You might have noticed that 90s blockbuster Contact (Robert Zemeckis) and recent sci-fi brainteaser ‘Interstellar’ (Christopher Nolan) have quite a bit in common. Both of them clock in at about three hours long, both made by highly regarded directors at the top of their careers, both star the formidable Matthew McConaughey (who never seems to age?) and they are both pretty inspired for their time. I’m confident in saying that Interstellar will be regarded as an influential sci-fi film for years to come, as Contact is regarded now. Aside from their extravagant visuals and spookily similar search for alien life/planets, Interstellar and Contact are also both driven by one monumental theme. Daddy issues.
Let’s just be clear about the concept of ‘daddy issues’. It’s basically a reverse Oedipus complex trope, overused in popular cinema to give ladies more character depth or stronger motivation to succeed. Often, the father will have been absent from home or dead and our female protagonists suffer from abandonment complexes because of this. It’s particularly prominent between fathers and daughters, as opposed to say mothers and daughters or fathers and sons. The term ‘daddys girl’ is one which is routinely mentioned; within both literature and society, Fathers are often the keepers of their daughters. They are responsible for protecting, feeding, defending their honour and handing them over to another man when their daughters are of an age to be married. We can safely say that Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster, Contact) and Murph (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar) both harbour severe ‘daddy issues’, and both films utilize this trope in a bid to give momentum to their personal narratives. So whilst Interstellar and Contact are similar for many other reasons, this is the one we will be focusing on today!
“You Gotta Make Things Right With Murph”
From the beginning of both Interstellar and Contact, there is a clear and strong emotional bond between the daughters and their fathers. Ellie Arroway, daughter of Tom, is his only child. Mum is also gone, we assume dead as Ellie makes constant references to Mum being in the sky. Tom and Ellie are not only father and daughter, they are also best friends. The same goes for Cooper and Murph. With even less reference to the whereabouts of Murph’s mother – Cooper’s children are bought up by himself and their grandfather. When Tom dies and Cooper goes to space indefinitely, it leaves a huge hole in their daughters lives. Notably, in Interstellar – the grandfather (whose name I forget and he isn’t relevant enough to google) explains that Cooper needs to make things right with Murph, but Tom (his son) will be okay. It’s an odd statement, only really serving to teach us what we already know. Murph will be distraught if Cooper leaves. Tom, presumably because he is a little older and is not ‘daddy’s little girl’ (aka he’s a boy) will be okay.
The nature of their father’s absence dictates the rest of Murph and Ellie’s lives. Ellie grows up to be a SETI scientist, or something, and her job is to listen out for extraterrestrial life. We know that she used to do this with her father as a child, and we can clearly understand that this career choice boils down to two things. Firstly, that in the search for E.T. she may one day find her father, and secondly that this a career that her father would approve of ergo she is doing this to make him proud. Equally, Murph’s entire life is governed by her father’s disappearance. She, like anyone would, assumes that he has perished and so her work with NASA is really about getting him back. It’s slightly irritating that whilst Murph is the person who literally saves humanity by working out what Prof. Brand could not, she isn’t really credited for it. She’s insanely clever and astute – can I say again that she SAVED HUMANITY? Coop floats around in space for 3 hours whilst his daughter saves the world. Only, if Coop hadn’t disappeared then Murph would never have developed an interest in all things science. In order for Murph to become the incredible scientist that she is, Cooper has to instill these interests and ideas within her – therefore making him the sole reason why she is such a great scientist. I think it’s wonderful to have female scientists on our screens, quite honestly we need more! But Ellie and Murph’s trajectories just feel a bit false, motivated by the desire to see and please their fathers.
Interstellar even goes a bit further; both of the leading female characters are governed by paternal relationships. First, as we have discussed, Murph’s entire career comes about because Dad went off into space and (almost) never came back. Anne Hathaway’s character (Brand) also has an incredibly convoluted and complicated relationship with her father (Michael Caine). Caine’s character is also called Brand, but let’s refer to the father has Prof. Brand, and the daughter as Brand to avoid confusion (a trick that Chris Nolan has never tried, evidently). So Prof. Brand is an established scientist, working at underground NASA to develop a way of saving humanity. Prior to the narrative of Interstellar, he has developed two strategies; Plan A and Plan B. How very original. Plan A is the ragtag group of astronauts (including Coop and Brand) finding a planet that can sustain life. Plan B is a little stranger and involves thousands of human embryos that can be bought to life when a suitable planet is found. So it’s not so much saving the current human race as it is preserving the species. Funny thing is, Prof. Brand reveals later in the film that there is no Plan A. He confides in Murph that Plan A could never succeed, and the only option all along was to go with Plan B – the plan which involves his only daughter becoming an incubator for thousands and thousands of fetuses. On one hand, it’s likely that Prof. Brand wanted his daughter to survive, and that’s why he sent her of all people into a new world to become the Ultimate-Mother to the next generation of human beings. However, the plan places Prof. Brand as a sort of ‘guardian’ to his daughter’s womb. The mother in sci-fi & horror films is often portrayed as archaic and monstrous, especially the non-biological or synthetic mother (I’m sure we are all familiar with Creed’s monstrous feminine) Which is exactly the type Brand will be. The babies that Brand ‘births’ are synonymous with the Other, something which is anti human and generally alien or machine made in some way. Brand can never be a maternal biological mother to the thousands of fetuses because they were produced and kept alive synthetically with technology.
Brand, by the way, has no idea that Plan A is a no go or that (as far as her father believes) she is the only hope (to paraphrase another popular sci-fi film). Brand has no choice but to carry out her father’s plan and when we leave Brand on Edmund’s planet we assume she is readying herself to become this synthetic mother. Not only has one of the most potentially formidable female characters been reduced to a womb, the reduction has been coerced and planned out by none other than her father.
“You’ll Be Seeing Me Again”
There’s another aspect to the relationships that Ellie and Murph have with their respective fathers, one that feels incredibly Freudian. When Cooper tells Murph that he is leaving, he makes a point of saying that when he returns the two of them might be the same age. This, unsurprisingly, upsets Murph as Cooper is basically saying he has no idea how many Earth years will pass by the time he returns if indeed he does return. There is a scene later on where Cooper watches a message from Murph and here we see that they are roughly the same age, due to the years Cooper lost on Miller’s planet. This echoes the sentiment that at some point father and daughter will be the same age, and instills this idea that there relationship will be fundamentally different from that of a normal father/daughter. When Cooper leaves, Murph is at an age where she idolizes everything Coop does – her father is her hero. Freud, although maybe not the most accurate psychologist in the world – pinpoints the attraction that young girls have with their fathers. The idea that Cooper and Murph may some day be the same age plays into the age old idea that the only man good enough for his daughter is her own father. Keeping Cooper and Murph the same age for the majority of the film means that, despite an underdeveloped love story with Topher Grace’s character, Murph can remain off limits to other men. She’s waiting for Dad to come home.
This idea is characterized again with Ellie in Contact. Tom (Ellie’s father) is definitely dead and not coming back any time soon. So, feasibly, we can imagine that Ellie is free to pursue whomever she likes and not restricted to someone who is either in her father’s image or someone her father approves of. This is not the case. Ellie does pursue a on-again-off-again relationship with Palmer, but this is fraught with complications – the main one being Ellie’s inability to commit to anything serious. Ellie’s pursuit of a career instead of a family and a husband is a direct result of the lack of a father figure in her life. Ellie quickly falls into the stereotypical working woman trope, one that chooses a career over love and cannot have both. She is unfulfilled, Palmer is the only person who comes close to filling the void left by her father. Palmer is also freakishly similar to her father, and then there is the whole picture-frame-post-coitus thing which was all a bit too Freudian even for me. The implication in Contact is that, if Tom had been around to guide Ellie, she wouldn’t have buried herself so deep within her work and become a (literally) impenetrable career woman.
It’s no surprise that Ellie’s entire work with SETI is based around the fantasy of retrieving her father from the afterlife – something that Ellie fundamentally believes she can actually do. Again, her life’s trajectory is not governed by her intelligence or even by her own autonomy. It’s governed by the formative male figure in her life, her father. In the last half an hour of Contact, Ellie succeeds in her mission. She travels through various wormholes to the constellation of Vega and there she meets an alien life form which explains to her that this is just the first small step humanity will take. My personal opinion is that this section of the film was actually a hilarious b-roll ending that Zemeckis shot and accidently included in the theatrical release. It’s so bad that it’s laughable. But if we can pretend for a second that this was actually the intended ending of the film, a few questions arise. The alien itself takes on an image so that Ellie can ‘comprehend’ it. The image it chooses is her father. It’s clear at this point that Ellie has now come full circle and succeeded in her mission to find her father – and that her entire trajectory really has been about the need for a father figure. The other rather odd aspect is that, like Murph and Coop, Ellie and Tom are now the same age. Contact behaves a little bit like a romance film, in that Ellie pushes Palmer away time and time again in order to wait for the man she truly deserves. In this case, it’s her alien-dad. Riddle me that, Freud.
Ultimately, it’s totally conceivable that the death or loss of a parent will cause certain repercussions later in life. It might influence decisions you make or the career you choose. It’s just unfortunate (and kind of ridiculous) that both Murph and Ellie’s entire lives revolve around their daddy & abandonment issues. Whilst the films try to play these issues off as emotional and ‘cute’, it’s actually terrible for their character development. Murph and Ellie can’t just BE scientists, or have a desire to learn about science. This desire must stem from their fathers (who were also involved in the science they are learning about). Their life decisions are intrinsically linked to the most prominent men in their lives. The film-makers could have chosen to show these women as independent, clever and forward thinking, but instead they are stuck as prepubescent children, yearning for their daddies approval. Interstellar and Contact are both wonderful and innovative films, but they are both guilty of oversimplifying their female characters – turning them into one dimensional daughters instead of allowing them to reach their full potential as scientists of the future.