Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) raises several questions about creation. Instead of the universe’s inception, the movie focuses on the beginning of extraterrestrial life and first contact. Ellie Arroway, the protagonist, constructs a device to meet aliens. When she finally sees them, the alien answers a few of her questions, only hinting at the evolutionary process that brought them to this point. The alien, upon closer thought, doesn’t even know how he got to the meeting area in the first place.
Interestingly, the aliens’ transport system exists in a mythic time (as many creation myths do) – it has no record, history, or scientific explanation. Getting in contact with the aliens in and of itself is a mythic experience that we as the audience undergo. Though Contact explores the tension between science and religion, it acknowledges that empirical knowledge has limitations. Even at the end of her journey, Ellie cannot find any answers as to why aliens contacted humans in the first place. The introduction of sentient, advanced extraterrestrial life wholly reframes creation. Is there a (biblically speaking) Adam and Eve without human supremacy? Moreover, does the same creation myth apply to extraterrestrial life; does God address the existence of aliens if their creation remains undiscussed in the Old Testament?
Immortality is another prevalent myth in Contact. Though typically associated with gods rather than humans, Ellie’s father exists between immortality and mortality. When in contact with the aliens, she meets an alien that resembles her father after years of searching the stars for him. Though the alien admits that it is not her father, Ellie undergoes years of (a sort of) penitent prayer, begging the universe to bring her father back to her. Whether or not he exists is less relevant than the transformative effect of faith, as Ellie’s religious persistence leads her to meet the aliens and resurrect her father. Just as Jesus awarded his followers with justification (and his resurrection) for their belief in him, the aliens granted Ellie her father for her relentless search.
However, perhaps the alien’s ability to shift into Ellie’s father’s appearance is a testament to its godliness. The alien who speaks to Ellie seems physically remote on the extraterrestrial planet, while simultaneously emotionally remote in its refusal to answer her slew of questions. Thus, it presents as a monotheistic God. Their exchange is almost a theophany, with little dialogue. The alien rarely speaks to Ellie about the universe, the capsule machine, and her father, except for a short monologue:
You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost. So cut off. So alone. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable….is each other.
The alien wants to present some universal (but ambiguous) truth to Ellie, hence its lack of detailed discussion. It presents as a theophany with a message: you can cure emptiness with companionship. Myths are morals when distilled into their simplest forms. Religion provides an ethical code for followers to obey. In its manifestation, the alien functions as God to Ellie, the scientific atheist, providing a lesson for humanity. I think this analysis blurs the line between theological and mythological criticism. If the alien is a monotheistic God, is Ellie’s experience theological or mythological?
Ellie has a religious experience. Theologians and Christian fanatics battle Ellie over establishing contact with aliens. Religion in Contact is Christianity. Removed from the idea that spiritual awakening can only occur in a church when Ellie meets her alien father, her experience manifests similarly to a theophany: an all-knowing, ambiguous figure presents itself to distill truth upon a mortal human. It is singular, intimate, sacred, and (in the film) understood in a spiritual context, as opposed to a directly biblical one. Hence, the fact that Palmer Joss, a renowned Christian philosopher played by Matthew McConaughey, believes Ellie without judgment is significant. In canon, it implies that regardless of his leanings, he can acknowledge the religious significance of her experience. Therefore, established religion (represented by Palmer) upholds Ellie’s sacred moment of contact.