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True To Earthly Life New Movie ‘Contact’ Hews Closely To Actual Efforts To Detect Alien Signals From Outer Space

John Noble Wilford New York Times

What is Elmer Fudd doing in a serious movie about astronomers and the search for extraterrestrial life? The answer is revealing of the attention to small details that gives the new movie “Contact” the texture of authenticity when it comes to science.

Perhaps only a handful of astronomers caught the in-joke, but it reassured them that the filmmakers had done their homework.

The premise of “Contact” is that a civilization somewhere deep in space is broadcasting a cryptic radio message. At the moment the message is intercepted here on Earth, the intense young astronomer Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, wants to be absolutely sure. “What do the FUDDs say?” she asks. That is the acronym for the follow-up detection device, a specialized receiver used by real-life astronomers searching for life in space to confirm a detected intelligent signal is in fact genuine.

After confirmation by a FUDD, Ellie kisses the computer screen. “Thank you, Elmer,” she says.

Astronomers who have seen the movie are impressed by how, on a scientific level, it is remarkably faithful to the spirit, strategy and techniques of the quest known by another acronym: SETI - search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

They give the film high marks for authenticity, at least in its first half. When it shifts to the frantic public and political reaction to the discovery and the launching of an intergalactic spaceship built to alien instructions, the movie becomes far more speculative.

But there really are SETI scientists like Ellie. They are passionate about their vision that life exists elsewhere in the universe and may well be sending out radio signals. Since 1960, they often have run up against the scoffing skepticism of other scientists. Compared with those looking for past microbes on Mars, they have had to beg and plead for telescope time and a little money to support their research.

After starting a more ambitious and systematic program in 1992, SETI came under attack by conservative congressmen, whose withering ridicule forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to withdraw its financial support.

Now the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., operates a reduced search program with money from foundations and private donors. In the movie, generous backing for the quest comes not from the government but from an enigmatic megabillionaire, S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), vaguely modeled after Howard Hughes.

The movie is also true to the romance of looking into the night sky and dreaming of other inhabited worlds. When Ellie stands in awe at the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, she speaks of the innumerable stars in the galaxy and the prospect that some of them also have planets with intelligent life.

No matter that astronomers quibble about some of the numbers she recites; one can hear echoes of the late Carl Sagan’s fervent book, lectures and television tours of the heavens. That is understandable, because the movie is based on a novel by Sagan, who advised the filmmakers up until a few weeks before his death last December.

“I think Carl would have been proud of the movie,” said Robert Zemeckis, director of “Contact.”

Another true note is the movie’s brief but careful explanation of the scientific rationale for such a quest. In this case, one is listening to Frank Drake. A longtime colleague of Sagan at Cornell University, Drake, now a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, pioneered SETI in 1960 and formulated equations that guide other searchers.

Perhaps the movie’s cleverest bit of verisimilitude, although many viewers may be troubled by the ethics of it, is an “appearance” by President Clinton. He never got within miles of the set, of course. But through filmmaking tricks like the ones Zemeckis used in “Forrest Gump,” Clinton’s face and a real sound bite are incorporated in a fictional cabinet meeting.

His words about the profound implications of such a discovery are actually those recorded when he learned last August of the news that scientists had found possible evidence of early microbial life in a meteorite from Mars.

Anyone familiar with SETI, however, will recognize a few serious lapses, which are the result not of ignorance so much as the exercise of cinematic license. The most apparent is the scene at the moment when the radio message from the Vega constellation is detected.

In the movie, this occurs at the Very Large Array, a network of 27 huge dish-shaped radio antennas in the desert near Socorro, N.M. It is a visually impressive place, with high-tech ears cocked to the heavens against a backdrop of mountains.

But SETI scientists never use these antennas. They perform miracles of observation, gathering radio waves from distant galaxies, but they are not suited to SETI’s purposes. For one thing, the search would require 27 specially designed receivers, and the program’s finances can barely afford one.

Another unrealistic aspect of this scene is having Ellie sitting out in the desert by one of the antennas, wearing earphones and holding a small computer in her lap. No way. She would be in the control room, and she would not be picking up a telltale signal with a headset.

A SETI receiver would be monitoring 28 million channels, processing signals through a computer and then displaying possible radio messages on a screen.

“You don’t listen on headphones,” said Seth Shostak, a staff scientist at the SETI Institute. “Your ear is not as good as the computer looking for very weak signals.”

Zemeckis said he knew astronomers could not actually hear such a radio wave.

“I had to take license here,” he said. “It’s only a romantic image.”

Such scientific lapses and liberties are rare in the movie.

“The number of errors I picked up you could count on the fingers of one hand,” Shostak said.

For confirmation, check it out with Elmer Fudd.

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