Making spiritual 'Contact'

After the "Contact" sneak preview, viewers in the sold-out theater outside Kansas City were asked to complete the usual survey probing their reactions.

It was Saturday night at the mall and the Hollywood dream machine needed to know how this $90 million "event movie for intellectuals" was going to play in Middle America. Was it "entertaining," "exciting," "too slow," "thought provoking," "fun to watch," "meaningful," "emotional" and "believable"? Were the special effects good enough? Did it have enough action? Did it leave "you feeling good"?

In this case, researchers needed to add some questions, such as: "Has this movie affected your view of science and faith?" Or, "Are you more or less likely to go to church tomorrow?" Or, "Do you believe in a Higher Power? What kind?"

"Contact" is based on astronomer Carl Sagan's novel and, in one wide-screen package, tries to blend discussions of God, science, life, death, eternal life, extraterrestrial life, organized religion, unorganized religion and the origins of the Cosmos -- with a Big C. That's all. Sagan died on Dec. 20, as the movie neared completion.

The movie shows that Sagan, as the scientific establishment's designated media apologist, was committed to blending skepticism with a market-friendly brand of spirituality. "Contact" is not a feel-good movie for hard-shell agnostics. Rather, it's the summer science-fiction epic for millions of Americans who find pure science spiritually unfulfilling, but who don't feel they can embrace the 10 Commandments.

"This movie is surprisingly sympathetic to religion and does raise some critical questions about science," said Robert C. Newman of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa., who holds a Cornell doctorate in astrophysics. "Still, anyone who worships the God of the Bible isn't going to be very happy as they walk out of the theater. ... Of course, I don't know how many people who think of themselves as traditional Christians pay much attention to what they watch or do much thinking about what movies have to say."

Sagan's heroine is radio astronomer Eleanor Arroway, played by actress Jodie Foster. In both the book and the movie she is a tough-minded, yet emotionally complex, skeptic. The key is that movie director Robert Zemeckis, in addition to simplifying the plot and adding the usual action-packed plot twists, has radically edited and altered the religious characters. The novel contains sympathetic believers and even avoids stereotypes of fundamentalists, noted Newman, one of several Christians in science who corresponded with Sagan as he wrote the book.

One pivotal figure, the Rev. Palmer Joss, is an inquisitive, but quite conservative, evangelical. In the movie, Matthew McConaughey's character has evolved into a mass-media mystic who never mentions Christianity and uses what one person calls "flowery, New Age rhetoric." Instead of a cross, Joss' necklace offers a circle within a circle - a miniature holy hubcap. He carries a slim leather volume with a ribbon marker and empty, gilt-edged pages that he fills with his own thoughts and observations - a do-it-yourself bible. He tells Arroway that he fled the priesthood because he "couldn't handle the celibacy thing" and their first theological debate occurs in bed.

But the film does contain two conservative Christians. The one person who spouts scripture is, literally, a mad bomber who raises his hands in Pentecostal praise before committing a suicidal act of mass terrorism. The other is a Religious Right politico, played by a sleazy Rob Lowe.

The movie also omits the novel's controversial ending -- Arroway's discovery of "the artist's signature" within the building blocks of math and science. This concept would have been highly relevant amid today's escalating debates about whether the structures of astrophysics and biochemistry contain evidence of a Creator.

"We could give the producers the benefit of a doubt and say they're saving that for the sequel," said Newman. "You could also say that, since Sagan was so involved in the making of the movie, he must have been moving away from that concept latter in his life. ... He seemed to be growing more open to spirituality, but less open to talking about a transcendent God."