They Should Have Sent A Poet

Contact (1997) is the story of one woman’s lifelong belief that if you can just listen closely enough, you’ll be able to hear what you’re looking for. Ellie (Jodie Foster), the scientist at the center of the story, is listening for aliens, but like all great science fiction, it’s a metaphor, too. Also, Jodie Foster has never looked better than she does in a green T-shirt and a frizzy ponytail in this movie, and while this is a hill I’m prepared to die on, it’s not the (entire) reason I watch this movie every few years, nor why I always cry at the end.

See, Contact is a film about the clash of politics, religion, and science. But while the characters spend a lot of time focusing on what they believe in—God, math, or some secret third thing—revisiting Contact today, I’m struck more by the question of who they believe, or rather, who they don’t. The film poses plenty of questions about faith, yes, but the only thing the characters consistently fail to have faith in is the woman at the heart of the story.

It’s also a film about grief; how it steers you, how it defines you. These two themes—how hard it is for people to believe women, and grief as infinite as the universe—are quieter than the film’s science versus religion situation, but they’re also what stick with me year after year.

When we first meet Ellie, she’s eight years old, turning the dials of a radio trying to see how far the signal goes. With the encouragement of her father, she makes contact with Pensacola, Florida, the furthest she’s reached yet. But the place she really wants to reach? Wherever her deceased mom has vanished to. When her father dies one year later, it’s no surprise that she runs for the radio, trying now to reach him, too.

Listening on the radio becomes a lifelong obsession, fueled by what we learn is her superior intellect and ardent belief that if she can just listen hard enough, she’ll hear what no one else has: evidence of life on other planets. That her attempt to reach her late parents morphs into an attempt to find aliens lurks just below the surface of her character; she’s wound so tight with grief that the only thing left to do is throw herself into her work, forever.

Cut to adult Ellie. She’s living in Puerto Rico, working for the SETI program (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and generally looking extremely beautiful in an understated, outdoorsy low-femme science nerd way. There’s just nothing hotter than someone who is passionate about what they do. Ellie’s job—which she is deadly serious about, despite being treated like a joke—is to listen to the great beyond with huge satellites, a major upgrade from her bedroom radio. She’s also being pursued by a man named Palmer, played by Matthew McConaughey, who is some sort of author/religious figure, just short of a priest because of the whole celibacy thing. I’ve had a lifelong dislike of Mr. McConaughey and I think this movie is the root of it. He’s just kind of always in the way, and their chemistry is really hard to buy into. It’s my only complaint about this movie.

jodie foster and matthew mccoughnahay stare at each other

At any rate, Ellie and Palmer make a Venn diagram; though they both looked up at the sky and found their life purpose, the stars made her want to become a scientist, and he found God. This is what the film will have you believe is its central tension, and maybe it is, but in my opinion this intellectual conflict is far less compelling than the emotional ones throughout.

Shortly after they meet, the science center loses its funding thanks to David Drumlin, the President’s science advisor, who doesn’t see its value. Ellie sets out to secure her own funding, leaving Palmer and South America in the rearview. She finds a private investor and sets up shop in New Mexico using government equipment. A few years go by, and then we find out that she’s about to lose funding again, and only has three months left on the contract. Thus is the nature of doing work you love at the whims of others. It’s what I’ve experienced in my career too—just when you think you’ve got a good situation, someone above you comes and takes it away.

Dramatically speaking, this is an ideal time for the aliens to finally reach out, and they do! In the film’s most iconic scene, Ellie is laying on top of her car with her eyes closed in the fading light, headphones on, when the signal comes through: a series of prime numbers, and the origin, as the excited scientists scream to each other, is not local. In fact, it’s from the distant star Vega, 26 light years away.

Ellie listening to the aliens on her headphones

Word gets out, and the science center fills with men from the government and the military. Ellie fights to maintain control as they yell at her and mansplain to her and just generally ruin the vibe.

There are a few main guys getting in the way here. There’s Drumlin, who up until this point has been trying to sabotage her work; now that she’s actually found something, though, he inserts himself above her, becoming the face of the project. Then there’s Michael Kitz, head of the National Security Council, a skeptic who from the beginning doesn’t seem to see the work’s value. Meanwhile, thousands of indecipherable pages are decoded from the prime numbers, and Ellie can’t even present them to the government without the men talking over her.

The public’s imagination takes off, and while religious groups argue with scientists on the news about whose domain this is, people begin to camp outside of the science center, cult-like with tents and costumes. Neo-Nazis show up, as does a really creepy dude asking the crowd if they really want scientists—”non-believers”—to be the ones talking to God.

Once it’s revealed that the pages are instructions for how to take a single human occupant to space using a sort of enormous ball situation, a committee is formed to decide who will go. Ellie is at the top of a short list, and Palmer’s on the committee to pick—which means they can’t have sex again, a relief to me personally, but not necessarily to them. And while he implores her to drop out of the running because of the risks, she says she’s willing to sacrifice herself to answer the question of why we’re here. Also, it’s literally the culmination of her life’s work, and no one deserves it more than her. Still, she’s put on trial alongside several other candidates.

In the final interview to decide who is to go, Ellie is asked what she’d ask the Vegans (the aliens, not the diet) should they meet. She says: “I’d ask them how they did it. How they survived this technological adolescence without destroying themselves.”

And you know what? It’s a really good question, one I think we could still use an answer to, as we get closer and closer to self-destruction here on Earth. Between climate change, war, and a certain looming presidential election, it’s hard to feel optimistic about our progress as a species, even in the midst of technological advancements. Or maybe it’s because of the technological advancements. It’s hard to think of things like the AI boom as a net positive, when the reality is that it’s already taking jobs and stealing creative work. If this was a relevant question in 1997, it’s only become more dire today. I know this scene moved me the first time I saw it, as a kid, and as an adult it has me thinking about my own role in the self-destruction of humanity. A lot of modern day comforts become hard to justify if you think about them too hard—things like, you know, international travel, or really anything involving fossil fuels. If there was a super-advanced alien species who could tell us how to get through it, that would be great!

So, back to the hearing. Just when things seem to be wrapping up, Palmer jumps in and asks her if she believes in God—the ultimate betrayal, since he already knows the answer, and knows that her atheism will bar her from being chosen. As for who gets picked? Well, it’s Drumlin, the guy who has been standing in her way this whole time. It was never not going to be him. This is just how things go on Earth. And who among us hasn’t been there, really? In my experience, the man above you almost always gets credit for your work.

At the test launch, the alien-designed, human-built machine looms large. Ellie’s there because she’s a good sport, and all seems to be going well until she catches a security breach—that creepy man preaching outside the science station? He’s there, and he’s got a bomb.

jodie foster in a red blazer looks great

Before you know it, he hits “detonate,” and the whole thing explodes. It’s another moment of a man sabotaging a woman’s work, and of religion sabotaging science. It’s all over, or so we think. It was far too expensive to recreate. Faith in God seems to have won this battle.

Ellie returns to the science center where it all began. When she gets home, she’s contacted by the billionaire who has been helping her from the sidelines (long and kind of random subplot, not worth recapping). He’s living on a Russian space station, and reveals that the government contracted his company to build a second alien machine off the coast of Japan. And now it’s her turn to go in it.

When she gets there, she finds there’s just one problem: the team who built it wants to include a chair in the ball, which is not part of the original design. It’s an argument she loses for safety purposes, and because even when she’s chosen, no one is really listening to her. At this point if you feel like bashing your head against the wall, I’m right there with you. Ellie herself seems to be getting more and more worn down, and doesn’t put up her usual fight.

Palmer is there, too, because where isn’t he at this point? He confesses that he didn’t vote for her to go on the first one because he doesn’t want to lose her, which, you know, we knew. Yeah, it’s love or whatever, but he’s literally just another man in her way.

So, now it’s time to get in the ball. The machine powers up and Ellie loses comms, because of course, but they go ahead with the launch anyway. The film takes a turn for the trippy, and Ellie is shot through a wormhole and into space. She dislodges herself from the chair, which is shaking to the point of coming loose, because it wasn’t supposed to be there and obviously has a flawed design.

She has no words for the beauty of the universe as she travels through it. “They should have sent a poet,” she whispers. As she marvels at it her face shifts, momentarily changing into Ellie at nine years old; she’s becoming literally childlike in her awe.

We all carry our childhood selves with us, nurturing them or punishing them or letting them trigger us. Ellie’s career is the manifestation of her childhood dreams, so it stands to reason that when that dream comes true, her inner child is stoked. There’s something deeply emotional about it. I think many of us lose sight of our childhood dreams (like, for example, wanting to write science fiction novels) as we age because we have to focus on things such as, you know, making money and being a productive member of society. Not Ellie. She’s been singularly focused this whole time, never betraying any version of herself. It makes me wish I could go back in time to me at 22, before I abandoned my dreams of becoming a novelist. Now, in my mid-thirties, everything I do feels like trying to make up for the time I lost when I was chasing after things that were besides my own point.

Eventually Ellie passes out or falls asleep and wakes up on a sparkly, intergalactic beach, where she meets an alien. To make Ellie feel more comfortable in their world, the alien who greets her has designed things to look like her drawing of Pensacola, Florida, and takes the form of her father.

Though it’s comforting, the encounter isn’t satisfying to Ellie, or to the viewer (me). She doesn’t get to stay. She doesn’t get to bring anyone back with her. Instead, the alien explains that this is just the first step in a contact tradition that’s billions of years old. While they don’t know who built the wormhole that brought her here, he assures her that humans are not alone; far from it. “In all our searching,” he says, “The only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” Not unlike what she’s found in her own searching (or rather, what she will in the final moments of the film). Regardless, he sends her home, with no evidence or proof of what she’s experienced. Back on earth, she finds she hasn’t been gone at all, but probably knocked out by that dang ill-advised chair when it came loose. Though she tells the bewildered team what happened, no one believes her.

We end with Ellie speaking at a Congressional hearing, led by Kitz. She’s in front of hundreds of people and a panel of government officials who don’t believe her. Her insistence that her experience is what happened is written off as “delusional.”

jodie foster testifying before congress

She has no record and no evidence, just her story. They yell at her and belittle her, and while she concedes that she can’t prove it, she insists that doesn’t make it any less true. She wants to share what she experienced with everyone. But she can’t, because it only happened to her. The scene of Ellie’s hearing conjures images of so many women who have testified about their own experiences, fighting for the right to be believed, to be taken seriously by the men who have made themselves the gatekeepers of what counts as truth.

After the hearing is over, she reunites with Palmer, whose whole thing is his faith in the unprovable. He believes her, and doesn’t mind saying so publicly. Faith and science have finally come together, and so has this couple, and even though it’s deeply heterosexual, it’s also kind of sweet, and I’ll allow it. And anyway, I, for one, believe her too, especially because at the end we see Angela Bassett share that in the confidential findings, they found 18 hours of static, the exact length of time Ellie claims to have been gone for.

The film poses more questions than it answers, the main one being: was Ellie right—about any of it? Were all the years she spent listening worth it? But it goes deeper than that. The truth or not truth of her alien encounter is besides the point. Because really, she’s not looking for aliens. She maybe never was.

Trauma tends to freeze your emotional development. Ellie, who’d lost both her parents by the time she was ten, remains, in many ways, that same little girl trying to reach her dead parents on the radio. That she devotes her whole life to listening to the great beyond feels to me less about the science of it all and more about an unnameable longing for the people she’s lost. Even her fleeting attachments all go back to her parents; after all, she’s originally drawn to Palmer’s character when he parrots something her dad used to say, and she closes off from him when he probes too deeply into the magnitude of her loneliness. And when the alien knows to take her to Pensacola? Well, it proves the point: it’s the moment she’s been trying to get back to this whole time, a moment she perhaps never moved on from in the first place. And though it’s because of trauma, it also served her; it became a strength in the end. Keeping her sense of childlike awe for the breadth of the universe has brought her to this point.

I was around the same age as young Ellie when this movie came out. The way she so clearly carries her childhood self with her made adulthood legible; it made time seem like less of an unknowable straight line and something more like a circle. Watching it as an adult I have that same feeling. I think we’re our best selves when we can acknowledge the little kid that lives inside of us, when we hold onto the things we used to want back when life was simpler.

In the final courtroom scene, Kitz tries to discredit her by describing her alien encounter as “windsurfing with dear old dad,” cruelly disregarding not just the power of her experience but the personal significance of it. But what he says doesn’t matter. Ellie doesn’t need to be believed to stand in her truth.

Her grief was as big as the universe, but she traversed it anyway, and came away with faith in herself. It’s not exactly believing in God, but it comes pretty close.

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Gabrielle Korn

Gabrielle Korn is a writer living in Los Angeles with her wife and dog.

Gabrielle has written 95 articles for us.


  1. I loved reading this! And I love the movie. 👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻

    “turning the dials of a radio trying to see how far she can get the signal to go”. I don’t think that’s how radios work.

  2. Love this review and movie! I too was young Ellie’s age when it came out. I always liked the trippy part the best :)

    Also omg “I’ve had a lifelong dislike of Mr. McConaughey and I think this movie is the root of it.” SAME

  3. Great to read about this film, which I saw once in the theatre with my grandmother years ago but still think about . . .

    Martin MacInnes’ book In Ascension (first sci fi book ever nominated for the Booker) has A Lot of overlap (but more queer) with the film, if anyone’s looking for something more on the same lines

    Thanks for this essay. Contact is art. Contact is cinema. Contact is what Nicole Kidman is talking about when she says we come to this place for magic. I’ve also been getting a bunch of Contact clips on my FYP, so TikTok if you’re listening, great work keep it up.

  5. Seeing Jodie Foster in her new season of True Detective had me reminiscing about this movie! Thanks for the thoughtful look back.

    Having grown up in the Bible Belt amidst all the “science vs God” controversy the movie depicts, I won’t say that all the simple dreams are worth keeping – but it reminds me of that Vienna Teng line: “let your faith die; bring your wonder.”

    Here’s hoping we can all take a little more time to listen. Baby steps.

  6. this is one of my favourite movies. thank you for the lovely and insightful essay. I think about “funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it,” and “do you know where I can find, like, a really great dress” on a weekly basis. also I love Kent Clark, the blind radio astronomer <3 that actor is mostly in villainous roles but he's so good in this and his character is so great!

    I will say that I had the exact opposite reaction to Matthew McConaughey than some of y'all. he's too much older than me for me to wanna boink him, but I have always been drawn to his performances, and I'm sure seeing this movie at an impressionable age is why. though Jodie Foster is the best part of the movie, obviously

  7. Okay, I have literally been saying this quote for the last year. “They should have sent a poet.” I have been getting more into writing about space, queer identity and grief for the last year. Everything from personal essays about coming out in parallel to star formation to haiku’s about Pluto and Charon. I literally squealed when I saw this headline. Thank you so much for this article.

    In light of all the science research, I revisited this movie a few months back. What struck me the most was how no one would listen to Ellie. So many folks cutting her off and Palmer being no better than most. I find what you say about Ellie’s grief to be the most compelling.

    I recently read a book about medieval science that was about how they approached studying the cosmos. The cosmos were the heavens and they were trying to understand their place in them. Yes, it was a super oppressive religious time but a lot of us live under oppressive religious regimes currently. I like that seeking an understanding of truth was at the core of scientific exploration. I think I looked to the stars to find meaning in a relationship where there were more answers left unsaid. Space made more sense to me.

  8. Jodie Foster’s character is based off of real life astronomer Jill Tarter, who is responsible for the building of the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. An array of 42 radio telescopes built just for SETI research. She was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2004. One misconception about SETI research within the movie is you do not actually “listen” for signals, it is all done with visual data. But I think it was a great choice to change this detail for the film, the headphones scene at night is iconic.

  9. This is my favorite movie! So lovely to see it written about! I really ought to watch it again, especially with an eye to the bits you point out. I have to say I saw this in high school (though I was born the year it came out) and though I was enjoying the first season of True Detective around the same time, I had a similarly bad reaction to Palmer and McConaughey. Their romance made no sense to me and had zero chemistry. I had (and maybe still do, would have to rewatch) this very involved theory that Ellie was aromantic (and not just because it was in her name) and identified really strongly with her. I also adored Kent Clark and their friendship and companionship. I read the book the movie is based on at some point and the character (and romance) felt very different. I can’t recall if I liked it. I think my favorite part of this movie is the wonder and the celebration of wonder in a way that really resonates with me. I’ve never been religious or spiritual but the feeling of intense wonder is the closest I get to what I think others call the divine. To this day, Lyra (the constellation Vega is part of) is one of four constellations I can identify. Thanks for this celebration of an incredible movie!

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