The remark made throughout the movie by different characters, that if humans were the only life in the universe, it would "be a terrible waste of space", is a famous quote by author Carl Sagan. It references a statement by the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), considering the potential worlds of other stars; "A sad spectacle. If they be inhabited, what a scope for misery and folly. If they be not inhabited, what a waste of space."
Dr. Arroway hypothesizes that the message could be an "Encyclopaedia Galactica", a concept envisioned by Carl Sagan and meant to be a database for all the worlds within the Milky Way Galaxy, which Sagan had shown in his television series Cosmos (1980). The term originates from Isaac Asimov's science fiction novel "Foundation".
William Fichtner's character in the film, a blind astrophysicist with enhanced hearing as a result of his condition, is named Kent Clark, a play on the name of Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. The character is based on a real-life blind S.E.T.I. scientist, Kent Cullers.
President Bill Clinton's appearance was taken from an actual press conference on the White House South Lawn in 1997. If you look closely at his hair, it appears brighter than that of the other people in the shot. His remarks were regarding the real-life discovery of an arctic meteorite discovered to be from Mars.
The long shot of Ellie as a child running up the stairs to get medicine is a shot that is practically impossible. The shot was filmed as a normal shot would have been, and then flipped and placed in the mirror which, at the time of shooting, was a bluescreen placement in the cabinet.
Footage of a press conference by President Bill Clinton was re-edited and altered and caused some controversy. A few years later, CNN would ban the use of its logo in fictional movies, as well as bar its reporters from doing cameo appearances (although Larry King does appear from time to time).
All three acts of the film begin with a zoomed out shot of a celestial body, immediately followed by a tight shot of Ellie's eyes. This echoes Carl Sagan's opinion that humans are a way for the universe to experience itself.
The movie establishes that the signal was launched from Earth in 1936, during the Berlin Olympic Games' opening. Since Vega is twenty-six light-years from Earth, the earliest the signal would have returned, could have been in 1988. However, since we see the characters in the film using things such as Netscape, the year in which the signal was received would have been the mid-1990s, suggesting a span of several years between the aliens on Vega receiving the signal and then sending it back to Earth.
Robert Zemeckis had initially approached Sidney Poitier to play the President, but he turned the role down in favor of The Jackal (1997). Shortly after Poitier's refusal, Zemeckis saw a NASA announcement in August 1996. "Clinton gave his Mars rock speech," Zemeckis explained, "and I swear to God it was like it was scripted for this movie. When he said the line 'We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say,' I almost died. I stood there with my mouth hanging open."
Robert Zemeckis had asked Jodie Foster to repeat the pod scene six times, each time with a different expression (intense joy, fear, sadness, and so on) and then the visual effects crew quickly morphed her face from one take to the next. For a moment, they also used the face of Dr. Arroway as a child.
When Ellie returns to her apartment, just before receiving the first message from Hadden, as she enters the room she is reflected in a mirror; at the bottom left of the mirror is a photo of Carl Sagan, who authored the novel on which this film is based.
Jodie Foster said that if she were given the opportunity to go to space, but not come back, she would pass. "I'm perfectly happy to be ignorant. Let the mysteries of the universe be clear to someone else."
The character of Dr. Arroway was modelled after two of the pioneering radio astronomers of the 1930s and 1940s, Grote Reber and John Kraus. Both men were ham radio operators at an early age. Another model for the character's work was real-life S.E.T.I. researcher Jill Cornell Tarter.
The dish at the beginning of the movie is the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and is actually used for S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research. In 1983, Director Peter Hyams went there scouting for a location to film the opening scene of the film 2010 (1984), but found that the dish was far too dirty to use as a filming location. Instead he opted to use the Very Large Array (V.L.A.) in New Mexico, which is also featured prominently in this movie.
During the filming of the few exterior scenes at the Very Large Array, the array was collecting data. Most of the scenes shot at the V.L.A. were done at a full scale reproduction set of the control facility in Culver City, California.
In order to make contact, intelligent life would likely choose such a "standard" cosmic frequency as hydrogen and multiply it by a transcendental number such as pi. Not only would this frequency be a common place to look for radio signals, it would be an unmistakable sign of intelligent life.
Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan began the concept in 1980 as a movie treatment that was never picked up. Sagan finished the story alone and in 1985, released the book "Contact" with no further assistance from Druyan.
At the beginning of the movie, various television and radio transmissions can be heard coming from Earth into outer space. As the camera moves away from Earth, these transmissions become older (the first transmissions made, would be further out into space). Among the transmissions heard are (in order to closest to farthest): - Third Eye Blind - Semi - Charmed Life (1997) - Spice Girls - Wannabe (1997) - Crash Test Dummies - God Shuffled His Feet (1993) - Lagwagon - Angry Days (1992) - Mr. Mister - Broken Wings (1985) - Lipps Inc. - Funkytown (1979) - A Taste of Honey - Boogie Oogie Oogie (1978) - Theme from Dallas (1978) - The Tramps - Disco Inferno (1976) - Neil Armstrong's iconic "One small step for a man" (1969) - Robert Kennedy shot in hotel (1968) - Martin Luther King's speech "I have a dream" (1963) - President Kennedy shot in Dallas (1963) - Theme from The Twilight Zone (1959) - Domenico Modugno - Volare (1958) - Theme from The Lone Ranger (1949) - President Roosevelt's speech "A date which will live in infamy" (1941) - Hitler's speech in the Berlin Olympic Games' opening (1936, almost unrecognizable)
In the Cape Canaveral scenes, N.A.S.A.'s Vehicle Assembly Building is visible in the background. Its interior is vast enough, that airflow must be controlled to prevent humidity from condensing on the ceiling and "raining".
Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) tells Dr. Arroway (Jodie Foster) that, according to Einstein's theory of special relativity, for four years travelled at the speed of light, fifty years would pass on Earth, and that everyone she loved would be gone when she returned. This concept is part of the plot of Interstellar (2014), which also starred Matthew McConaughey.
The cult deaths mentioned in a newscast after it is made public that aliens have made contact with Earth, is possibly a reference to the 1997 mass suicide committed by the religious U.F.O. group "Heaven's Gate" in a mansion near San Diego. Thirty-nine people took arsenic and cyanide, in order to let their souls be picked up by extra-terrestrials onto a spacecraft following the comet Hale-Bopp. This would have happened four months before the film's release, and must have been inserted at the last minute.
The UNIX Party button taped to a monitor in the signal analysis scene is geek humor. UNIX is a computer operating system originally created in 1969 at Bell Labs. At the time of filming, it held a certain academic counter-culture mystique, being anti-Microsoft and anti-IBM.
Francis Ford Coppola filed breach-of-contract suits against Carl Sagan's estate and Warner Brothers, halting the film. He claimed that Sagan had developed the "Contact" premise for Zoetrope Studios (possibly for a Children's Television Workshop program).
Hadden tells Ellie that "once upon a time, I was a hell of an engineer." This appears to be an allusion that the character attended Georgia Tech, as their famous fight song, "Ramblin' Wreck" contains the repeated line "I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer."
The sequence where The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1992) is being played on a television screen, was filmed after the taping of an actual Tonight Show episode. Robert Zemekis came on-stage and advised the audience that they were going to be in the movies, to rousing applause.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (featured in the film) has a club station which acquired Grote Reber's old call sign "W9GFZ" earlier in 1997. Robert Zemeckis, learning of this tribute, planned to use the same call sign for Dr. Arroway in the movie. In the end, "W9GFO" was used.
In an attempt to create a sense of realism for the storyline, principal CNN news outlet commentators were scripted into this movie. More than twenty-five reporters from CNN had roles in the film, and the programs Larry King Live (1985) and Crossfire (1982) were also included. Ann Druyan makes a cameo appearance as herself, debating with Richard Rank, on Crossfire (1982).
When Ellie, Fisher, and Willie analyze the signal just after receiving it, Fisher comments that the signal is over "one hundred Janskys". A "Jansky" is an unit of spectral flux density, used especially in radio astronomy, and named after his creator, Karl Guthe Jansky.
Robert Zemeckis stated on The Directors (2000), that the experience of making this movie was a rough one, due to weather. Everyday the weather made it difficult to shoot scenes, and the only day the weather was tolerable, was during the shooting of the test explosion. Besides that day, the weather was horrendous, making it one of Zemeckis' least favorite shoots.
When Ellie is going through the launch and wormhole, she repeats, "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay." The same phrase is repeated over and over by Scott Glenn in The Right Stuff (1983). The cadence is identical.
All the beers in the Puerto Rico scenes are Medalla Light. It is produced by the only brewery in Puerto Rico larger than a brewpub, and Medalla Light was their only beer until they released a premium beer in 2011.
When Ellie (Jodie Foster), Fisher (Geoffrey Blake), and Willie (Max Martini) discuss the origin of the space signal, and a possible civilization in Vega (source of the signal, Lyra's star, at twenty-six light-years from Earth), Willie jokes about laser beams and "photon torpedoes". Photon torpedoes are the main weapon shown in the Star Trek (1966) franchise, about a human spacecraft crossing outer space to meet new lifeforms and civilizations.
Jodie Foster notes on her DVD commentary for the film, that the first visual effect seen, is the changing of the younger Eleanor Arroway's eye color to match hers. People have pointed out, however, that the opening CGI scene, taking the viewer from Earth to the outer cosmos, would also technically be a visual effect.
Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) lost her mother at a very young age, and her father at the age of nine. This is similar to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001), who also lost her mother at a very young age, and her father at the age of ten.
During one of the several interviews to promote the movie, Jodie Foster joked, saying "If I did it, it should be a four million dollar movie about three people closed in a room questioning between them: 'Is anybody out there?'"
When at the reception, Ellie and Palmer come out to the balcony, Ellie tells Palmer about a basic principle of science, called "Occam's Razor". Palmer replied, "Occam's Razor. Sounds like some slasher movie". This is a joke by Matthew McConaughey about himself, since he starred in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994).
On the way back to the V.L.A., after her Washington, D.C. visit, Ellie passes a zoo on the road outside of the facility. In the cluster of revelers partying, are three Chevrolet Vegas. All three are modified. Two are the rare 1975-1976 Cosworth Vegas, a factory R.P.O. modification, with a British Cosworth race-type engine, 2.0 liter DOHC. Those Cosworths were only nine hundred dollars less than a Corvette. The last one was a first year 1971 GT, with a Chevrolet V-8 conversion. Also, Ellie's dad's car, is a 1968 Impala convertible.
When David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) meets Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) for the first time at Arecibo Observatory, he kids her, by asking her if she had a call phone from E.T. It's a nod to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was Zemeckis' mentor in the beginning of his career.
In the book, S. R. Hadden isn't an elderly man. He is in near perfect health in his mid-50s. He decides to enter space orbit to extend his life (where he is actually visited by Ellie at one point). At the end of the book he fakes his death and is cryogenically frozen and sent off into deep space in hopes of becoming immortal when an advanced civilization comes upon his spaceship.
Ann Druyan: Carl Sagan's widow, makes a short cameo appearance, along with former United States Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro. She can be seen in the upper left corner of a television divided in four different channels.
Ken Ralston: The Senior Visual Effects Supervisor is visible in the shot of scientists at the V.L.A. watching Ellie testify. Ralston is in the back row in the upper left corner of the frame, with a mustache and beard.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The vehicle, in which Dr. Ellie Arroway travels through the wormhole system, is a sphere surrounded by a dodecahedron, the fourth Platonic solid. This figure, with twelve pentagonal faces, was considered by some Greek philosophers to represent the structure of the universe.
The visual effects crew deliberately inserted contradicting images in the Pensacola scene at the end, to create a dreamlike feeling. So the beach is brightly lit, with no sun in sight, the waves move backwards, and the shadows slowly change from one shot to the next.
During one of the stops in her trip through the wormhole, Eleanor notices a crescent of four stars in the sky above an alien location. Later, when Eleanor lands on the alien beach and meets the alien who's taken the form of her deceased father, he picks up a handful of sand from the beach and four of the grains of sand sparkle briefly in the same pattern as the crescent star pattern seen in the wormhole by Eleanor. At the end of the movie, as she sits on the ground looking across the canyon, she picks up a palm full of gravel. As she looks at the gravel, four small pieces of Earth in the gravel briefly sparkle, again repeating the same crescent patterns that appeared earlier. The pattern is first seen as pop corn scattered on the floor in the scene when young Elle Arroway finds her dad unconscious.
The suicide pill scene is controversial. Carl Sagan claimed that such pills were made available on all N.A.S.A. missions for use, if astronauts were unable to return to Earth. Former astronaut Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, disputes this claim.
The book is different from the movie in several key places. First, the book had three machines built. The second major difference is that the book's machines held five passengers, and Ellie was accompanied on the voyage by four diverse intellectuals from around the world. The book is set in 2000, fifteen years "in the future" from its release date, and has a woman as President of the United States, and a still-existing Soviet Union. The third major difference is that Ted Arroway is not Ellie's father, but a man called John Staughton, second husband of Joanna, Ellie's mother, because John and Joanna had a secret long affair when she still was married with Ted. In the movie, all references about Staughton were omitted, and Joanna died by complications during Ellie's childbirth.
When the signal's blueprints are revealed to be for a device to transport a human, the "unmistakably, human figure" in the diagram, was actually modelled after a line drawing that was attached to the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecrafts. This illustration was co-created by Carl Sagan.
People in the crowds at the end of the movie, seem to be wearing the same shade of blue. It is the "machine consortium blue" (a blue used in the film by the corporate ID of the consortium, which builds the huge travel devices), and suggests that those people believe in Dr. Arroway's story.
In Ellie's cabin, there is a poster of a planet with four suns, a quadruple solar system. When she travels in the machine across the galaxy, she observes a quadruple solar system from the planet of the alien race.
When Ellie and Palmer are in her cabin in Puerto Rico, Palmer talks to her about an experience where he felt the presence of God, but this history appears incomplete. In the novel, it is explained that a younger Palmer, when he was working on fairground rides, was struck by a lightning bolt and had a near-death experience.
As part of the message, an extra-terrestrial intelligence sends a series of pulses between two and one hundred one, using only Prime numbers. In mathematics, Prime numbers are ciphers only divisible between one and the own number. Since there is no natural mechanism known in the universe capable of generating prime numbers consecutively, it should be taken as an unequivocal sign of intelligent life.
At a point in the movie, S.R. Hadden appears as an astronaut in the Mir. Mir was a space station launched in February 19, 1986, from Baikonur's Cosmodrome (former U.S.S.R., actual Kazayistan), being the top of the Soviet Space Program, as the first place out from Earth permanently inhabited, and it was used as experimental and investigation laboratory. It was marked as a five years program, but it was extended to thirteen years, standing in outer space until its final destruction, when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean in March 23, 2001. In that time, Mir travelled more than 3,600 million kilometers (2,250 million miles) orbiting the planet. "Mir" is a Russian word that means "peace" or "world".
There is a star pattern seen in multiple parts of the movie, in chronological order are: the popcorn on the floor, while Ellie's father dies, in her cabin at Arecibo, the quadruple star system she sees in the pod, the alien picking up the sand at the alien beach, and the dirt she picks up at the end of the film.
At the end of her interplanetary travel, Ellie wakes up on an alien beach, but when she extends her hands, she briefly alters the image surrounding her. It implies that Ellie isn't on a beach, but a closed room with an advanced high-tech hologram surrounding her.
The movie establishes that the origin of the signal is Vega, a star from Lyra's constellation which is twenty-six light-years from Earth. Twenty-six light-years are 63,240 astronomical units, 245,980,800 million kilometers, and 153,738,000 million miles.
The opening of the movie is a long take, with the camera showing Earth, moving back away to show Mars, the rest of the planets, the solar system, the Milky Way, galaxies, super galaxies, and finally the entire universe, closing it with a head-shot of young Ellie (Jena Malone). The same idea was used in Men in Black (1997), but the scene is changed to stop in the Milky Way, depicting this as a little gaming rumble property of a gigantic alien being. In 2004, The Simpsons (1989) paid tribute to this scene repeating it in the Couch Gag, in The Simpsons: The Ziff Who Came to Dinner (2004). In it, after showing the entire universe, galaxies were turned in atoms, DNA chains, and cells, with the camera finally exiting from Homer's head.
The machine is a system to open a wormhole, a hypothetical method of space travel, also called a Rosen-Einstein bridge, named after scientists Nathan Rosen and Albert Einstein. According to them, the wormhole should be capable of uniting two distant points in the universe, altering space-time laws to cross from one point to another in a very brief period of time. The name "wormhole" was derived from a comparison between the universe and an apple, with a worm moving inside. The same concept was used in Stargate (1994), and the television series Stargate SG-1 (1997), Stargate: Atlantis (2004), and SGU Stargate Universe (2009). In a strange coincidence, the first Stargate television series was released sixteen days after this movie.
In the scenes preceding his death, Ellie's father can be seen wearing a ring with a blue stone on his right hand. In the rest of the film, Ellie wears her dad's ring on the middle finger of her right hand.
When Ellie is about travel in the machine on the island of Hokkaido, the rings of it can be seen moving an incredibly high speed, including the external ring that supports and surrounds the three-ringed system (activated after the launching of two rockets). Therefore, the innermost of the three rings always stands quiet, indicating it to be a straight point of reference for the movement of the others.
During the meeting between Ellie and an alien (in the guise of her father), he says "This is the way it's been done for billions of years," referring to the way used to contact between different races of the universe. For its Spanish dub, "billions" was changed to "millions".
At one point in the movie, Dravid Drumlin mentions the need of an expert cryptographer, to whom he refers simply as "Lunacharsky". In the novel, Vasily Gregorovich Lunacharsky, called "Vaygay" by the sound to put together his initials, is a Soviet scientist and Ellie Arroway's friend, who helps her analyze the message received from Vega.
When Ellie is released, and dropped into the machine, she yells "Oh, God!" You'll notice during the entire movie she is stating that she needs proof to believe in God, and God is the first entity, for whom she calls.
At the end of the movie, Rachel Ellenstein (Angela Bassett) comments with Michael Kitz (James Woods) her interest about the video camera used by Ellie, during her theoretical machine's travel, marking specially that the camera recorded eighteen hours of white noise. Since then, Ellie claims that her travel had a length about eighteen hours, it would confirms Ellie's version about the truth of the trip.
When Palmer and Ellie speak about Einstein's Theory of Relativity, he mentions that if she made the trip very close to light speed, she would age about four years, while Earth would age fifty years. It's a hidden nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). At the end of the movie, aliens that contacted human beings, free a few people abducted by them many years ago, but these humans appear without aging from their abduction, due to Einstein's Theory of Relativity.
The movie features three on-screen titles on the lower third throughout the movie, two marking time, and the other a dedicatee. The first can be seen after Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is interviewed by executives of S.R. Hadden's industries, when she appears at the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, controlling some antenna radars, where it reads "Four years later". The second can be seen after Arroway's trial about her interplanetary travel, talking to children at the Very Large Array, reading "18 months later". The last appears on the final frame before the ending credits, a full starry night sky where it reads "To Carl", a dedication to Carl Sagan. Therefore, the three titles were removed for its Spanish theatrical release, but recovered several years later for its DVD and Blu-Ray releases.