Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The plot in the movie is loosely based in the novel.
Ellie Arroway, who's lost both parents at a young age, is a brilliant scientist who searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). As she affords the means to conduct her SETI research (i.e., using a radiotelescope), she gets ridiculed by other scientists and, mainly, by Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), her former teacher and now chief of the National Science Foundation and the Presidency's science advisor. Drumlin ultimately shuts down her research, as he regarded it as a waste of time and public money.
Ellie and friends start searching for someone to sponsor her research privately, and eventually receive a grant from billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), so her SETI research may go on. An alien message is detected as a sequence of prime numbers coming from the star Vega.
The message is discovered to have more than just prime numbers, and is finally decoded as a schematic for a transportation machine for one passenger. There was an initial controversy about its purpose, so the machine received no special name, remaining known solely as the "Machine".
As the construction of the Machine has a huge price tag for a single country, even the USA, an international consortium is formed to carry its construction. Because of it, disputes arise on who will travel in it - there are candidates from several countries participating in the project. From the USA, the candidates are Ellie, Dr. Drumlin and a former astronaut that at some point quits the contest.
Theologian Palmer Joss, besides being Ellie's love interest, has an important impact in the political process of choosing the Machine's passenger - he actually impairs Ellie's candidacy, giving the victory to Dr. Drumlin. In particular, Joss represents the religious aspect of the movie, challenging Ellie's agnosticism.
As a religious fanatic raids the test site in a suicidal bombing, the Machine is destroyed and Dr. Drumlin is killed. Hadden informs Ellie of a second Machine, secretly built near Hokkaido Island, and she travels in it across deep space through wormholes, and orbits several stars including Vega. In one star system, she sees a planet from nightside, from where lights emerge in a geometrical pattern — indicating a technological civilization. She goes on to make contact with an alien life form, but when she is returned to Earth she has no evidence.
A congressional inquiry hints that the entire project was a hoax created by Hadden, who dies meanwhile. However, a secret report indicates that the missing time during which Ellie made contact exists as static on her monitoring equipment, suggesting otherwise. She finally gets a new government grant to keep her SETI project going on.
- Part of the movie is set at the Very Large Array, an NRAO observatory near Socorro, New Mexico. The NRAO facility is actually "the wrong stuff" for what they were doing in the movie, but it does look the part.
- Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's wife until his demise, makes a short cameo appearance, along with former US Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.
- Jena Malone's eyes are brown, and have been changed to blue through computer graphics to match Jodie's eyes color in the beginning of the movie when they are shown at close-up.
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