Off Screen: Jill Tarter, the Inspiration for Jodie Foster's Character in 'Contact,' Has Retired From SETI

Off Screen: Jill Tarter, the Inspiration for Jodie Foster's Character in 'Contact,' Has Retired From SETI

May 24, 2012

Off Screen, our corner that keeps track of big-screen characters and properties in other media, be they comics, books, TV shows or video games.


Jill Tarter may not be a known name in many households, but her life-long pursuits have had a big influence on a number of the sci-fi films sitting on your DVD shelf, the most immediate being Robert Zemeckis' Contact. Fellow astronomer Carl Sagan wrote the character of Eleanor Anne Arroway based on Tarter, and Contact star Jodie Foster had extensive meetings with the scientist in order to understand what drives her to dedicate her life to SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, prior to filming.

Sadly that pursuit is becoming harder and harder as SETI, which is not only central to the plot of Contact but is name checked in countless other films about alien invasions and visitations, has had its funding consistently cut for decades. Last year's freeze of the Allen Telescope Array (which is not unlike the Very Large Array of telescopes seen in Zemeckis' film) due to even more budget cuts was the last straw: After 35 years of constant work, Jill Tarter is retiring from SETI.

Tarter isn't getting out of the alien-seeking game entirely, though. She's stepped down as the director of SETI, but she'll now dedicate her time to the "search for intelligent funding," something she's already been doing since the federal government axed all SETI funding in 1993. It costs about $3 million a year to keep the Allen Telescope Array running, so Tarter will now begin a campaign to seek the support of people with deep pockets and a passion for searching the skies. And she'll do so by no doubt making impassioned speeches, not unlike the one Foster gives in Contact. Thankfully one of the many great things about Tarter is she doesn't need a screenwriter to feed her lines about the importance of dreaming big:

Ellie Arroway isn't the only fictional character Tarter's life has inspired, either. She was also the basis for Samantha Crowe in Frank Schätzing's 2004 sci-fi disaster novel The Swarm. Uma Thurman and two German producers acquired the film rights to Schätzing's novel about increasingly bizarre events that start happening in the oceans all over the planet back in 2006, with Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) onboard as a screenwriter and megaproducer Dino De Laurentiis backing the film. There hasn't been any news on the production for several years now, and that's unfortunate because the book, while too bloated for its own good, has ideas that would make for a spectacle-packed event film. Hopefully it does see a production green light in the not too distant future; if only to put Tarter back on the map and help SETI get more funding in the process.

Categories: News, Sci-Fi
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