Film poster. Photo courtesy hokpakh3 via Flickr (

Interstellar's surprising look at fathers and daughters

Film poster. Photo courtesy hokpakh3 via Flickr (

Film poster. Photo courtesy hokpakh3 via Flickr (

Interstellar is not the movie to see if you're trying, as I am, to stop biting your nails. The basic premise: The earth has just about run out of food, and a team of scientists have to leave the planet to find another, more inhabitable home in a galaxy far, far away. Matthew McConaughey leads the cast (and the crew of the spaceship Endurance) through familial disputes, ever-worsening environmental catastrophes, and, finally, interstellar travel.

McConaughey's Cooper is a pilot who lives in a rundown farm house (a la Signs) with his family-daughter Murph, son Tom, and father-in-law Donald. Cooper's wife died years earlier of a brain tumor, so Murph (named after Murphy's Law; a strange thing to do to a child) is being raised in what is mostly a man's world.

Other and better critics  than I have raised issues with some of the film's flaws; it sometimes delivers pat answers to complex questions and it is seriously difficult to hear dialogue over background sounds and music throughout. But the most interesting part of the movie to me (aside from the nail-bitingly intense space travel and the fight scene with a famous movie star whose name has been kept out of promotional materials for some reason) was the running theme of fathers and daughters.

It's not a theme you would necessarily expect in a film like Interstellar, which is to say a film that touches on topics both particular and enormous through the lens of scientific exploration, but it's also been there in similar films: Armageddon saw Bruce Willis give up his life to save the man who was going to marry his daughter, and Dr. Floyd explains to his daughter via videophone that he won't be able to make her birthday party because he's traveling in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fathers saving sons doesn't have the same emotional resonance, I suppose: Fathers send their sons off to wars, they serve alongside them. Fathers protect their daughters.

But in Interstellar, we begin to see the narrative change. We see Murph, who has clearly inherited her father's stubborn curiosity and scientific aptitude, grow in the years the Endurance as been away. She becomes a physicist and NASA employee in her father's absence, and her role in the film's plot is one of, if not the, most pivotal of all.

Anne Hathaway plays Amelia Brand, a science-y person (her job was never totally clear to me, although that could have been one of the pieces of information I missed behind Hans Zimmers' music) whose father was McConaughey's professor back when. She is sent by her father-commissioned, really-to do the work he could not do in his old age. When we find out later that his information wasn't entirely accurate, we have to wonder what happens when the constraints of filial obedience and love are tested. The fathers of this film aren't working their agendas out on their sons, but their daughters.

The notion of space explorers as pioneers comes up in Interstellar, and that's where the female characters started to remind me of people from Willa Cather's novels. It's silly that this even needs repeating, but women have been at the front of exploration since exploration began; some following in the footsteps of their fathers, some dressed as men for the freedom it afforded them. It's great to see a film that, among other things, recognizes the legacies that fathers give to their daughters as they create the world on their own.