In the film Contact, after building the giant machine on Hokkaido, Arroway 'travels' to Vega, landing at the beach where her father is.

However, the capsule never left earth. It's not clear if Arroway had a dream, or that it really happened (as 18 hours of noise was recorded, which is 1 second on earth).

Did Arroway have a dream or was it real?

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    I think "It's not clear" is the intention. Although, it seems pretty clear that something happened, given the 18-hour recording.
    – KSmarts
    Jan 7, 2015 at 15:52
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    I think that it was left open for speculation intentionally. My personal thought was that it happened, but the machine sent her back to the moment she left. Sort of a time travel aspect. There's no REAL basis for this, other than the fact she KNOWS she was gone, and the 18 hours of recorded noise. Any answer here would really be a speculation.
    – PiousVenom
    Jan 7, 2015 at 16:03
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    It's supposed to be intentionally vague, but it's clear that something extra-terrestrial happened, given the 18 hours of footage being captured in one second -- a feat not possible on Earth. The most annoying thing about Contact is the unrealistic reaction of the officials at the end. It makes zero sense that they'd be angry with her. She did her job, reported what she saw, that was it. Getting angry with her was very unrealistic -- there's plenty of NASA pilots who have reported seeing weird things, nobody got angry with them for seeing them, they just looked for likely explanations. Jan 7, 2015 at 17:56
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    @Django - Well, what she saw was the whole point of the mission, and that's very different from reporting something odd but unrelated. If we sent men to the moon, and they came back claiming it really was made of cheese, without actually having a hunk in hand as they stepped off the pod it'd get a similar reaction.
    – Radhil
    Jan 7, 2015 at 18:35
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    I think Clarke's third law is relevant. Jan 7, 2015 at 18:35

8 Answers 8


The entire point of the movie is that we don't know, since there was no evidence. If you want to believe that she went to Vega (and beyond) then you have to rely on faith. That is what the movie was about.

Personally I definitely choose to believe that Ellie's journey was real. The final lines of the movie do hint that this was the intention, with the government officer admitting that, although Ellie's camera recorded only static, it recorded static for the duration that she claimed to be travelling; rather than for the subjective zero seconds that her hypothetical dream would have lasted from everybody else's perspective.

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    I don't know that I'd say there was 'no evidence' -- there is evidence of something. There's the many hours of recording of static, for example, that you mention -- that's evidence (consistent with her story, not consistent with 'nothing happened'), it's just that her explanation of it may not necessarily be the simplest possible one.
    – Glen_b
    Jan 8, 2015 at 3:38
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    @Glen_b: The many hours' recording of static does not prove that she went anywhere or experienced anything or spoke to anyone, despite circumstantially supporting her claims. Does it prove that the machine didn't literally send her straight through the rings with absolutely no effects whatsoever? Probably. Jan 8, 2015 at 10:09
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    Which is why I phrased it as "evidence of something"; if you clarify 'no evidence' in your answer (say "no evidence that she actually went anywhere", for example), I'll happily concede the point.
    – Glen_b
    Jan 8, 2015 at 10:55
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    @Glen_b: The question asks "did she go anywhere". My answer says "there's no evidence". I think it's clear enough that this means "there's no evidence of that". I wasn't suggesting there's no evidence that, for example, Rice Krispies exist in Mozambique. Jan 8, 2015 at 11:09
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    I refer to the question in bold in the original post; "Did Arroway have a dream or was it real?" -- something 'real' would be consistent with the evidence that exists, and a dream would not (since 'a dream' - and an instantaneous one at that - doesn't produce hours of static). The thing that was real may not be identical to her understanding of it, though.
    – Glen_b
    Jan 8, 2015 at 11:14

Don't know if this helps, but something similar happens in the book: outside observers see the Machine spin up, then immediately spin down. However the travelers (in the book there's a team of five) have an amazing journey and all share the same experience. The Being Arroway speaks with tells her of a message hidden in the digits of pi, which would sound impossible to anyone well versed in math. Nevertheless, when she gets home she indeed finds such a message after a large amount of number crunching.

So in the book, the experience was likely real.

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    Honestly this ending is actually dumber than the one they used in the film, and that's saying something.
    – Valorum
    Jan 7, 2015 at 18:10
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    I thought it was great. It was an example of something the Being's civilization considered "numinous". The point was to end on a note that spoke of even greater and more fantastic truths waiting to be known. Jan 7, 2015 at 18:14
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    Since pi is "normal" (the mathematical term), it contains all possible messages.
    – Plutor
    Jan 7, 2015 at 19:54
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    @Plutor Pi is conjectured to be normal. Nothing like that has been proved.
    – user14111
    Jan 7, 2015 at 22:05
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    @JörgWMittag It's believed (not known) that any message you can think of is somewhere in pi. The miracle is finding the message in the first sextillion (or whatever it was in the book) digits. It's like a monkey at a keyboard; you expect it to type the complete works of Shakespeare eventually but you'd be quite surprised it it happens in the first week.
    – user14111
    Jan 7, 2015 at 22:12

This is left entirely up to the viewers's interpretation (as pointed out by KSmarts in comments).

The most that can be proven with physical evidence is that the machine definitely dilated time at it's core, as the static recording proved. Since no other evidence arose that ever showed the pod disappearing, other than the briefest of half-seconds as the rings obscured it, if you rely only on verifiable proof that's all you can take away. Even the damage to the chair inside the pod can be attributed to just the space-time dilation. Ellie admits as much, that it's possible nothing happened, in the hearing.

If you allow that Ellie's memory is accurate, it is highly likely she traveled. The details she picked up along her journey are not flights of fancy that she has had before. A completely contained metallic pod becoming translucent isn't something she's likely to invent. Nor in all her history has she had the kind of emotional response as she did at simply seeing the beauty in space that she did (allowing for that she was a very driven individual, and thus was open to it).

In addition, nothing eliminates both scenarios. The mechanics of the pod becoming translucent aren't really applied to any known science, just the potential of wormhole travel, and it's assumed in movie that it's just a container. It is entirely possible that the only thing that made the trip was Ellie's mind, the pod acting as a conductor or mental conduit, supplying all the images she witnessed. Through the wormhole connection, this could allow the other race to access her mind, and arrange a scenario that would allow them to communicate. Even if you don't buy that scenario, the aliens accessing her memories implies they could do pretty much what they wanted with them, and all of it could be retroactively implanted to say... well, whatever they wanted Ellie to get across to the rest of humanity.

The most obvious debate the movie has in itself is the pressure between evidence-based science and emotional-based faith. It intentionally never answers that question, to its characters or to its viewers. So as stated, it's up to you.

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    @user14111 - The only reason to call Ellie's testimony into question at all is that she had no physical proof to back it up. We were shown what she saw. I'm simply applying the logic behind questioning what she witnessed in the same way to what we witnessed in the movie. Otherwise questioning the trip at all has no point, and the initial question is worthless, and the only answer would be "we saw the trip, so she went". If you think that's valid, go ahead and put it up.
    – Radhil
    Jan 7, 2015 at 18:24
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    "There are conventions for depicting a dream, and they weren't followed." Conventions aren't rules. Inception takes place largely (possibly almost all) in dreams and none of the conventions are followed. But it's a moot point - the landscapes and visuals of Vega were done as CG - and are very dreamlike, marking it drastically different from what we know wasn't a dream.
    – phantom42
    Jan 7, 2015 at 18:51
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    Though I really like this answer, the duration of the static footage on Ellie's camera would seem to preclude a mind-only transfer and strongly imply a physical journey that also took her (and her camera) out of the normal flow of time. Jan 7, 2015 at 19:24
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    @Lightness - If the rings dilate time and generate a (very small) wormhole, and the pod acted as a mental link, both can happen. That said, this scenario popped into my head mostly to cover a subtle inconsistency in evidence - while Ellie saw the pod passing light even before she dropped in, no camera inside or outside the pod saw anything similar.
    – Radhil
    Jan 7, 2015 at 19:48
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    @Radhil: Oh, right, yeah I suppose it could if the camera literally did record static during a period of localised time dilation, rather than getting wiped at the end of a real physical journey. Jan 7, 2015 at 20:54

In the book, there was lots of evidence. There was a lot of wear and tear to the pod and she brought back a souvenir - a palm frond. Not to mention the shared experience of five people. The people who were trying to discredit her had to reach really far to try to construct a plausible alternative scenario to explain those things. They tried anyway because - well that's just politics.

  • There's wear and tear to the movie pod, too. Somehow, the chair has been ripped out. It's not really plausible that this was caused by the drop that only gave Arroway minor injuries. Apr 20, 2016 at 21:35

The 18 hours of static recording is what the movies gives you as it's way of saying, yes it really happened. But again, it's just as open for discussion as the top spinning scene at the end of Inception.

IMO, the one giveaway in the movie that never gets discussed is the fact that she was out of her chair when the IPV came through. If you remember the beginning when she first got in to the chair she was secured to the chair with magnetic locks on her back to hold her in place. If the IPV really passed through the machine in a matter of seconds from when it was dropped as the observers thought it did, then how did she get out of the chair that quickly and wind up laying on the floor? Since she hit both the safety net AND the water, you'd think that chair would have been strong enough to hold her in place. Right?

But in her space travel sequence, we know she gets out of the chair because of the vibration. Even that takes her a few good seconds to do. It's not like there was an eject button or anything. From the moment of the drop in real time and also given the amount of G's pulling on her from the fall, she wouldn't have been able to get out of it unless she was in fact in space and had the appropriate time.


I would like to bring up something that both the movie and the book deliberately skips over.

In the movie it is implicit while in the book it is very explicit; The transmission we recieved was very complex but gave us clear instructions on how to build a machine that was far beyond any technology we had.

In the film we get the appearence that it was something you just build, while in the book it took many many years to understand, develop and construct. It made the Apollo program look like a walk in the park.

That Hadden was just sitting on all this new tech and used it as a practical joke on humanity is Carl Sagan satire. That Arroway found a circle in pi must have been a laugh at every mathematician he ever knew.

But the book and the film is not about contact. It's about being numinous. And Sagan left it wide open. I for one say everything happened, as I don't think even Hadden could hide such advanced technology from other stakeholders.

  • I'd posit that being numinous and the notion of "contact" are not exclusive. Consider: contact with what? Perhaps oneself? Ones soul? Nov 1, 2015 at 21:41
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    I think Sagan's goal in Contact was to present extraterrestrials that were truly alien. These are not green men that greet by raising three-fingered hands. This is a group about which we learn nearly nothing. They are not even a civilization in the human sense. They communicate with the travelers via purposely "human" avatars. All we know is that their science is far more advanced than ours, that they are not conquerors, and that they are explorers with deep mysteries they haven't solved yet. We also learn that we have a long road ahead and we are on our way, but we are still just children. Nov 2, 2015 at 3:41

I realize this has already been mentioned, but as Angela Basset's character (forget her name) points out, Ellie's equipment recorded 18 hours of footage in what everyone else tells her was only 1 second- no amount of delusion or trickery can cram that much time in an instant even if it was 18 hours of static (could've sworn she said 14 but that's beside the point)- I'm gonna go with the trip really happened.

  • A computer can trivially create an 18 hour video of nothing but static in quite a short time (although I'm not sure whether it can be done in 1 second) Dec 30, 2018 at 17:28

Ellie does go to Vega, but she travels through a wormhole, as she states she thinks it was in the film.

To the people on Earth it looks like the capsule only fell through to the sea, but in between the time as it fell space time bent and she traveled to Vega in "approximately 18 hours" as she says, and about 18 hours of static were recorded on her camera, too. She also sees in the capsule (The material is somehow transparent in some places as she moves around) a planet of Vega with lights and a civilization.

She somehow falls asleep, though, and the Vega aliens go virtually in her dream and make her dream she is on a beach she made up when she was a kid, and the aliens pretend to be her dad and they explain why they did everything to help the humans. She then wakes up injured right when she arrives to Earth from the capsule falling down. So she does go near the Vega planet, but she dreams with the aliens. So in some ways she does go to Vega, and in some ways she does not.

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    Do you have any basis for this wishy-washy answer that says, yes, she did travel interstellar distances, but no, she didn't actual have the experiences that she, well, experienced? Apr 19, 2016 at 23:47

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