A week-long space odyssey, from Contact to Ad Astra

  • Published on: 11th February 2020
See all news

At this year’s Hebridean Dark Skies Festival you can see the films Contact, Solaris, Interstellar and Ad Astra on our big screen for a total price of just £15 / £12. Festival programmer Andrew Eaton-Lewis explains why you should make time for all four.

Mark Kermode, the well-known BBC film critic, once argued that Contact (1997) and Interstellar (2014) are ‘essentially the same film’. Both are about a daughter reaching out across the universe searching for a lost father, and in both films the daughter is the first person to decypher what appears to be a message from an alien intelligence. In both films this discovery is the cue for a daring mission into space, the climax of which is a kind of ‘stargate’ sequence that was clearly influenced by the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films had the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as an advisor, but ultimately both, as Kermode put it, ‘prioritise love above science’. And most obviously – but, he thought, least significantly – both star Matthew McConaughey. Contact and Interstellar, he suggested, would make a great double bill.

When programming this year’s Hebridean Dark Skies Festival, I thought it would be fun to take Mark Kermode’s argument a couple of steps further. Over the next week we are screening four films that feature transformational journeys into space, all of which ultimately prioritise love above science. Two of these films are Contact and Interstellar, taking Mark up on his double bill suggestion. We’ve also added Solaris – the Steven Soderbergh version with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone rather than the original, much longer Andrei Tarkovksy one – and the first Hebridean screening of Ad Astra, an epic new science-fiction adventure with Brad Pitt, whose release was another inspiration for the idea.

All of the above, I’d like to argue, are essentially the same film, in that all of them are about a space traveller whose journey is a metaphor for the vast distance between them and somebody they love. Each one also includes a reunion with the person they love – if not necessarily in human or recognisable form – that has a profound impact on the way the space traveller looks at the world.

In Ad Astra, the loved one is the father that Brad Pitt’s character thought he had lost years ago, but who turns to be alive and well, if perhaps not of sound mind, in orbit around a distant planet. In Contact, Jodie Foster’s obsessive search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is clearly fuelled by grief over the childhood loss of her father, the person who had first inspired her to look up to the stars. And without revealing too much, it turns out that something of him still exists somewhere out there.

In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s main motive for journeying into space is to save his children, and his bond with his young daughter Murphy in particular shapes every decision he makes on his journey. The film climaxes with a dramatic sequence in which – again, without giving too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen it – it turns out that her journey might be much more important than his. And in Solaris George Clooney plays a psychologist who is grieving the loss of his wife (Natascha McElhone) when he is asked to fly out to a space station that has mysteriously stopped communicating with Earth. When he gets there, who should be waiting for him but the woman whose memory he left Earth in order to escape?

Each of these stories makes me think of a line in the original version of Solaris. “We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it.” Fundamentally these films are not about journeys to alien planets or galaxies at all, they are about the very human emotions we project onto those places, and on to the vast chasms of space between us and them. They are also about very human concerns – love, grief, trauma, anger, morality, and the unreliability of memory, and conflict between science and religion.

This is absolutely not a criticism of any of these films. The only knowledge we have is human knowledge, so that is always going to be our starting point for exploring the Universe – and all four films, in their own way, acknowledge the limitations of that knowledge. All are ambitious and profound in the way they explore complex, challenging ideas about what it means to be human. And all offer extraordinary sights that – I think – only fully come to life on a big screen: a race across the desert to deliver a signal from alien life; a dramatic chase across the surface of the Moon; an escape from a giant tidal wave on an alien planet where time runs at a different speed; a dive into a black hole; journeys through wormholes in space; a planet that appears to be conscious and communicating with its human visitors. There’s a rich, transformative experience ahead of you if you see them all in the course of one week, watching each of them with the memory of the previous one still fresh in your head, and exploring all the connections between them.

The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival film programme takes place on the following dates. Each film costs £5/£4 or you can see all four for £15 / £12.

Wed 12 Feb, 7pm – Contact (PG)
Fri 14 Feb, 8pm – Solaris (12A)
Tues 18 Feb, 7pm – Interstellar (12A)
Thurs 20 Feb, 7pm – Ad Astra (12A)