"For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for some reason why we're here -- what are we doing here, who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer, I think it's worth a human life, don't you?" -Ellie Arroway
Humankind has for centuries gazed at the night skies and wondered exactly what is out there. Science has attempted to keep pace with man's yearning for knowledge gleaned from exploration; indeed, this summer brings the landing of the Mars Pathfinder lander and Sojourner micro-rover, which will maneuver through Ares Vallis (a gigantic canyon on the planet surface) and beam some of the first images from a mobile vehicle of Mars' surface back to Earth. The Galileo spacecraft also continues to circle Jupiter and its moons -- new worlds in their own right. Always the question of extraterrestrial life motivates the exploration of our planetary neighbors. Despite the technological advances of the recent decades, however, our curiosity always seems to outreach our physical capabilities. When Contact, the book by the late Carl Sagan, became a bestseller following its publication in 1985, the world was presented with a startling view of what contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial culture might be like. The renowned humanist and scientist created a story based in scientific possibility about the human race's first experience with intelligent life from another planet -- a story that focused on the possibility that somewhere in a distant universe there may be intelligent life yearning to make contact with us. Recalls Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, "Carl's and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would actually be like, that would convey something of the true grandeur of the universe. But it would also have the tension inherent between religion and science, which was an area of philosophical and intellectual interest that both of us were riveted by." Sagan believed that while the exciting possibilities opened up by space travel and actual communication with beings beyond our galaxy were fascinating, the most intriguing issues lie closer to home. How would the human experience be affected by such knowledge -- that we, in fact, are not alone in the universe? When the author himself was questioned whether he believed in the existence of highly evolved life elsewhere in the universe, he replied, "The key word in that question is 'believe.' And in my view, you believe only on the basis of compelling evidence. But I think it would be fantastic, not just a major scientific discovery, but a transforming experience in human history." Sagan's saga was vast in scope, covering multiple characters in different countries and beyond, to the planets at the edges of the universe. Although based in science, the epic story itself champions the ultimate merits of mankind's natural curiosity and potential for goodness and the value of the human soul. Sagan created a humanist's view of a scientist's dream. Interest in realizing Sagan's vision on the motion-picture screen was immediate, but it was not until 1995 that the match between scientific and cinematic visionaries would result in alchemy. Ann Druyan comments, "It was a long and winding road, which all seemed to make its way into the best of all possible worlds when, two years ago, Robert Zemeckis became involved. Out of all the people who have thought about making this movie, no one has understood it as deeply as Bob does -- that this movie is a personal story as much as it is a story about the great universe and our little place within it." Robert Zemeckis had definite ideas about the import of Sagan's work from the beginning. He comments, "'Contact' is about human nature in response to 'the message.' It's not about aliens, it's about us and what happens to us when the very foundation of what we believe about our existence is shaken. I've always believed one of the reasons for supporting space explorations is what we learn about ourselves, as much as what we may find out there. 'Contact' goes to the heart of that issue." The director/producer knew something about telling personal stories amidst the sweep of history. His spectacular motion picture career had also shown him to be a filmmaker expert at handling the demands of blending dazzling on-screen special effects with quiet and tender moments of human drama. But even to Zemeckis, the task of transforming Sagan's story into film was initially daunting. "If you read the novel," says Zemeckis, "it spans years and countries, vast distances with hundreds of characters. The biggest challenge to me was to condense all of that into a clear and compelling story." Zemeckis worked with Sagan on striking the balance between human interest and science. Even though the filmmaker and scientist did not always see eye to eye, the mix proved effective -- just the right chemical equilibrium. Zemeckis recalls, "I had a great relationship with Carl through the whole project. When we started collaborating on the screenplay, he was protecting the science, making sure that it was all feasible, and I was protecting the drama, making sure that the story moved along without getting too technical. I would try to make the science as interesting as possible and he would try to simplify it as much as possible to accommodate the dramatic story. At one point, we actually debated for two hours on a line that two characters repeat. It ended up staying in the script." Producer Steve Starkey comments, "Carl had a passion for science and thought it very similar to our passion for filmmaking and storytelling. Although he sometimes went down different paths of theory and ideas to tell a story, his passion was exactly the same. That's what we wanted to bring to the core of our movie." The goal for Sagan and Zemeckis was to maintain the vastness and power of Sagan's vision while concentrating on a core of characters who represent the differing viewpoints on the significance of the extraterrestrial message received by Dr. Ellie Arroway. So the casting of Arroway and the ensemble of the supporters, antagonists and observers around her became paramount to the filmmakers. ©1997 Warner Bros.
U.S. Air Force Installation