What is suspense? Literally, a hanging in the air: hopes raised, bodies precarious. A sense of the unknown. Too often, it’s assumed to be a simple question: what happens next? But maybe it’s more complicated than that.
Sure, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has some theories—yet to be tested—as she’s held, waiting. Fixed into a chair in a kind of magnetic armor, in a silver pod that itself hangs over the unknown, poised for a drop into a giant alien machine of slicing concentric rings. Purpose? Unclear, but at this point we’re approaching the final act, so we know a few things. There’s a chance of interstellar transportation. Perhaps transformation. But also the chance of fall, death by machine or human interference. The unknowns are exciting, the countdown has started; the roar of the machine and the snaking, shimmering translucence at her feet unnerve with glimpses of the abyss. Certainty is melting like the walls of the craft.
But the moment of greatest tension and clarity in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) isn’t hooked on the traditional query of What next?. It’s not even the Drop itself. Instead, Contact uses this moment of pause to ask a different question, more universal and more personal, which requires cold, unflinching honesty: whatever’s next…are you ready to face it?
This is the moment of a woman alone, shuddering with the g-force and fear; waiting for the command center to release the pod, repeating over and over into a static void, unsure if anyone can hear, a fierce whisper to convince them—and herself—that the only way is forward.
“I’m okay to go. I’m okay to go.”
Contact celebrates and rewards patience. The film has already asked us to sit thoughtfully through many discussions related to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. The script has provided scientific education, political exposition, and philosophical quandaries. The questions have evolved and refined—from the general (Is anyone out there?) to collective risk assessment (Should we really build a giant machine—nature unknown—just because some aliens—intent unknown—sent us some blueprints hidden in a recording of the Berlin 1936 Olympics?).
Based on the 1985 Carl Sagan novel, Contact is unashamedly thoughtful sci-fi. Ellie, as avatar for Science, has declared her desire to risk everything; her one-time lover, Rev. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), chips away with questions of Faith. At the center of these individual tensions and debates sits a space to search for richer answers. It’s the space that silences the talk, causes confidence to waver, prompts sudden exits and absences and mistruths. And it’s here that Contact centers its moments of profundity. Moments that sharpen until that final pause before the Drop.
“If you could hear m—”
She wasn’t ready. Not the first time.
In an earlier flashback, we sit with young Ellie (Jena Malone) on the balcony of her childhood home, her telescope trained up at the night sky during a meteor shower. Here, she’s not held as high or precarious as before the Drop, but maybe all is relative—after all, she’s only a kid. And she’s not really alone; she’s within calling distance of her father, Ted (David Morse, sturdy and steady). She can trust, as always, that he’s there.
Her father is the one who taught her to use her voice to connect through the void, with the “small moves” of the CB radio dial. This is a safer place for a voyage of discovery—weathered wooden panels, warm light, and the rustle of autumn leaves. (Contact is sparing in its score, making space for the sound of the Earth that Ellie must leave.) It’s as removed from the shining metal panels and steel rivets of a secret alien space machine as you can get.
Ellie was nearly ready.
When she hears the thump of her father falling, makes her dash to his side, there’s shock there, but also strength. She’s shaken, but she gets up; her father is broken, and she knows how to fix him. The meds are in the upstairs bathroom. She rushes up the stairs, she turns the corner, she goes, she goes…
And time melts.
The slow-motion shot of Ellie’s run—carried out by cinematographer Don Burgess—at first seems a tad clichéd. So much, so tragic, so well-trodden. Yes, moments of panic can move like treacle. A staircase can seem a mountain, and a hallway a mile. The loop of step and step and heartbeat on heartbeat. The reason this shot is so celebrated, however, is its poise between pause and fracture, its technical prowess in shaking perspective. As Ellie slow-runs towards the camera, as her small hand desperately reaches out, what we’re seeing is undone: as she opens the cabinet, the camera retracts in Contact’s signature steady arc, warping the image seamlessly, until it’s only a reflection in the mirror. We see the moment her world flips. The before and after. We stay slowly with the cabinet that shuts; a final reflection of a picture frame. Father and daughter, made past.
“I should have kept some medicine in the downstairs bathroom. Then I could have gotten to it sooner.”
The tearless face of a child asks us: can you ever be ready for someone else to go?
After the Drop, during her flight between worlds, time slows again. Ellie’s necklace—a toy compass gifted by Palmer—comes loose and floats off and around the pod. Again, something precious is just beyond Ellie’s reach. This time, she’ll choose to unbuckle her harness and leave her chair. The necklace moves slowly, hanging for a moment of peace, before Ellie turns at an ominous creaking: with unforgiving violence, the chair she’d just been sitting in is crushed like a can.
“I’m okay to go. I’m okay to go.”
Patience without introspection is just, well, hanging around. Stubbornness. Fortitude. But Ellie’s moment before the Drop is a pinnacle not of strength, but vulnerability. Center-shot, we spend well over a scoreless minute with her walking the gantry into the pod. Gulps, wide eyes, wavering steps. She’s afraid.
Once inside, visually, physically, she’s separated from those who have power over her. She has no control over the Drop beyond her verbal affirmation of readiness. She’s left alone, blue eyes staring out in a world of silver and grey.
Her isolation is framed and reframed: here, she’s up on the screens in the control lab, the repeated image of the repeated image. Several moments in Contact make use of the multi-monitor setup, conversations rippled and disjointed across multiple channels, angles. Synced and unsynced dialogue.
Ellie’s voice, too, is an echo, distanced by digital transmission through speakers. The score is still minimal, the air frosty with cold and static. There’s no voiceover farewell from state or military, or flags flapping in the breeze as crowds shade their eyes in awe. There’s no touch—no ‘90s hero high-fives or hoorahs, no witty one-liners, no flirting with techs. Ellie is permitted two wordless companions and a stilted bow. She sits in a sealed silver coffin, in a hidden site—the whole endeavor in quiet, watching shadow. Lurking behind it all is a question: if this fails, will anyone ever know? Will Ellie’s story be just another signal, lost in the void?
As the pre-flight checks and communications begin to disintegrate, the “ABORT” button is pulled out, its warning-red stark against the nighttime grey. Something in this moment is wrong.
But then, of course it is. We’ve been here before.
“Something’s happening, I’m…do you see that?”
“Negative, Ellie. You’re breaking up…”
Perhaps the most daring feature of this particular moment in the film is that we’ve already seen it. We know this process, the countdown, the spin of the machine. We’ve watched these characters watch these screens before. We’ve watched someone else make these choices.
Ellie was only ever the backup, not even really an understudy. Her role as protagonist—her hero’s arc—had been unceremoniously curtailed by two of the influential men in her life. She was told that the world wasn’t ready for her to be the one to represent them. The sexism and power plays of the film are made clear. Her older once-mentor, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), had been lurking jealously over her work since the beginning, positioned early as a sly antagonist. A backstory suggesting a pattern of defunding and interfering with Ellie’s research evolved into a more blatant co-opting of her discoveries, until he quite literally took the opportunity of a lifetime away from her with a barely concealed smugness. (And, to be clear, this isn’t a feminist ‘90s construction for the film: Sagan’s novel is surprisingly witty in its descriptions of mansplaining in scientific communities.)
Drumlin said that he was ready. He was more than okay to go. He wasn’t vulnerable. He was confident and clear—clothed like a mild-mannered astronaut, Stars and Stripes on his uniform. Interviewed in his baseball cap as he delivered over-rehearsed words, hopes stolen from Ellie’s insight. The all-American hero giving orders and checking lists in the run-up to the first test flight of the original Machine. Around him, a hive of activity, and a thrum of possibility.
It was Ellie who fractured that moment—the one who stayed thinking, stayed looking and questioning. She spotted the risk and the danger through those banks of screens: the flash of a face of someone not supposed to be there. A terrorist-preacher, grinning. There, too, she talked through a mic to try and communicate, to warn, to try and make sense of the world—or make the world make sense. Then, screams and fire.
Not everyone is ready for us to go.
“Are you reading this?”
When a story has already shown us how it fails, something must change to give us hope. Like a scientific method, there must be a different variable. A regaining of control.
In theory, the error for the first Drop was about safety protocols and access. The key variables, then, are location and setting. The second Machine—a clandestinely-built Plan B—is hidden off of Hokkaido, first revealed to us through the viewports of Mir and choppy satellite internet. Views within views, secrets within secrets. Unknown destinations. To protect the project, but also perhaps to cover up the shame of a potential second failure.
There’s a clever tonal shift. All is funereal shadow, dark angles, echoes of a skeleton crew and military severity. A storm sits in perhaps over-heavy pathetic fallacy, an ominous counter to the bright, sunny skies of the first test. The adventure has become a mission, an operation. It’s as far from childhood Wisconsin as Ellie has come. She’s already nervous, a fish out of water before her journey has even begun.
But of course, the variable is not really security. It’s who’s in the pilot’s seat. Ellie is our main character; her agency is ours. This is her redemptive arc, her moment to face who she is. Ellie the vulnerable is our human representative. As she questions her courage, we question our own readiness for what’s out there. The story so far has shown us extremes of human empathy, greed, violence, and sacrifice. It’s not about the message, but our actions: leaps of faith and connection. Who or what are we when we step out into the stars?
Ellie didn’t have to be physically alone, or bear such weight of representation. The Drop is one of the biggest deviations from the source material. There, Sagan’s more ambitious outlook on the cooperation of global powers results in a diverse, international crew of five—solidarity in a shared secret. In the film, Ellie is severed from her peers, left to an unnerving, individual persecution (or even cult of worship) in the genre shift to courtroom drama that falls awkwardly by the time the credits roll. Instead of the communal undertaking, a breadth of humanity—with all their different life experiences and personal sacrifices—is set aside in order to expose the question: are you ready to go…alone? Will you be enough?
Ellie’s moment before the Drop is one of disconnection. Of shouting into the void. Of failing to feel the steadiness of understanding. The Machine, when revved up fully, begins interfering with her headset, the only tether she has to her fellow humans in a craft where even the seams of the exit have vanished without trace. It’s the repetition of the tuning of the radio, the adjustment of the giant dishes at the Very Large Array, the unmade calls and missed opportunities for connection with Palmer Joss. The inability to call up loved ones who’ve passed.
Frame by frame, the interference is made palpable. We see the faces of the command scientists, military, and Palmer; they’re confused, uncertain. We’re shown their perspective: Ellie’s image onscreen blipping in and out in static, silences fracturing her supposed determination into…what? Panic? A plea? To stop, or to go?
“…hear me? I am…—kay…t—…g—”
We’re being prepared for another fracture of perception, one that will have consequences for the final narrative hurdle. Outside is only mechanical roar and wind howl. Inside the craft is calm and cold. Things look different here. After the exterior chaos, the steady close-up on Ellie solidifies our role: as her witness. We alone will hear her choice made over and over and over.
Then, connection. Her oldest colleague, Kent, is the one who finally hears her—connects with her—through the chaos.
“I hear her. I hear her. Barely, but she’s there.”
Then, just enough pause for an audience to breathe in: are we ready, too?
We blink outside. We fall with the craft. We fall through the stars.
“Is she holding?
The moment of preparation, of courage to face the question—go or no go? Ready or not?—is made more poignant by the ultimate outcome: from the ground, Ellie appears to have gone nowhere. All that build-up for nothing. All that worry and emotional wrangling and money and sacrifice…for nothing. All eyes –all data –point to the Pod falling straight through: Ellie’s truth, ensnared in the same net that caught the pod. Only the audience bore witness. We watch as she’s unmade, from voyager to victim. A cold, exposed Cassandra.
Were it not for the pause—the taking and making of time with Ellie, and her insistence that she’s ready—this final twist would not hit so personally. But Contact makes the choice to hold her in that moment for us alone: to hear her repeat and repeat and repeat her certainty, as it morphs from confusion, to self-convincing, to desperation, until it becomes an article of faith in itself.
Our belief built with her belief. Her betrayal was our own stomach lurch, the world tipping beneath us. Ellie’s second chance wasn’t permitted. The world just wasn’t there yet; it was stuck in the stumble, afraid of crossing the threshold.
But we should hold a second. Turn to another frame. Because the moment before the fall has a rival. There’s been another pause, another moment of reckoning. Another scene that didn’t rely on slow-motion—one that took the physical suspense and the fracture further, held them with the simplest of craft to still and crystallize a moment. The crux of the first act, the one that echoed across all the trailers, and sat in our ears and our eyes. An earlier moment where we also saw Ellie in close-up, in her dusky greys and blues. Not closed, but open to the sky, lying on top of her father’s 1968 Chevrolet Impala convertible. About to be torn away from SETI, eyes closed, tuned into the Very Large Array—the sound of the universe.
Unlike the build-up before the Drop, the moment at the Array is a different kind of quiet. No frantic dialogue, no cuts. A long, slow zoom, focusing in on Ellie’s face. This is what it is to watch someone listen.
Then, a sound. A sound. A sound. A sound. A whisper that grows louder. A mechanical pulse: order in chaos. A question. Had you stopped believing?
Ellie was still ready, equipped, and eager to look for a tether again. But this first time, our focus—even in the long shot that follows her (from behind this time, her face often unseen), radios squawking with overlapping orders, questions, data—is not really on what Ellie has to say, for or about herself.
This is how, at the other moment, we will know that she has grown. A character arc forged in pauses.
“Roger, Control. I’m ready.”
At the end of the film, there will be a knowing exchange between politically savvy players (Angela Bassett and James Woods, both glorious). Their conversation is, again, through the monitor, over wires and airwaves; truths warped through screens. They speak of what’s interesting. That there’s no film or audio to back up Ellie’s story—that she journeyed across the galaxy, that she spent hours travelling and communing with alien life, that the message was the action, and the action the message. Contact.
There’s nothing. But, curiously, there’s approximately 18 hours of nothing. 18 hours of a pause in certainty. No one’s permitted to see what Ellie saw. They see only the gap—the promise of time held, second by second by second, clear in the digits tick-ticking by. Accumulation of experience. Repetition as revelation. Pause with that. Sit with it a while, until we’re ready to hear new truths.
“—okay to go. I’m ok—t—g—”
Some changes in human civilization are inevitable. Some aren’t. Science has messages of certainty that many of us aren’t ready to hear. Climate emergency. Pandemics. Curves that peak, signals that warn. Disasters unending and unasked for. There’s much talking, over and around. Misinterpretation, translation, warping of truths. Moments of clarity, connection, and curiosity. Perhaps some soul-searching. As a species, and as individuals, the question of What next? has sharp metal edges. Are we ready to do what’s needed? Are there some risks that are worth taking?
At the point of crisis, the command center brings out the “ABORT” button. The team is ready to step down, afraid of more hurt, more failure. A voice through a microphone, questions in her ear like a whispering conscience: is Ellie Arroway okay to do this? It could kill her. It could save her. Them. This could be her chance. A colleague has already tried, and died. Is she enough? Is it worth it? Will anybody hear the answer…or when conviction finally comes, will it be lost in all the noise?
The power is in the pause, and the declaration. The certainty before the fall.
“I am okay to go.”