Jodie Foster portrays the film's protagonist, Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact. The film also stars Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, Jake Busey, and David Morse.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan began working on the film in 1979. Together, they wrote a 100+ page film treatment and set up Contact at Warner Bros. with Peter Guber and Lynda Obst as producers. When development stalled on the film, Sagan published Contact as a novel in 1985 and the film adaptation was rejuvenated in 1989. Roland Joffé and George Miller had planned to direct it, but Joffé dropped out in 1993 and Warner Bros. fired Miller in 1995. Robert Zemeckis was eventually hired to direct, and filming for Contact lasted from September 1996 to February 1997. Sony Pictures Imageworks handled most of the visual effects sequences.
The film was released on July 11, 1997, to mostly positive reviews. Contact grossed approximately $171 million in worldwide box office totals. The film won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and received multiple awards and nominations at the Saturn Awards.
Dr. Ellie Arroway works for the SETI program at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Fascinated by science and communication since she was a child, she listens to radio emissions from space hoping to find evidence of alien life. David Drumlin, the president's science advisor, pulls the funding from SETI because he believes the endeavor is futile. Arroway gains backing from secretive billionaire industrialist S. R. Hadden, which allows her to continue the project at the VLA in New Mexico.
Four years later, with Drumlin seeking to close SETI, Arroway discovers a signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers, apparently sent from the star system Vega some 26 light-years away. This announcement causes Drumlin and the National Security Council led by Michael Kitz, to attempt to take control of the facility. Arroway's team then discover a video buried in the signal: Adolf Hitler's opening address at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Arroway and her team postulate that this would have been the first television signal strong enough to leave Earth's atmosphere, taking 26 years to reach Vega and then transmitted back from there.
The project is put under tight security and its progress followed worldwide. Arroway learns that the signal also contains more than 60,000 pages of indecipherable data. The reclusive Hadden secretly meets with Arroway to provide the means to decode the pages, found when they are arranged in three dimensions rather than two-dimensional pages. The pages reveal schematics for a complex machine which is determined to be some kind of transport for a single occupant.
The nations of the world fund the construction of the machine at Cape Canaveral. An international panel is assembled to choose a candidate to travel in the machine. Although Arroway is a frontrunner to go, her hopes are scuppered by Christian philosopher Palmer Joss, a panel member whom Arroway met in Puerto Rico and had a brief romantic encounter. When he brings attention to her atheism, the panel selects Drumlin instead on the belief he would be more representative of humanity. However, on the day the machine is tested, a religious fanatic destroys the machine in a suicide bombing, killing Drumlin and many others.
A cancer-stricken Hadden, now in residence on the Mir space station, reveals to Arroway that a second machine was secretly made in Japan, and that Arroway will be the one to go. Outfitted with several recording devices, Arroway enters the machine's pod which is then dropped into four rapidly spinning rings causing the pod to apparently travel through a series of wormholes. Arroway sees a radio array-like structure at Vega and signs of an advanced civilization on another planet. She then finds herself on a beach, similar to a childhood picture she drew of Florida, and a figure approaches that becomes her deceased father. Arroway recognizes him as an alien taking her father's form and attempts to ask questions. The alien tells her that the familiar landscape and form were used to make their first contact easier for her and that this journey was just humanity's first step to joining other spacefaring species.
Arroway falls unconscious as she begins traveling back through a wormhole. She awakens to find herself on the floor of the pod, the mission control team repeatedly hailing her. She learns that, from outside the machine, it appears the pod merely dropped through the machine's rings and landed in a safety net. Arroway insists that she was gone for approximately 18 hours, but her recording devices show only static. A Congressional Committee is formed and speculates that the Vega signal and machine were a hoax designed by the now deceased Hadden. Although she cannot prove it happened, Arroway asks the committee to accept the truth of her testimony on faith. In a private conversation, Kitz and White House official Rachel Constantine reflect on confidential information that, although Arroway's recording device only recorded static, it recorded 18 hours of it. Arroway and Joss reunite, and Arroway receives ongoing financial support to expand the SETI program.
- Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Ann Arroway
- Jena Malone as young Ellie
- Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss
- David Morse as Theodore Arroway
- Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin
- James Woods as Michael Kitz
- John Hurt as S.R. Hadden
- William Fichtner as Kent Clark
- Angela Bassett as Rachel Constantine
- Jake Busey as Joseph
- Rob Lowe as Richard Rank