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Making ''Contact''

How Carl Sagan’s novel about intelligent extraterrestrial life became a movie with two lawsuits, two directors, and billions of rewrites

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The dark, inquisitive eyes. The deep, intelligent brow. The messy moptop of brown hair. Six-year-old Sam Sagan looks so much like his famous dad you half expect him to be wearing a tiny black turtleneck and a corduroy jacket. The boy even thinks like Carl. Presented with a new toy — a bulbous-headed alien puppet with glow-in-the-dark eyes — he examines it with cool, scientific detachment. ”You know,” he concludes, ”real aliens probably wouldn’t look like this.”

Like father, like son.

In fact, speculating on what real aliens would or wouldn’t look like was a large part of what made Carl Sagan the best-known astronomer of the century. And it’s a large part of Contact, the film he toiled to bring to the screen during the final 17 years of his life, before he died of cancer last December at age 62. A serious science-fiction epic set on a world stage and packed with cosmic meditations on the duel between science and God, it’s the most unabashedly esoteric film about aliens to come out of Hollywood since Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A $90 million Event Movie for intellectuals — is Earth prepared?

”Who knows?” says star Jodie Foster. ”Maybe by next week, audiences will be really sick of seeing aliens. Maybe they’ll want to see a movie with more mystery?”

Here’s how the mystery starts: Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a maverick astronomer whose obsessive search for extraterrestrial intelligence almost wrecks her career — until one day she tunes in to what could be an E-mail from outer space. Matthew McConaughey costars as her romantic interest/philosophical foil, a sort of Billy Graham-meets-Bruce Springsteen pop priest who distrusts technology but loves the aloof Ellie (”He’s got the girl’s part,” Foster cheerily notes). And because it’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, the technical wizard who had Tom Hanks shaking hands with JFK in Forrest Gump, expect improbable guest stars to pop up (President Clinton has such a big part he could snag a Best Supporting Actor nomination this year).

But Contact is really Carl Sagan’s film, his swan song to the cosmos and its mind-bending possibilities. ”We had one overwhelming impulse with this movie,” says his widow and Contact coproducer, Ann Druyan, 48, settling into the patio of their home in Ithaca, N.Y., where Sagan taught at Cornell University (Sam and his puppet have disappeared, presumably to bug his 14-year-old sister, Sasha). ”We wanted to show a serious depiction of what an alien encounter would really be like, informed by Carl, who was one of the handful of people on earth who knew most about it. We wanted to do a story about a woman like Carl, who wanted to find out how the universe was put together, a character driven in an almost Old Testament way by the need to know the truth.”

In other words, no giant space Frisbees, no Will Smith dressed in black, no bulbous-headed aliens with glow-in-the-dark eyes. No wonder it took 17 years.

Pasadena, 1979. Sagan has been zooming around the galaxy in a plywood and Plexiglas spaceship, taping Cosmos, the breakthrough PBS series that would make him an international celebrity. He’d already won a Pulitzer (for The Dragons of Eden) and advised NASA on the Voyager and Viking probes (just last week, the space agency renamed the Mars Pathfinder lander the Carl Sagan Memorial Station). But now he was being parodied on The Tonight Show by Johnny Carson (who invented the ”billions and billions” shtick — Sagan never uttered the words) and courted by Hollywood.