Astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has long been interested in contact with faraway lands, a love fostered in her childhood by her father, Ted Arroway (David Morse), who dies when she was nine-years-old, leaving her an orphan. Her current work with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is based on that love and is in part an homage to her father. Ever since funding from the National Science Foundation (N.S.F.) was pulled from the project, which was referred to as "more science fiction than science" by some, including her N.S.F. superior David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), Ellie and her rogue scientist colleagues have looked for funding from where ever they could get it to continue their work. When Ellie and her colleagues hear chatter originating from the vicinity of the star Vega, Ellie feels vindicated. But that vindication is short lived when others, including politicians, the military, religious leaders, and rival scientists, such as Drumlin, try to take over her work. After the mysterious messages from space are decoded by her anonymous millionaire donor, S.R. Hadden (Sir John Hurt), the project takes on a whole new dimension, which strengthens for Ellie the quest for answers.