I recently saw the 1997 science fiction movie Contact on streaming for the first time, nearly 20 years after its initial release. And as I watched it, I was immediately struck by how many ways it resembled director Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus, which I have seen many times since it was released in 2012.
Both movies feature female scientists who are obsessed with making first contact with aliens who have reached out humans:
- Contact tells the story of astronomer Ellie Arroway (played by Jodi Foster) who is searching for life outside of earth using radio telescopes to listen for signals that would indicate extraterrestrial life. She eventually detects these signals and interprets them as an invitation for humans to make contact with the civilization that sent them.
- Prometheus tells the story of archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) who is looking for signs of extraterrestrial contact with early humans using cave drawings located around the world. She interprets these drawings as an invitation (with a map) for humans to make contact with the civilization that inspired the drawings.
Both Ellie and Elizabeth lose their mothers at an early age; this results in their both being raised by somewhat eclectic fathers whom they also lose at relatively young ages.
Faith is a central issue for the heroines of both movies.
- Contact’s Ellie firmly believes in science and rejects the importance of faith in an unseen god as being completely unnecessary in a world guided by science. She is encouraged to consider the possibility of God’s involvement by her one-time lover, Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey).
- Prometheus’s Elizabeth is a scientist who wears a cross around her neck and explains to her lover/partner Charlie that she believes in God not because she has direct evidence of his existence but because she has faith. Charlie (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is an atheist who views Elizabeth’s search for meaning in her existence from God as a waste of time.
Both movies have a shadowy industrialist in ill-health who finance the heroines’ very expensive journey into space for reasons of their own.
- Contact for reasons that are never fully explained but would seem to be because he wants to make contact with another civilization. He then goes on to finance her journey through a wormhole to meet this alien civilization. He dies before the end of the movie. On a somewhat related note, actor John Hurt plays the role of Cane, the first person to die in the original Alien movie (for which Prometheus is a prequel).
- Trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce) finances Elizabeth’s journey to the distant moon LV-223. His motive is that he wants to meet the aliens who appear to have created humans. He is close to death throughout most of the movie, and he dies of unnatural causes before the end of the movie.
In the end, both Ellie and Elizabeth are forced by their discoveries to confront their questions of belief through faith.
Obviously, these are two very different movies with one giving a fundamentally optimistic look at our first contact with an alien species and the other giving an unrelentingly dark view of that event.
So here’s my question: What do you think? Do these movies take radically different approaches to exactly the same themes? Or am I just looking for patterns that aren’t really there? Keep in mind that I’m the guy who thinks Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones is an extended tribute to the films of Ridley Scott…