole Victim: Dr. Drumlin. In the novel, he died saving Ellie, causing greatly mixed feelings in her. He was still a jerk, but she remembers that she wished he was dead.
- Based on a True Story: The workings of SETI are realistically depicted, and the character Eleanor Arroway is loosely based on Real Life SETI director Jill Tarter. Of course, everything following the eponymous First Contact is, obviously, not based on a true story.
- Until we've calculated sufficiently down into pi, we won't know.
- Benevolent Precursors: The Vegans. They've been doing this for a long time. It's actually played straight twice, because even the Vegans don't know who built the transportation network they're using.
- Broken Aesop: After the laborious effort to establish total equivalence between faith in religion and faith in science - representing both as mere personal choice in the absence of any hard evidence - the film breaks that Aesop by definitively showing that Arroway, as opposed to the more religious characters across the aisle, actually has some evidence of her claims, and the evidence is being suppressed by the government officials involved.
Constantine: I assume you read the confidential findings report from the investigating committee.
Kitz: I flipped through it.
Constantine: I was especially interested in the section on Arroway's video unit. The one that recorded the static?
Constantine: The fact that it recorded static isn't what interests me.
Kitz: [pauses] Continue.
Constantine: What interests me is that it recorded approximately eighteen hours of it.
Kitz: [leans forward so he is looking directly in the camera] That is interesting, isn't it?
- The Chessmaster: Hadden takes a very thorough interest in his long-term investments.
- Close on Title: The title card and the rest of the opening credits immediately precede the closing ones.
- Cyanide Pill: Jodie Foster's character is given a suicide pill to use if anything goes wrong, such as being marooned or an incomprehensible Fate Worse Than Death. According to the film, every NASA astronaut and test pilot is given one of these, for emergencies where dying quickly would be a mercy. In his book Lost Moon, Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell mentioned that this had been a rumor for some time, and that it was not true—it would be much easier simply to open the main hatch and depressurize the spacecraft. Sagan insisted that they've "been giving these to the astronauts since the beginning of the space program, it’s never been made public, of course."
- Death Glare: Joseph at Elle.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Averted with Howard Hughes-expy S.R. Hadden, though even he implies he's not a saint.
- Evil Albino: Joseph
- Exact Words: Hadden tells Arroway that many people would like to see him depart this world, and says he'll grant them their wish soon enough. Next time we see him, he's staying in the MIR space station. Though he does actually die not too long after.
- Fiction 500: S.R. Hadden seems almost ridiculously wealthy: toward the end he reveals he bought up all the companies that got subcontractor deals for the FTL Machine, in order to build his own backup copy and choose who gets to go.
- He even builds a duplicate of ancient Babylon in upstate New York and arranges to have prostitution legalized so that he can run an adult theme park.
- First Contact: Although as the Vegan points out, Humanity contacted them. They are the ones replying.
- First Contact Math: The alien signal starts with prime numbers.
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: The Vegan takes the form of Arroway's dead father, and the meeting takes place on a Floridean beach. The vision ends with the meteor shower she and her father were supposed to see together.
- Hollywood Atheist: Ellie, ever since her father died and a priest comforts her by telling her its "God's will". He shakes his head, apparently upset that she won't accept it.
- Hollywood CB: The radio telescope Ellie builds.
- Hot Scientist: Dr. Eleanor Arroway.
- Humans Are Special: "You are an interesting species, that are capable of such wonderful dreams and such horrible nightmares".
- Invisible President: News footage of Bill Clinton was expertly spliced into the film, much to the annoyance of the White House. Averted in the novelization, in which the President is a woman, and implied to not be the first.
- Ironic Echo: Elle brings up Occam's Razor (All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one) to Palmer as an explanation of her skepticism. In the senate hearing at the end, Occam's Razor is brought up to Elle regarding the most likely explanation regarding her claims.
- Just Plane Wrong: Deliberately invoked. Mr. Hadden's private jet is intentionally weird (e.g., it has four engines at the tail).
- Jumped At the Call: Humanity eagerly jumps to the challenge of building the Machine, despite the cost mounting in the Trillions. Its even admitted during the first test, they still don't know what it'll actually do.
- Knight Templar: The blond-haired fundamentalist who blows up the first FTL device with a Suicide Attack.
- Mythology Gag: Sort of, Ellie speculates that the message could be the Tome One of an Encyclopedia Galactica, she also mentions the term Technological Adolescence both which are seen in Carl Sagan's series, Cosmos.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: There's a certain amount of alarm when the signal turns out to be a retransmitted television broadcast of Adolf Hitler giving a speech. Kitz even suggests it comes from Scary Dogmatic Aliens who find his views appealing. Cooler heads point out that aliens wouldn't understand the context of the transmission—the speech is Hitler opening the 1936 Olympics, which would have been the first strong TV signal sent into space. Sending it back is simply their way of showing the message was received. But that doesn't stop the Neo-Nazis from believing "Hitler lives".
- New Tech Is Not Cheap: A terrorist attack destroys the first device. There are plans, but building the device was so expensive for the entire world that the prospect of building a second one (especially since it would invite yet another attack) is summarily dismissed. It is then that a second, backup device is revealed to have been built in secret. It is explained with the Crowning Moment of Awesome line:
"First rule of government spending: why build one, when you can build two, at twice the price? Only, this one can be kept secret.
- Not So Different: as it is pointed several times below, one of Contact's themes is that religion and science are Not So Different after all. The film culminates in heroine describing her experience in very religiously sounding terms.
- Ellie Arroway spends the first quarter of the film demonstrating firm belief in the existence of Alien life, even at the detriment of her career, despite the fact there is no empirical proof, the exact thing she stated when she later admits that is the reason she doesn't believe in there being a God. Her later objections to the inclusion of a safety chair in the sphere is that that they should trust the Aliens would keep the traveler safe, which is an act of faith. Her impassioned speeches on scientific principles often approach a fervor one would expect from an evangelical preacher, while she repeatedly treats Occam's Razor as though it were dogma.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Vegans, arguably. "It's been done this way for millions of years." Although it's heavily implied, all throughout the film, that they know what they're doing and are benevolent.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: The Vegans. They aren't from Vega at all, as is pointed out that the system is far too young to have created life. Its just that one of the hubs for their Portal Network is located there, which is how they became aware of humanity's presence.
- One-Scene Wonder: S.R. Hadden has only 2 scenes and is only screen for about 10 minutes in total. None the less, his sheer presence makes him one of the most remembered characters.
- Place Beyond Time: The Machine loosely fits this trope.
- Playing Against Type: David Morse as a character who isn't a hardass or a villain, but a loving father?
- Precursors: Whichever alien race built the Portal Network. It wasn't the Vegans.
- Refused the Call: According to the Vegan who appears as Ellie's father, many, but not all races they contact choose to respond.
- Retired Monster: Possibly. Hadden has made enemies of a lot of people, industries, companies, and governments. One of the possible reasons why he is helping out with the Machine is to give something back to a world he has taken a lot from.
- Rule of Cool: The opening sequence shows a pull-back from Earth where we hear 10-year-old music before we've even left the solar system, completely missing the real propagation times for the radio signals, but it doesn't matter because it gets the message across so powerfully.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money: Hadden thinks that rules and laws don't exactly apply to him... turns out he's right, but that's only because he owns half the damn planet.
- Stealth Pun: Buried in the Arc Words: "If it was only us, that would be an awful waste of space."
- Sufficiently Advanced Alien: This is the central conflict of the film. The main character is an atheist and believes in rational explanations for everything, but at the end her journey to the center of the galaxy is revealed to be in every respect a religious experience, where the alien beings are God.
- Surveillance Station Slacker: Basically Jodie Foster plays a protagonist version of this. See also her two colleagues at SETI.
- They Should Have Sent a Poet (former Trope Namer): As well as the awe-inspiring sequence that contains the page quote—a staggering symphony of visual effects and music built around Jodie Foster's note-perfect performance—the movie opens with a amazingpullback that, starting from Earth orbit, proceeds to give you the faintest hint of just how INCREDIBLY HUGE the universe is, complete with a kind of audio time-travel, backwards through the history of broadcasting as the signal travels away from Earth at the speed of light.
- We Come in Peace, Shoot to Kill: It's suggested by Kitz that the machine might be a Trojan Horse doomsday device, meant to eliminate any potential rival civilization.
- Western Terrorist: Joseph.
- What Year Is This?:
Ellie Arroway: What day is this?
Mission Control: I'm sorry, did you say "what day"?
Ellie Arroway: How long was I gone?
Mission Control: You didn't go anywhere.
- When Things Spin, Science Happens: The Machine is a giant gyroscope that generates a wormhole by spinning its rings at tremendous speed. The last ring is brought to speed via rocket propulsion.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: Dr. Arroway's trip through the Portal Network, conversation with an alien, and return home seemingly took about 18 hours. But as it took less than a second as time is reckoned here on Earth, quite a few people ended up strongly doubting that she actually traveled anywhere at all, since no one on Earth saw Arroway's pod disappear and her recording equipment displayed only static. This suggests that what Arroway experienced was All Just a Dream, but unknown to her and the general public it turns out that the camera recorded a full eighteen hours of static.
- You Imagined It: Or Ellie's led to believe.