Film Scouts Reviews


by Peter Backus

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It isn't suprising that the science in "Contact" is fairly accurate. Carl Sagan was actively involved in the making of the movie. Scientists from the SETI Institute provided techncal advice (and props). The real surprise is how well the movie captures the excitement, frustration, romance, and inspiration of scientific exploration. SETI is one of the few science projects dealing directly with one of the great questions: "are we alone?". It is a question that we all understand. The answer to that question would have an impact on all of us.

When presenting a complex story involving science and technology, it is inevitable that some accuracy will be sacrificed for the sake of the art. "Contact" is no exception, but unlike most, it stays well within the bounds of artistic license. Here are a few of the minor departures from scientific accuracy.

In the opening sequence, as the perspective moves back form the Earth, we overtake TV and radio broadcasts from the past. By the time we are zooming past a beautifully rendered image of Jupiter, we hear broadcasts from years ago. In reality, at Jupiter we would pick up broadcasts only a few hours old.

When Ellie estimates the number of communicating civilizations (the Drake Equation), she uses the phrase "one-in-a-million" too many times. With those numbers, we shouldn't be here.

Ellie routinely uses headphones to monitor the output from the radio telescope. Assuming that the human ear can process a bandwidth of 20 kHz and that the spectrum analyzer processes 20 MHz, there is a 0.1% chance that she would be listening to the frequency range containing the signal. In reality, radio astronomers use headphones to listen to CDs. Carl Sagan objected to the idea of using headphones but Robert Zemeckis persuaded him with the following argument: if I take out the headphones, I'll make you and a dozen astronomers happy; if I leave them in, five thousand kids will want to be radio astronomers.

When she hears the signal, Ellie uses a cell phone to alert her colleagues in the control room as she races past the antennas. Radio transmitters, e.g., cell phones, are taboo at radio observatories.

There are probably other scientific/technical errors, but I've only seen the movie once (so far). On the whole, I was tremendously impressed with the effort to achieve accuracy. The techno-babble dialogue in the discovery scene is quite believable and even has a reference to a FUDD (follow-up detection device). At one point Ellie kisses a computer screen and says "Thank you Elmer". Those little touches add to both the drama and the believablity.

Based on the fragments of conversations I overheard while leaving the movie and the quality of the mail we're getting at out Web site, "Contact" is not a typical summer blockbuster. It's actually getting people to think about serious issues ranging from politics to religion to our place in the Universe. "Men in Black" is entertaining, but I don't think it will stimulate the same level of conversation.

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