Saturday, August 25, 2012

Seek the Original: Contact

94% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

I watched the entire series of Cosmos, by Carl "billions and billions" Sagan over the last couple of months. The original science documentary. Amazing how every documentary after it pretty much just covers the same material Sagan talked about, just with more animation and less history. Sagan talking for 13 hours, and much of it is still accurate today. Basically college lectures on history, science, cosmology, astronomy and theory. I enjoyed the series.

So naturally I wanted to check out


Contact
by Carl Sagan


Ellie Arroway grows up into a scientist. From the very beginning she doesn't get religion. In fact, early in the book, she is quick to point out various inconsistencies in the Bible, and is subsequently told to shut up. She doesn't go back to Bible Study. Instead she focuses on her education and wants to become a scientist. She does, specializing in radio astronomy. While working at SETI, she and her team discover a transmission from an alien race.

It's as if Carl Sagan wrote a nonfiction book about a fictional person's life and the receipt of a transmission from an alien culture. Imagine a Cosmos episode wherein he explains the precise sequence of events for an hour with no visual aids apart from close-ups of diagrams and his disarming countenance. Once in a while he adds a human detail, an insight of perception, but that's as human as the people get. Parts one and two read like this. Lots of explanation, but no visual cues, no descriptions of anything happening. It doesn't flow like a story, but a series of long explanations. A nonfiction book about a fictional event. Makes Contact very tricky to read.

Word gets out that there's a message from aliens, and everyone else starts getting involved. Everybody has different agendas. The scientists want to explore this discovery without restriction because of the implications it has on mankind. The religious communities denounce this as the work of the Devil, or even a message from God, of which unbelievers like scientists should not have the right to be keepers. Politicians see this as a potential threat to security, and want to suppress it so the USSR can't exploit its contents against the United States. The Soviets have similar qualms against the USA. Everybody is suspicious of one another, but eventually they cooperate on recording and analyzing the Message.

The Message from the star Vega turns out to be instructions to build a Machine. Nobody is sure what the Machine will do, but it's deduced to take a group of five people somewhere. Perhaps to meet the messengers. But first, they have to figure out who is going to build the Machine.

Nations disagree on who should share the cost, nations jostle each other for position, making sure no one nation has more information than the other which can be used as leverage against the United States, or the Soviet Union, or Japan, or anyone else.

In the end, the Japanese Machine is the only one fit to work, after sabotage on the US side and construction failure on the Soviet side. (Those Soviets. Just can't build anything without... problems.) Five crewmembers, all scientists, including Ellie, are sent on a voyage to the stars. They meet the messengers. Or at least their descendants.

Part three is their voyage through the Machine to the center of the galaxy. They meet the aliens...kinda. Ellie meets a vision of her deceased father, standing in for the alien. The aliens answer a few questions, and then send the team back with no evidence. Part three is the best because the voyage through the galaxy is the most visual part of the trip, but even then it's not very vivid or engaging. The end leaves me bewildered and lost. It seemed they found something profound, got some answers, more questions, and then what?

Well, the aliens imply that there are violent species all over the universe, and their destiny is always self-destruction. Species with short-term perspectives do not live long, and the aliens never interfere. But the ones with promise avoid that fate. Those who can think to the future and act for the sake of the future instead of their own self-interests will survive to join something bigger. They leave the crewmembers with a sense that it is important to look for "God" in the science, and this will unify the world before we destroy ourselves.

Sagan was apparently very worried about that, and of course he would be, living his entire life through the Cold War, the Earth always seemingly on the brink of nuclear annihilation. He mentioned it extensively in Cosmos, and now here it is again. International cooperation and commitment to science and learning is vital to the survival of the species. The quest for knowledge should be a goal unto itself, not just for commercial purposes--it should be the force that unites the human race, not the arms race and trying to destroy each other.

It's a good message to convey and it's a good story to tell, but Contact isn't much of a story and I didn't care for the way it was told.

The book is very much a Cold War story of the value of cooperation over petty bickering. There's a lot of petty bickering in this book, but it's explained in scientific terms and doesn't flow in the sense of a story. Nothing does. There's nothing visual anywhere, and the characters aren't really there so much as explained to be there.

I enjoyed the religion verses science debates though. Ellie's way of debunking the Bible at a relatively young age is intriguing, and her debate with charismatic preacher Palmer Joss is thought-provoking. And unlike certain other books, there is actual debate. The creationists can argue their point. It's balanced, and it is a realistic discussion the two sides may actually have.

It is also realistic to portray that many people on the outside, who have no knowledge of the science and what's really going on, will look at the Message from the stars and find various ways to misinterpret it.

But this debate is not central to the story. The politics of international bickering are not central to the story either. Ellie's personal development is not central to the story.

Imagine a half dozen moons sitting idly in empty space. Each of these factual discussions is like one of those moons, just sitting there, not moving, you can see they're there, and they stand very well on their own, but that's all they do.

We may visit the center of the galaxy in the story, but the story itself doesn't have a center point. Nothing that sits in the middle of that system of moons and pulls them into exciting orbits. There's a lot of explanation, lots of talking about history and science and religion, but it's all just there, unconnected.

And here's an author's worst nightmare: the main story takes place in the 1980's and continues just past the year 2000. In that time, the Soviet Union still exists. It's not a good sign when your futuristic book is outdated just five years after it's published.

It's not a bad book, definitely not, but it's clear Sagan wasn't used to fiction. The characters are uncharacterized, the scenery is invisible much of the time, there is no action, nothing actually happens, but everything sure is explained to have happened. For all of these explanations, the book never really makes a point.


Compare that to...



Contact (1997)
starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey


As with many adaptations, the story is stripped to the bare bones and then retold. But in this case, it's a huge improvement.

In his book, Carl Sagan took the bare bones of a story, hung scientific explanation on them and published it as fiction.

In the movie, the filmmakers took the bare bones of Sagan's story and hung human flesh on them. They took everything that was insufficient about the book and corrected it, focusing the story around a central point.

Sagan's book didn't focus on something as a central idea, but the movie does, and now the entire story has something to orbit. The science and action and religious debate now support a single idea, which is just what the story needed.

Ellie's atheism (agnosticism?) is now deeply rooted in her past. The death of her father is a much stronger element of her personality, and it's because of her father's death she was turned away from faith.

In the book David Drumlin is rather passively introduced as the doubting Thomas wanting to shut down SETI for financial reasons. In the movie, he's the two-faced, passive-aggressive jerk who at first wants to shut down SETI, and then nudges in to take credit for the discovery of the Message.

Michael Kitz remains the asshole politician, but much stronger than in the book.

Finally, the religion verses science debate is now the singularity around which the entire story orbits!

Just about everything is different from the book. It would have to be. Sagan's novel is mainly about the importance of international cooperation during the Cold War. (In other words, please don't destroy yourselves!) Well the Cold War is over. Fears over nuclear war aren't very relevant anymore. But the religion v/s science debate is still universal.

The movie saves the major plot points from the book and essentially builds up a new story around them: Ellie Arroway is a science girl, while working at SETI she hears a message from an alien species, the message turns out to be instructions to construct a giant machine to travel and meet the messengers.

But now instead of nations bickering with one another, the movie focuses on people who don't understand what's going on completely misinterpreting the facts.

When word of the Message from the stars gets around, people find ways to misunderstand it, and spread that misunderstanding to others in order to make themselves look more important. For example, when the aliens send back the first TV transmission they receive from us, and it's the Olympic broadcast from 1936 featuring Adolf Hitler at the opening ceremonies, the first thing the politicians think is the aliens must be hostile, genocidal maniacs since they sent that back to us.

They don't understand that the TV broadcast was the first transmission powerful enough to leave the Earth's atmosphere and travel across the stars, so it would have been the first signal the aliens received. There's no evidence they understood who that man was, or what he would later do; they just sent the broadcast back to let us know they received our transmission.

People twist the Message around. They accuse scientists of attacking faith. Bash scientists for talking to God when it should be the people of faith who have that privilege. It's completely ridiculous, but at the same time it rings true. It's easy to imagine commentators on CNN saying ridiculous stuff like this. We know the Message has nothing to do with faith, but the ignorant find ways to misinterpret it.

This happens all throughout the movie, and it makes the film frustratingly realistic. It took me years to figure out why Contact is so frustrating, but I think I have. It’s because we see what’s really going on. We know what this really means. We know the facts. But ignorant people stick their noses where they don't belong. We know what the correct interpretation of the evidence is. Everyone else doesn't. They get it all wrong, and yet they're allowed to speak in public and influence people. It's irritating, but oh God it's exactly what would happen in reality.

The character of David Drumlin is especially hatable because he's a total phony. Ellie is the honest person, she does all the work, but this man is taking the credit. He pretends to be whatever people want in order to get ahead in the world, while Ellie does all work and is honest about who she is, and is constantly pushed aside. Drumlin represents everything that is wrong with humanity, and yet he is chosen to represent humanity! This is maddening because it's exactly what would happen!

In spite of everything he does to Ellie, she doesn't want to see him dead. Nothing could be more human than that. She tries to save his life when the terrorist blows up the Machine on launch day. Just like in the book, now that he's out of the way, she is chosen for the mission.

Instead of a five-person team, it's just one person, Ellie herself. Her trip through the wormhole is spectacular. The relationship with her father is better established in the movie, so meeting a vision of her father at the center of the galaxy means far more.

The alien's conversation with Ellie now carries much more weight for her personally, and for the entire human race. In the book, the moral is Cold War cooperation. ("Please don't destroy yourselves!") In the movie, the moral now reinforces the central theme: there is no proof of God, the aliens don't have all the answers, but there is proof of other alien civilizations, and that is in essence the same thing. Being part of something bigger than oneself--knowing there is more to life than this is the most hopeful feeling in the universe.

Ellie's atheism comes to the foreground of her character because she has a spiritual experience she can't prove or explain rationally. Unlike in the book, it really does humble and change her.

The movie is better than the book. It tells a much stronger story, gives human breath to the characters, makes the story relevant both to them on a personal level as well as on the level of humanity itself. If only the book had told this story! It is much more timeless and profound than the Cold War cooperation warning.

I do wish there had been more on science verses faith, but the filmmakers probably didn't want to offend anybody with such open discussion. What little debate there is ties in with the characters' personal histories, which is a clever way of disguising it. The audience understands that Ellie had a personal tragedy that turned her away from faith, so her arguments are from that point of view, not attacking religion itself. The tradeoff was worth it. The movie makes the story into something that really is a personal voyage.

Read the book if you want more overt debate, but in terms of story, you won't miss much by skipping the book. Give credit to Carl Sagan for coming up with the story in the first place though.

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