The Best Astronomy Movie?

What’s your favorite astronomy movie?  Ask this question at your next dinner party and chances are conversation will come to an abrupt halt.  “Is this a trick question?”, some may ask.  Others will stare blankly and twiddle with their silverware until someone changes the subject.

Which is fair enough.  Astronomy isn’t for everyone.  But it is our métier on this website, so let’s stake an opinion on what is arguably the finest astronomy-related movie of all time.  And by “astronomy movie”, I mean a movie in which concepts of astronomy, accurately portrayed, play a major role in the plot, settings, and characters.

First off, dreck like Independence Day does not qualify.  Nor does Star Wars and its progeny, which while entertaining, have nothing to do with astronomy.  And the Star Trek franchise, love it as I do, uses astronomy only as window dressing to plotlines which may as well take place on the high seas in the 18th century.

There’s a strong argument for ranking 2001: A Space Odyssey as the finest so-called astronomy movie.  Made by Stanley Kubrick based on the ideas of the rigorously-scientific Arthur C. Clarke, the movie’s ideas and special effects have aged amazingly well.  But the slow-motion plot and twirling spacecraft leave the movie feeling like a lecture on orbital dynamics and the evils of artificial intelligence.

Which is why, for my money, the lesser-known Contact ranks above 2001 as the finest astronomy movie yet made.  Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, Contact is based on the 1985 novel by Carl Sagan and was released in 1997 shortly after Sagan’s death.  The movie tells of Eleanor Arroway, a brilliant radio astronomer who has ostensibly thrown away a promising scientific career to devote herself to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).  Forgotten by her peers and starved of funding, she finds a mysterious financial benefactor and eventually detects “The Message”, a clear and richly detailed communication from an advanced intelligence.  The Message details how to build a machine, one with an uncertain purpose.  The machine gets built at great expense, and only one lucky astronomer gets to take it for a test drive.

It makes for great viewing.  There are enough whiz-bang special effects and character development to entertain most.  And for those who have some background in astronomy, it’s enormously gratifying to see science portrayed accurately and woven into the plot.  The movie shows how an extraterrestrial  message might be carried on by a galactically-obvious radio carrier, encoded with information, then detected by radio astronomers, and eventually decoded.  It’s done in a way such leaves astronomy nerds  nodding our heads and rubbing our chins with approval, and declaring ourselves amazed Hollywood could get so much right.  It’s darned impressive.

Sure, there are a few scientific inaccuracies in the movie, including one in which Dr. Arroway is way off an estimate of the number of planets that might have intelligent life in our galaxy.  Or when young Eleanor watches a meteor shower with a telescope (a hindrance when observing meteors).  But these are quickly forgotten when Arroway makes her brief but breathtaking trip to the center of the Milky Way to meet the senders of “The Message”, a meeting which raises more questions than it answers.

In some ways the movie is better than Sagan’s novel because it leaves out long descriptions of the politics of science and academia, as well as most of Sagan’s off-putting elitism.  But the book explores many more fascinating ideas related to SETI than the movie, including one astounding speculation on the last page of the book.  When you read it, it will send shivers up your spine, and you’ll never look at a circle the same way again.  Sadly, the movie version of Contact leaves this out.

You don’t need to be a science nerd to enjoy the movie Contact.  It has something for everyone: superb special effects, a little romance, human frailty and treachery, and an exploration of deep questions of certainty and faith.  And the scriptwriters, along with the wonderful and intelligent Jodie Foster, make it all seem credible and profound.

And there are great views of the stars, too.