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The 1997 sci-fi epic Contact is a fine movie, an unusually profound and intelligent story about contact with alien life. But what you probably don’t know is that Contact was rewritten by the US military in exchange for support to the film-makers.

A Pentagon database of films they have worked on says:

Originally a fair amount of silly military depiction. Negotiated civilianization of almost all military parts. Minimal military depiction, but positive (benign). Allowed use of vehicles & helicopters for National Guard sequence.

The database also shows that it took three months of negotiations between when the military received the script and when they approved Pentagon support.

But what does this mean? What is ‘civilianization’ and what changes did the military make to the script?

Transcript

The 1997 sci-fi epic Contact is a fine movie, an unusually profound and intelligent story about contact with alien life. Most extraterrestrial contact movies either feature an alien race invading earth and destroying large parts of human civilisation, or feature the arrival of a single alien life form who develops peaceful relationships with human beings.

Contact sits outside of this usual dichotomy, and its story is much more mysterious and ambiguous. The aliens never arrive on earth, and instead send a signal containing instructions for building a giant wormhole machine, which is then used to send one scientist across the galaxy to make contact.

The film-makers received assistance from several government agencies, but got into trouble with the White House. According to research by Robbie Graham for his book Silver Screen Saucers, in the scene where President Clinton announces the alien signal to the world the producers used footage from a real press conference where Clinton was discussing the possibility of fossilised alien life on Mars.

The White House weren’t happy with this unauthorised use of the President’s image, and admonished the film-makers, though Clinton himself has made references to the Roswell incident and was probably quite happy with his unintentional appearance in the movie.

You may have heard this story before, but what you probably don’t know is that Contact was rewritten by the US military in exchange for support to the film-makers.

A Pentagon database of films they have worked on says:

Originally a fair amount of silly military depiction. Negotiated civilianization of almost all military parts. Minimal military depiction, but positive (benign). Allowed use of vehicles & helicopters for National Guard sequence.

The database also shows that it took three months of negotiations between when the military received the script and when they approved Pentagon support.

But what does this mean? What is ‘civilianization’ and what changes did the military make to the script?

If we take a draft screenplay from before the Pentagon reviewed the script and compare it to the finished film, it shows that several critical scenes were changed. This had the effect of removing some of the most politically relevant and subversive material in the script.

The first key scene comes after Ellie begins to decode a series of images hidden within the alien signal. In a meeting at the White House she explains that the decoded images are blueprints for building a machine and speculates that it could be an advanced communications technology or some kind of transport device.

In the original script the National Security Advisor suggests, ‘It could just as easily be some kind of Trojan Horse. We build it and out pours the entire Vegan army.’ The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the US military, responds, ‘Why even bother to risk personnel? Why not send some kind of doomsday machine? Every time an emerging technological civilization announces itself by broadcasting radio waves into space they reply with a message. The civilization builds it and blows itself up. No expeditionary force needed.’

Ellie responds by telling the President, ‘[T]his is communist paranoia right out of War of the Worlds.’

In the finished film this scene appears in modified form and it is the National Security Advisor and not the military who says, ‘Every time they detect a new civilization they fax construction plans from space. We poor saps build this thing and blow ourselves to kingdom come.’ Ellie’s response about Cold War paranoia was cut, removing one of the few lines in the movie that was critical of the military and their mindset.

While in the original script it is the military who appear neurotic and paranoid, this fearfulness was ‘civilianised’ in the final version and our hero’s criticism of this mentality was removed.

Similarly, another scene was excised completely. It showed the candidates to go through the wormhole being shown a weapon they will take along for self-defence. By deleting this scene they also censored Ellie’s objection, where she said, ‘I question the thinking behind sending the first ambassador to another civilization in armed—basically announcing
our intentions are hostile,’ and her opinion that taking a weapon is ‘xenophobic paranoia.’

Again, the militaristic approach to space travel and alien contact was criticised in the draft script, so this was removed to make the military portrayal more positive.

Another sequence in the draft script that criticises the military-industrial complex was also taken out of the final cut.

In the original version, the President gives a stirring speech at the UN about building this great new technology and this is intercut with a military convoy and Apache helicopters approaching the construction site.

The script describes how ‘Encircling the installation is a vast graveyard of discarded aircraft—the detritus of Twentieth Century war-making.’ This is rather obvious symbolism representing how technological efforts are moving from the mass violence of the 20th century weapons industry to peaceful 21st century space exploration and discovery.

In the final version this sequence does not appear, and there is no indication of military involvement in the construction of the wormhole machine.

So, in exchange for a few trucks, some background extras, a couple of helicopters and a harrier jump jet, the Pentagon effectively wrote themselves out of the script and demilitarised the whole story. As such, in this movie where big ideas and widespread beliefs are subject to questions and scrutiny, the military is the only area of life portrayed in the film that is free from criticism.

While they play only a minor role in the story, they are not shown through quite the same lens as the rest of the people and institutions in the movie.

The Department of Defense, along with the Treasury, Secret Service and NASA were thanked in the credits.