Plot of the Movie "Contact"

by James Green

"Contact" is a 1997 science fiction movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Jodie Foster, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. It is about a scientist who receives instructions on how to build a mysterious machine. In addition to science fiction elements, the film explores the sociological reactions to such a phenomena. It raises many spiritual and philosophical questions in its science fiction setting.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

"Contact" opens with a conversation between a young Ellie Arroway and her father. Her father eventually dies when she is a young girl. The adult Arroway becomes a gifted scientist who decides to devote most of her time in the search for alien life. Arroway eventually finds herself working at a large array of radiotelescopes in New Mexico. She constantly faces pressure from both government and private donors over the closing of the program. Despite the advice from numerous colleagues and friends, she continues with her research despite the fact that her talents would be of great use in other scientific areas.

Receiving a Message

Just before the funding of her research program is cut, Arroway's research team receives a message, seemingly from another world. Heavily distorted, the message is eventually found to be an Earthbound transmission from the World War II era. However, it is realized that this signal was in fact Earth's first message transmitted to outer space -- returned, or "answered." The transmission is found to be an encoded message that details instructions on how to build a machine. Just what the machine does is not yet known.

Building the Machine

The U.S. government then builds the machine. The device is rather large and consists of a series of curved, rotating beams. Above these beams hangs a small round capsule, and within the capsule is a chair. It is thus theorized that the machine is in fact a spaceship. An astronaut is recruited to test the device. Just before its launch, however, it is destroyed by a suicide bomber. However, a second machine was secretly built in Japan through the funding of a wealthy financier. He chooses Arroway to test the device.

Activating the Machine

It is still only a theory that the machine is a spaceship. Arroway straps herself inside the capsule, and the machine is activated. The circular beams begin rotating at a rate so fast that they form a blur, just as electrons form a blur around an atom's nucleus. A magnificent light ignites through the center of the machine. The capsule is then dropped through the rotating beams.


The view from inside the capsule shows it traveling through space, flying past galaxies, planets, black holes and nebulae. Eventually, the capsule arrives at a tropical beachlike planet. There, Arroway meets a being in the form of her late father. The being does not answer her questions, but it says Arroway's trip was humankind's first step in advancing to the levels of alien lifeforms in the universe. The trip ends with the capsule dropping from inside the machine into the water beneath it. After the trip, Arroway is accused of fabricating her story, because a video shows that upon its release, the capsule merely passed right through the machine and into the water below. Arroway defends her version of what she experienced. The movie ends as a question: Was Arroway hallucinating, or did she actually travel through space during a split second?