​McConaugheys in Space

What two very different Matthew McConaughey characters in two very different films tell us about our changing attitudes toward space.

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Nov 13 2014, 1:45pm

Interstellar screenshot

Heads up: Spoilers abound for both Interstellar and 1997's Contact

Interstellar begins by establishing the strong bond between a father, played by Matthew McConaughey, and his daughter. As I watched, I found myself traveling through a wormhole to a time prior to the McConaissance when an earlier, breezier McConaughey played a pivotal role in a different movie about space travel: 1997's Contact, that also marks its opening beats by establishing the relationship between a daughter and her father.

Though many comparisons have been made between Interstellar and Kubrick's 2001, I find the comparison to Contact not only delightful because of the McConaughey cross-over, but also suggestive of how radically cinematic and cultural valuations of the cosmos have changed in the almost twenty years since Jodi Foster's Ellie Arroway took her own interstellar journey. Contact, I should note, was a formative movie in my own coming-of-age story, one that set me on a path first towards becoming an astronomer, but ultimately ending up an anthropologist studying the contemporary culture of astronomy. 

No longer are we venturing into space, as with Contact, to find an alien other by which we can understand our existence here on Earth. Now, space travel is propelled by the imagination that humanity's only hope is to become those aliens we have been searching for at the edges of the universe.

The father-daughter relationship is key to both movies because it sets up the tension between decisions driven by love and faith versus those fueled by science and rationality. In Interstellar, McConaughey's Coop is a former pilot grounded for the time being to till the Earth in a near future plagued by dust storms and agricultural blight. Unwilling to let his engineering background go, he teaches his daughter, Murph, to think like a scientist in a dying world no longer enamored of scientific and technological progress. Contact, set on an Earth very much as it was in the 1990s, before the tech bubble burst, begins with young Ellie's father showing her the wonders of the universe. Ellie's father dies suddenly, leaving her to grow up without a father but with his love of astronomy.

As an adult, Arroway meets-cute McConaughey. His character in Contact, Palmer Joss, is the antithesis to Coop. Joss preaches Christian philosophy, satisfied with belief in a higher being to give purpose to humanity without needing to know the intricacies of what lies beyond. He is also on the other end of the relativity equation than Coop. It is Foster's Arroway who is destined to leave Earth, potentially returning a few hours or days later while Joss is left to pontificate and nurture fears of growing old in her absence. 

In Interstellar, McConaughey plays out the other side of this thought experiment, as Coop makes the decision to leave Murph and his son, who will surely age, if not die, during his journey. Scientific curiosity in both movies trumps love, but there's more regret and less certainty over the decision for Coop, who has a bit of Joss in the back of his mind (as, one can imagine, does McConaughey).

Is the evolution of McConaughey characters from Earth-dwelling to spacefaring an indication of some larger cultural trend?

Both movies climax, after similar journeys through wormholes, with Arroway and Coop landing in differently conceived, yet similarly otherworldly spaces in which they glimpse at the alien force that compelled their journey. At this moment in both, the father-daughter relationship returns. Arroway, after her interstellar travels, is brought by beings unseen to a familiar place of memory and imagination. Her father joins her, and after a moment of long-desired reconciliation, Arroway's rational mind kicks in and she understands that this is not her father, but a shadow of a memory; it is the way that these aliens have developed to communicate, easing the shock of interspecies conversations. 

In great contrast, Coop re-connects with his daughter after a similar lapsing of years (from his daughter's perspective) in a multi-dimensional labyrinth of bookshelves right out of Borges's "Library of Babel." Coop and his grown daughter simultaneously discern that he, not some alien force, was the inciting reason for his terrestrial departure. In Interstellar, unlike Contact, it is truly the long absent father communicating with his hyper-intelligent daughter across space-time.

And here lies the biggest difference between the two films. Simply put, there are no aliens in Interstellar. Which gets back to how these movies, despite similar themes (science versus faith; father-daughter love), action (wormholes; relativity; encoded communication), and of course actor (McConaughey) offer starkly different cosmologies. 

McConaughey in Contact. Screenshot

Contact is about knowing our place in the universe with regards to knowing that we are not the sole inhabitants. Interstellar suggests that humans must ourselves define our place in the universe as there is no one else out there to provide us with context or meaning. We search for planets like our own, not for the sake of finding intelligent beings, but rather in order to ensure that our own intelligence does not "go gentle into that good night" (a plea made repeatedly by Michael Caine's professorly character).

Is the evolution of McConaughey characters from Earth-dwelling to spacefaring an indication of some larger cultural trend? Well, let's hope not. Or, at least let's hope that there are still Palmer Josses who compel us to look hard at our existence here on Earth.

After all, what does it mean to conceive of a universe where humans become the aliens we have long wondered about? Elon Musk recently announced his desire to send a million people to colonize Mars.  Less than fifty years ago, we still weren't sure if the Red Planet was inhabited, yet now, getting there is pitched as humanity's only hope. I wonder if, without the belief in other interstellar species, the sense of what is "ours" will expand without check. Believing in aliens, ironically, requires faith. 

The rational impulse is surely to colonize elsewhere, become ourselves alien, in order to leave a decaying planet. But, might a faith in aliens temper this rational impulse and result in us being more responsible stewards, if not of our planet, than of others? The father-daughter relationships depicted in these movies are ultimately about reconciling rationality and faith. What balance need we strike to imagine a responsible, cosmic existence?

Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. Follow her on Twitter.