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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Contact can be found here.
Since she was a young girl, Doctor Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (Jodie Foster) has been fascinated by science, astronomy, and making radio contact with people far away. She works as a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researcher at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. When her National Science Foundation (NSF) funding is pulled from her by her boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), she obtains private funding from secretive billionaire industrialist S. R. Hadden (John Hurt) and moves to the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. Just when it looks like her access to the VLA's radio telescopes is going to be cut, Ellie receives a transmission of prime numbers emanating from the star Vega. When the transmission is confirmed by other scientists around the world, Ellie becomes involved in making humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial life.
The movie is based on a 1985 novel of the same name by American astronomer Carl Sagan [1934-1996]. Sagan actually conceived of the idea for Contact in 1979 and, along with his wife Ann Druyan, wrote a 100+-page film treatment. When the project got stuck in development hell, Sagan published Contact as a novel. The novel was eventually adapted for the movie by American screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg.
Vega, about 25 light-years away from the earth, is the principle star in the constellation Lyra, visible overhead in the northern hemisphere from spring through autumn. In temperate latitudes, it is visible during the summer months. In the southern hemisphere, it is visible low in the northern sky during the winter months.
Although pronounced "prim-mer", the spelling is actually "primer" and usually refers to an introductory text used to teach reading. In the context of the movie, it refers to the key needed to "read" symbols, languages, and maps, a key that would enable them to match certain numerical sequences in the message with known physical/scientific constants such as the speed of light, the atomic weights of the elements, sequences of natural algorithms, the wavelengths of visible light, stuff any natural scientist (or mathematician) would know.
One of the electronic transitions for the hydrogen atom yields light radiation with a wavelength of about 21.12 centimeters, which is very useful in radio astronomy because it can penetrate dusty regions of space. It corresponds to a frequency of approximately 1,420.41 cycles per second. Even though the space aliens won't be using the same conventional units, it remains that the wavelength of that particular hydrogen emission is what it is regardless. Equivalently, the frequency is what it is, too. Whatever units they're using, the quotient of π (pi) over frequency will be the same. Since we're evidently advanced enough to be broadcasting television signals, the extraterrestrials can assume that we're knowledgeable about things like π and the 21-cenitmeter hydrogen emission. They may also gather that we know there are no interstellar sources of radiation which happen to be at that frequency multiplied by the number π to high precision. They must expect us to figure out that the signal's frequency, coupled with its modulations counting out prime numbers, strongly indicates that it's artificial in origin; that we mustn't mistake it for some weird, exotic, natural process.
Using the transportation machine that was constructed from the blueprints in the alien transmission, Ellie travels through a series of spatial wormholes to a planet orbiting the star Vega. There she finds herself in a dream-like world that resembles a beach in Florida and encounters an alien being who has adopted the appearance of her dead father (David Morse). The alien explains to her that it is easier to do things this way. After they talk, Ellie returns to Earth believing that she has been gone for 18 hours, but from the point of view of everyone watching, the transport pod did not leave the Earth and enter a wormhole, but simply dropped through the machine's rings and into the ocean below it in a matter of seconds. Determined to prove that she really went to Vega and was gone for 18 hours, Ellie asks the authorities to examine her video footage, but her recording headset reveals only static. National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) leads a special executive inquiry. It is his belief that it was all a hoax engineered by Hadden, who can no longer be questioned because he has since died of cancer, and that Ellie was an unwitting victim who merely suffered a "self-reinforcing delusion". To him, that's a lot easier to accept than a message from aliens resulting in a magical machine that whisked her away to the center of the galaxy "to go windsurfing with dear old dad" and a split second later returned her to Earth without a single shred of proof. Ellie and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) emerge together from the congressional hearing to find a huge crowd of people honoring Ellie for being the "discoverer of the new world." When asked what he believes, Reverend Joss simply replies that he believes Ellie. Now unified in their seemingly disparate pursuits for the "truth" and an understanding of the power of belief, Ellie and Palmer ride off together. Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) points out to Kitz one of the findings in the investigative committee's confidential report noting that, while Ellie's video unit recorded only static, it recorded 18 hours of it. In the final scene, which takes place 18 months later, Ellie is back at the VLA, having received a healthy grant from the government allowing her to install 45 more radio telescopes and to continue with her search for extra-terrestrial life in the cosmos.
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