The movie plot in brief is as follows (spoiler alert): An astronomer working on the SETI project manages to pick up three different alien signals from the same source. The first was a sequence of prime numbers from 2 to 101. The second was an amplified re-transmission of Hitler's welcoming address at 1936 Summer Olympics. The third was a blue-print to build an alien device called The Machine, which will supposedly transport one human passenger to the aliens. The government builds two such devices, and as one was destroyed during testing, the other was used, piloted by the astronomer. The movie ends with government disbelieving her story of contacting the aliens, calling it a self-delusion. The pod carrying her had dropped right through The Machine in a matter of seconds, effectively disproving her claim for being gone from Earth for 18 hours. Possibly the only two anomalies in the evidence against her are the electrostatic storm created by The Machine and the recording of approximately 18 hours of static in her video recording device.
What's interesting about the movie is its strong references towards the debate between religion and science. Once the alien signals were received and the news made public, the reactions of the general public (in the movie) greatly varied from various forms of support to fanatic religion-motivated opposition. The astronomer, Dr. Eleanor Arroway, is herself an atheist and during the course of the movie becomes romantically close to a Christian philosopher named Palmer Joss. During their conversations, Eleanor questions how Joss can believe in God despite having no evidence or proof for His existence. Joss could only recount his own personal experience and compare his certainty that God exists to Eleanor's certainty that she loved her deceased father, despite there being no evidence for it.
Remnants of this exchange come back to her at the end of the movie, when she was questioned by the panel on how she can believe she has had contact with aliens despite having no evidence for it. In my opinion, she should have answered the same way 95% of the human race believes there's a God, because it is hypocritical that a majority of human beings can believe in something with no verifiable evidence and think it's perfectly normal to do so, but when one human being believes something different with no verifiable evidence, she could be labelled as self-deluded, an unwitting accomplice in an elaborate hoax, or even a lunatic.
The other interesting point to note was how a candidate was selected to man the pod to be dropped in The Machine. Although Dr. Eleanor was the perfect candidate for the job, she was declined the opportunity in favor of the less suitable David Drumlin, simply because of her lack of belief in God. It was argued that a person chosen to represent the whole of mankind should also represent what 95% of the human race believes in. This, to me would be ridiculous, as an alien civilization much more technologically advanced than our own would probably have had at least thought about the God question, if not already found the answers we're seeking. The last thing they would want is a self-deluded human being bringing the so-called "message of God" to them. The language the aliens spoke to humans in, is indeed, as Eleanor puts it, the language of science, and it is precisely the same language that humans ought to reply in. (It was later revealed that Palmer Joss skewed the panel to vote against her by bringing God up, in order to keep her safe from harm, although it remains unclear if he had knowledge of the planned suicide bombing attack.)
The destruction of the first alien device by a religious fanatic by the name of Joseph is also not to be overlooked. It brings us to realize the fact of how religion has, in its own ways of indoctrinating people, hampered scientific progress for hundreds of centuries. It reminds me of a graph which shows we could have been exploring the stars by now, had our scientific progress not been stifled by the Christian Dark Ages. For centuries, religion has always been questioning and opposing scientific research and progress, labeling it as anything bad from heresy to immorality. The latest among such is stem cell research which has the potential to save billions of human lives, but is opposed on the grounds of morality, that destroying a microscopic blastocyst of a few human cells is the same as killing a human life. What they do not realize is that, stopping or delaying stem cell research will cause millions of real live walking breathing human beings to die, who could have otherwise be saved via the research.
But no matter what religion tries to do to stifle science, just like in the movie, science has always prevailed and will continue to prevail, eventually overtaking religion.
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