I'm a sucker for science fiction movies. I love stories about worlds far away from our own. But sometimes the rare science fiction movie lets us stay on our planet, during our current timeline, and allows us to dream of something bigger than all of us. One of my favorite movies with this premise is Contact. Contact is a 1997 film directed by Robert Zemeckis.

The movie was based on the 1985 novel by Carl Sagan. It stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds evidence of life sending a message from outer space. The movie weighs science against faith as it attempts to unwrap the mysteries of the universe.

The cast of Contact is incredible, with Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, Jake Busey, and David Morse also starring in major roles. There are also some amazing twists and turns, with the ending of Contact being a really fun maneuver that throws us for a loop.

Today, we're going to get the movie Contact explained. We'll go over the Contact movie plot, the Carl Sagan book, and talk about how the author of Contact saw his vision come to life on the big screen with Zemeckis' superb direction. We'll also talk about how this Jodie Foster space alien movie represents a more low-key science fiction.

Let's jump in.

The Contact Movie Explained: What Does the Ending Mean?

In order to understand the movie, we're going to have to dig inside the movie and go over key plot points and characters, and then sum up the ending. So the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to look at the Contact movie plot first.

The Contact (1997) movie summary

We’re zooming through the galaxy as the Earth gets smaller and smaller. We hear lots of radio frequencies and then zoom through a wormhole back to Earth where we meet a young Ellie Arroway. She’s using a CB radio to talk to people all over. Her father guides her in this process. We know they’re very close—her mother is dead, so it’s just the two of them.

We cut to the future, where Dr. Ellie Arroway works for the SETI program at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Her number-one hope is to find alien life. During her time there, she has a brief fling with a man named Palmer Joss. But she’s way more focused on her career to stick with him. Going against her is David Drumlin, the president's science advisor. He pulls the funding from SETI, believing it’s a waste of money. Arroway gains financial backing from Hadden Industries, which is run by a reclusive billionaire. He allows her to continue the project at the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico.

Four more years into the future, Arroway discovers a signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers sent from the star system Vega about 26 light-years away. Of course, this freaks everyone out. And Drumlin and the National Security Council, led by Michael Kitz, try to take over the facility. Hidden inside the signal is Hitler's opening address at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. While everyone gets very scared, Arroway and her team theorize that this would have been the first signal strong enough to leave Earth's ionosphere, reach all the way to Vega, and then be transmitted back.

This doesn’t make the government feel secure, so they lock the project down. Arroway finds that the signal also contains more than 63,000 pages of indecipherable data as well. They’re instructions to build something. Our strange billionaire Hadden secretly meets with Arroway to provide the means to decode the pages to her. The pages reveal schematics for a complex machine that is determined to be some kind of transport for a single occupant to somewhere undefined.

It’s there we again meet the now Christian philosopher Palmer Joss. He and Arroway are still very flirty. But his faith and her science keep them apart. Meanwhile, we get brief glimpses into Arroway’s past. We learn her father died tragically when she was nine years old and that she never knew her mother. This journey she’s on now is her constant search to know she’s not actually alone.

The world becomes obsessed with the project and multiple nations chip in to fund the construction of the machine at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. In order to pick who goes into the contraption, an international panel is assembled to choose a candidate to travel in the machine.

Although Arroway is a frontrunner to go, Palmer Joss is on the panel, and he brings attention to her atheism. The panel selects Drumlin as more representative of humanity—a crushing blow to Arroaway. But when the machine is first tested, a religious terrorist destroys the machine in a suicide bombing, killing Drumlin and several others. All is lost, and it looks like they’ll never be able to see what the machine the aliens sent would do.

Billionaire Hadden is now in residence on the MIR space station. We learn that he is dying of cancer. He tells Arroway that the U.S. government had contracted with his company to secretly build another second machine in Japan. He’s asked that Arroway be the one to go and take the trip. She’s flown to Japan and prepped for the journey. They send her with an array of recording devices. The machine begins to spin and fall. It is dropped into three rapidly spinning gimbaled rings, causing the pod to apparently travel through a series of wormholes.

Arroway sees a radio array-like structure at Vega and signs of an advanced civilization on another distant planet. She then finds herself on a beach, similar to a childhood picture she drew of Pensacola, Florida. A figure approaches that becomes her deceased father. Arroway recognizes him as an alien taking her father's form and attempts to ask questions. The alien tells her that they are making her first contact easier for her and that this journey was just humanity's first step to joining other spacefaring species.

They tell her they’ll be in touch and then Arroway falls unconscious as she begins traveling back through a wormhole. When she wakes up, she’s on the floor of the pod, the mission control team repeatedly hailing her. She learns that the pod merely dropped through the machine's rings and landed in a safety net. For them, it only lasted seconds. But for her, it was hours. Her recording devices only captured static.

There is a Congressional committee. They tell Arroway that they think the machine was a hoax designed by the now-deceased Hadden. But she’s certain it was not. Arroway asks the committee to accept the truth of her testimony on faith, as inspired by Palmer Joss, who sits in the audience. In a private conversation, Kitz and a White House official talk about unreleased confidential information that Arroway's recording device recorded static for 18 hours—proving she may have gone somewhere.

Arroway and Joss reunite, and a future romance is promised. Arroway receives ongoing financial support at the VLA. And she awaits the next message from Vega.

Is the movie Contact based on a true story?

This movie is not based on a true story, although a lot of people on the internet seem to be Googling this fact. It's based on a book by Carl Sagan, where he theorized what would happen if we received messages from another planet.

How did Contact become a movie?

Sagan was tossing this idea around in the 1970s. He pitches the idea to a movie producer friend, who told him to write the screenplay. Sagan wound up writing a movie treatment and then turning it into a book.

From there, the idea was purchased and developed, with Sagan then incorporating more modern science in the screenplay. The script was caught in turnaround, with many writers and directors taking a stab at the story. Eventually, Robert Zemeckis came onto the project. Warner Brothers gave him final cut and total artistic control. Sagan remained with the project as an advisor.

The Contact movie wormhole

The wormhole in the movie was an addition Sagan added after reading a paper from theoretical physicist Kip Thorn. Weta Digital was responsible for designing the wormhole sequence in the movie so that it felt realistic and fit with the rest of the authenticity of the rest of the film.

The Contact movie ending

So let's talk about the ending of this movie. It's a real gut punch. You find Ellie basically on trial, with the whole world divided on whether or not they believe she traveled to Vega. Then we get the big reveal that her audio devices actually did record many hours of static, proving she went somewhere, even if we couldn't hear anything on the recording.

The movie also leaves Ellie Arroway back where she began, listening for that next message. This is all in direct contrast to how the book ended.

The Contact book ending

At the end of the book, Ellie discovers that the silence recorded in her camera actually is filled with 1s and 0s. She works on it and decodes a new message. So even after being told she was crazy, she has tangible proof that she communicated with the aliens.

While we don't know what the next message says, Ellie is equipped with the knowledge that she's not crazy.

The Contact book vs. movie ending analysis

I think the movie ending really pushes the themes of faith a little further than the book. The movie still shows Ellie Arroway as someone who believes in science, but her character arc lets her bend into having to have faith as well. While I love the idea that the message from Vega is delivered instantaneously, I do like the idea that Arroaway is left waiting at the end of the movie, putting her life back to the work she believes in.

For me, the movie takes us on a more complete emotional journey. Let's analyze that a little further.

The Contact movie analysis

This is a movie about science versus faith. It puts them to the ultimate test and really digs into a low-key version of the alien narrative. We've seen other movies bring aliens to earth in a much noisier and high-concept way. This is super grounded, and at its heart it pushes the idea of what could actually happen if we made first contact. The movie also is not afraid to be a real character study of Ellie Arroway.

Ellie is effectively a woman alone in the universe. She never met her mother, and her dad passed away when she was nine. She's been searching for a long time, talking to the stars, and looking for answers. Her answers come, and she's immediately met by skeptics. They hold her back because they refuse to believe in her experience, because she doesn't conform to their ideas, and because life is not fair.

The Contact movie themes

What sets this story apart for me is how deep the themes of the movie are and how much the filmmaking accentuates that. This movie could have been too heady or just full of science that might be interesting as facts, but not as entertainment. Instead, as we talked about earlier, the characters and arcs actually make this film stand out.

Thematically, the ideas of science and faith run throughout the film. Certainly, the debate on the existence of God, strict adherence to facts, and the idea of finding indelible proof play huge roles.

What makes this movie great?

At the end of the day, what sets Contact above and beyond other movies is how much care and attention were put into every detail of its storytelling. Zemeckis' direction is fearless, and the cinematography in this movie is also excellent. We're constantly seeing a world stacked against the main character, who never folds, but often feels the walls closing in. While there are even some coincidences, everything plays into the idea that things happen, and we have to take information as it comes.

But that's just my take—I want to know what you think in the comments.