This review may spoil your enjoyment of the film.
The film is as much about the life and dream of a brilliant young woman, Ellie Arroway1, as it is about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Sagan's novel of the same name provided inspiration for this film, directed superbly by Robert Zemeckis2. Carl Sagan was already undergoing treatment for cancer when the film was being scriptwritten. He was able to assist as co-producer, but sadly died during the making of it, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
The opening sequence of the film is a view of the planet Earth from outer space. Modern-day music can be heard. The camera pulls away and the Earth receeds from view, the viewer passing the moon, then Mars, Jupiter and the outer planets of our solar system. All the while, small snatches of older music have been playing, e.g. 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini' (a hit from the fifties); until the last thing to be heard is Adolf Hitler's voice, making a speech at the opening of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. This gives a clue to later events in the film. As the viewer is taken further out, we eventually see the spiral arm of our galaxy.
Eleanor Arroway is nine years old and being raised by her widowed father3. Ellie's mother had died due to complications after Ellie's birth. Her father has not remarried and the bond between parent and child seems particularly close, especially with their shared love of astronomy. The pair are discussing Ellie's furthest-reaching chat on their SW radio, to Pensicola and her father helps her find it on the map. She asks her father if she could ever contact her mother on it, and he replies:
'I doubt there's a radio that can reach that far'.
The next scene shows Ellie shouting to her father to hurry up or he will miss a meteor shower; this is when he suffers a fatal heart attack.
Ellie blames herself for her father's death, as he had been on medication, and she remarks that she should have kept some of it in the downstairs bathroom.
At her father's funeral, a priest tries to comfort Ellie. She answers him in a way that suggests she disbelieves his words. The last time we see the young Ellie, she is at her bedroom window trying desperately to contact her father over her SW radio.
The film bypasses what must have been an extremely lonely adolescence and jumps to (the now Dr.) Ellie, a dedicated scientist, trying to justify her research into seeking out extra-terrestrial intelligent life to her peers. She manages to get a job at the Arecibo radio telescope facility with other researchers, who become her friends, most notably a blind man Dr. Kent Clark.
She meets a man with whom she has a brief affair, a writer named Palmer Joss4. When Ellie is pointing out star constellations to him, he utters the same answer to her question which her father gave, many years before.
'If there is no-one else up there, it would be an awful waste of space'.
Ellie decides not to continue the relationship after hearing that her funding for the research has been stopped and she has to leave.
Despite the plug having been pulled by her adversary Dr. David Drumlin5 Ellie manages to win funding for another four years after appealing directly to the mysterious Mr. Hadden6 of Hadden Industries.
Ellie loves nothing more than to 'listen' to the stars that she is focusing the radio telescopes on. When she first hears the signal, picked up by the VLA7, she knows that this is what she has been waiting for, and sets the wheels in motion for a bewildering, exciting, and life-changing event. Her team of co-workers manage to locate the source of the signal as coming from Vega, a star-system only 26 light-years away. As they are tracking down the signal, it stops, only to restart again a few seconds later. They realize that the signal is counting out prime numbers. This clarifies that the signal is coming from an intelligent source.
Ellie and her co-workers are in a dilemma, should they alert the media? If this were to prove a false alarm, her career would be ruined. They make the decision to pass on the information to their counterpart in Australia, so he may carry on tracking the signal, after Vega 'sets' from their vantage point. Ellie makes the decision to alert everyone, and this is where the F.B.I., in the shape of Michael Kitz8 comes in. He is in the process of explaining national security to Ellie and her team, when Dr. Clark announces that he can hear more information attached to the previous signal. This is put onto a tv monitor and the assembled onlookers are stunned to see and hear a broadcast of Adolf Hitler from 52 years previously.
The White House
Dr. Drumlin is called in to give a speech about the signal on national television, after a speech by the President of the United States9 much to Ellie's chagrin. Biting back her disappointment, she receives a call from her team who inform her that they have analyzed what they thought was noise, and it turned out to be data. At a special meeting in the White House, Ellie is talking to the assemblage about the data being some kind of blueprint for making a machine. This information sends the room into a frenzy of questions and theories. During this uproar, Palmer Joss, who is now the President's spiritual adviser, enters the room and speaks to Ellie. She is stunned to see him, and after the meeting, he invites her to the President's Ball. On her way into the Ball, Ellie passes a group of protesters and recognizes the same religious fanatic whom she saw in New Mexico.
The data proves very difficult to decipher. They cannot line up the pages, to make them match. The 'primer' is also missing. This would be the key to unlocking the alien language. Ellie returns home one night to find she has email, and the mysterious sender has pieces of the alien message. At first, Ellie is furious, as she thinks someone has hacked into the database. Then she receives a telephone call and a fax, showing her where to go for the key. Intrigued, she finds herself on board an aircraft, in the company of the mysterious Mr. Hadden. He tells her he has been interested in her career since she first came to his attention. He shows her how to align the pages of the text so that they meet in the middle, and the primer itself is within the message. Ellie takes this information back to the White House.
Ellie is proved correct, when the message is finally deciphered, that it is the blueprints for a machine, possibly a means for travelling to Vega.
A decision is made to go ahead with building the machine, at an estimated cost of billions of dollars. Once the machine is constructed, however, there is only room for one occupant. A shortlist is drawn up of representatives of each country who have helped towards the construction. Ellie and Drumlin are on the list, but Palmer is on the selection committee, and he does not want her to be the one to go, so he asks her if she believes in God. He already knows that, as a scientist, she needs proof before she can believe.
This places her in an awkward situation, as 95% of the planet's population believe in God, and she would be representing that planet. She declines to answer, and loses the vote to Drumlin.
Afterwards she tearfully tells Palmer that she told the truth, but Drumlin told him what he wanted to hear. In reply, Palmer tells Ellie that he didn't want her to be the one to go, as he doesn't want to lose her.
When the machine is built and they are making the last minute preparations, Ellie spots the religious fanatic she has previously noticed, dressed as a technician. She manages to warn Drumlin, who tackles him, but the man is armed with a bomb, in the struggle the bomb goes off and the machine is destroyed.
Ellie is devastated. She is so despondant she almost doesn't open her email, but there is a message from the mysterious Mr. Hadden. As she is being connected to him, she sees that he is on board the Mir spacecraft. He tells her that he is dying, and also that the Japanese have been building a duplicate machine, which now needs a pilot. Ellie is flown out and begins preparations to travel to Vega.
Ellie is fitted with a headset and recording equipment. From the countdown, she is transported in what appears to be a wormhole, past wonderous sights in the universe. Finally she finds herself looking at Vega. Ellie appears to be unconscious as she is slowly floating down to the ground. She lands on what appears to be a beach. Looking around, she recognizes the setting as her drawing of Pensicola, which she drew for her father when she was nine years old. She looks up and sees the universe, and reaches out to touch... a substance which is ethereal. From a distance, she can see a figure striding towards her. This person looks like her father, but she knows it cannot be him.
They converse about her life and the reason she came to be there. He tells her to go back and the next thing she knows, she is back inside the machine. The capsule which she occupied has dropped through the outer rings and into the sea. Ellie is rescued, but no-one believes that she actually went to Vega. Although no time has passed on Earth, she believes she was gone for approximately 18 hours. At the conclusive hearing, she is ridiculed by the scientists and the government figures, who believe the whole thing was a hoax set up by Hadden and she was the pawn. Distraught, she leaves with Palmer, who states that he believes her. Outside, there are thousands of people who obviously believe her and show their support. Ellie and Palmer drive off together.
The final moments of the film shows the White House attache 10 and the FBI man having a conversation. They note that over 18 hours worth of static was recorded by Ellie. This information has been suppressed from public knowledge for unknown reasons.
What made this film great was its difference from the usual science fiction tendency. The fact that Ellie's life and personality and beliefs were explored, along with her abiding desire to find out the truth as to whether or not we are the only intelligent life in existence was both surprising and refreshing. This film was not afraid to touch upon issues such as the existence of God, death and love. It made such sense, that with the overwhelming distance between us, another intelligent species would send us instructions on how to contact them. If we were unable to decipher the message, then we weren't ready to meet them. The film left questions unanswered, but there is no answer to the question 'Are we alone in the Universe' yet. It is up to the individual to make up their own mind as to whether Ellie really did make the journey or if it was an elaborate hoax. The irony of the film is that Ellie the scientist, who had always wanted proof before faith, ended up expecting others to have faith in her, with no evidence to back her up.
'Absence of proof is not proof of absence' - Eleanor Arroway.