I’m Coming Back

MGM

My first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey took place on family movie night, on a small flat-screen TV in the guest room, lights on, popcorn everywhere, my three little brothers draped over bean bag chairs, my parents and me on the futon. My father had shown us a few movies to varying degrees of success before, mostly in the vein of That Thing You Do! or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but more often than not, it was some sort of science fiction. We branched out at times; my father’s all-time favorite, Rear Window, was mostly well-received, so he decided to try a more challenging film. He chose 2001, and it almost ruined everything. 

It was ambitious of my father to introduce his early teenage and preteen children to Stanley Kubrick, especially with a film like 2001. It was too long. It was too quiet. It was too slow. We got bored with “The Blue Danube” waltz playing over long, slow shots of spaceships—we preferred the more rapidly paced dogfights of Star Wars. The choral music was unsettling (although hollering imitations of the chorus at each other later became a family joke). HAL’s breakdown was unsettling, too. I didn’t like that a perfectly rational being could behave so erratically. The monoliths made no sense to me, or to anyone else in the family, either. The ending made even less sense. And the spacewalk scenes were the most disturbing of all: I’ve always feared being adrift and alone in space. It’s irrational, of course—there’s no chance I will ever actually go to space—but it still bothers me, even if I couldn’t have articulated it at the time.

I don’t remember my father showing any frustration on that family movie night, but he must have been annoyed by our complaints. We hated the film.

My relationship with 2001 evolved over time, even as I kept the movie at arm’s length. I read the novel a few years after that fateful movie night, but didn’t like it very much. When I moved into my freshman dorm, my roommates and I used records to decorate the walls (never mind that we didn’t have a record player), and I bought the soundtrack to 2001 for a dollar. Something felt sophisticated about the oil painting on the record cover, and the classical music it held. It was the lone nod to science fiction in the room, but it fit in next to the Uriah Heep and Herman’s Hermits records my roommates bought. Every time I looked up, I saw astronauts. I pretended to care about the movie more than I actually did—after all, I had my reputation as a science fiction nerd to uphold. I considered revisiting 2001, but never got around to it. I started to feel guilty whenever I saw the record cover in my room. Eventually, I put it away where I couldn’t see it. I watched other science fiction movies instead.

A few years later, I saw Interstellar for the first time. I watched it with a housemate a few months before I was set to move halfway across the country for grad school. I was frustrated and angry at the time, stymied by a breakup and a year off between undergrad and grad school. I was tired of broken relationships and frustrated dreams, and I wanted to take action right away instead of waiting a few more months to move. I felt adrift and alone, an astronaut without a lifeline, looking for something new to tether myself to. But it was difficult for me to articulate any of this to myself, let alone to other people. I was repressed, and in desperate need of an outlet.

Paramount Pictures

Thankfully, I had just begun to discover my interest in movies, which helped me ground conversations with people, including my housemate. We didn’t agree on a lot of things, but we both liked to watch movies. She had a decent setup—a massive TV and a dark room—but her speakers couldn’t quite handle Interstellar’s sound. They crackled at the roar of the engines, the windstorms, the collisions, and the black hole, but played the dialogue at a whisper.

I started Interstellar enthusiastically, but came away annoyed. I could see the parts that corresponded to 2001, despite the fact that I’d only seen it once, seven or eight years before. Both movies were epic in scale and meticulously designed. Both had palettes of white and gray, punctuated by blood red and clear blue; the production design of Interstellar’s stations and ships clearly echoed the interiors of 2001’s Discovery One. Both movies began with long prologues on earth before leaving for the cosmos. Both chronicled the evolution of the human race through the eyes of a single astronaut, leaped across long stretches of time, and ended with trippy visual displays. But I couldn’t understand why Christopher Nolan had picked 2001 as his touchstone. The way I remembered it, 2001 was long and slow and practically emotionless. Interstellar was long and slow, too, but melodramatic. For me, with my emotions held tight, the strokes were too broad, the story too fraught.

I was about to leave the town I’d adopted as my home, and while I was excited about new opportunities, I was afraid to say goodbye. Not that I hadn’t had any practice. I grew up a Navy brat, moving back and forth across the country regularly throughout my childhood. I was used to my father leaving for deployments, and I myself moved away from family for college at 17. I’d trained myself not to be emotional over long goodbyes, and was so accustomed to them that I didn’t fully understand the effect they had on me. I liked the beginning of Interstellar: A dusty, dying Earth was an interesting setting for a former pilot. But once the pilot left his daughter and the film left Earth, I checked out. At the time, I thought Murph’s reaction to Cooper leaving her behind was too explosive. I’d grown up among pilots and sailors and their families; everyone I knew who was Murph’s age took their parents leaving on long trips in stride. And the ending of the movie made me angry. It felt too pat, too easy— history as a recursive loop in which our descendants save us from an uncertain future didn’t sound like freedom to me at all. It felt like a trap, and I raged against it.

Still, I couldn’t let Interstellar go. My opinion of the film sparked one of the first arguments I had about art with a grad school classmate. The spat was short—he loved the movie, I didn’t, and we spent maybe five minutes on our differing opinions—but I was left conflicted. My argument was based on my feelings that Interstellar felt too derivative of 2001, but I hadn’t seen 2001 since high school. My read of both movies felt flimsy and uninformed, based on old data. Still, I avoided a revisit. Life was short, grad school was demanding, and both movies were long.

And then school ended and summer came, and with it, the Music Box Theatre’s annual 70mm film festival. They commissioned a brand new print of 2001, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. My partner and I went as a date. Actually, we ran—I thought the movie started an hour later than it did, and when I realized my mistake, we were late enough already that we had to drive, find parking, and run to the theater. We arrived sweaty from the summer humidity, sliding into our seats in the very back row just as the lights dimmed. I fought to regulate my breathing as the opening shot of the solar eclipse erupted across the screen.

Even though 2001 was familiar to me, through both memory and culture, the film felt fresh. I remembered scenes as they were happening, but couldn’t always remember what came next. Most of the dialogue felt new, and a lot of it was funnier than I remembered. I was taken by the restored colors, the size of the picture, the scale and precision of everything. (I’d seen movies in 70mm before, but never a new print.) The ballet of spaceships that once bored me when I was a teenager now had my full attention. The science felt precise. I was able to understand the rules of the movie’s universe without needing dialogue. In the decade between my first viewing and this one, I’d learned how to read a film—and I also learned to slow down. Everything I saw delighted me.It delighted my partner, too. He told me that Interstellar was being shown as part of the same 70mm festival only a week after 2001. Interstellar is one of his favorite movies and he was eager to see it again, but I was skeptical. I listed all the reasons I had hated it the first time. Instead of arguing, though, he sent me music from the film—a clip of the theme played on a church pipe organ. I hadn’t remembered the score from my first viewing, but the clip he sent intrigued me. I agreed to go to the screening, half-joking about hate-watching it, and expecting to be combative.

I was wrong. And this time, it wasn’t the experience of seeing the movie in 70mm that changed my mind. The print was a few years old, and in bad condition; vertical green lines ran up and down the screen, sometimes taking over half the frame. The colors were faded. The projectionist seemed inexperienced, letting a few seconds of black slip in between reels. I remember the audience taking the slip-ups in stride. I also remember the sound: roaring, overwhelming at times, loud and insistent, but also quiet where it needed to be. My partner was right about the music, too.

I walked out of Interstellar in tears. The movie touched me more deeply than I’d expected it to, especially having seen it only a little more than a year before. This was partly due to the setting: despite the flaws in the print, seeing Interstellar on the big screen was completely different from seeing it on a flat screen in my housemate’s bedroom. The latter had been intimate, while the former was grand. The larger screen allowed images to open up and breathe, to live on the scale for which they’d been intended. Seeing 2001 the week before had primed me to be more receptive to Interstellar. I saw the same parallels I’d picked up on in my first viewing, but this time they didn’t feel like theft, they felt like homage. I didn’t understood Nolan’s references to Kubrick in their proper context the first time—I had been too distracted by recognizing half-remembered visuals, and failed to pick up on the emotional core of the movie. This time around, Interstellar worked for me.

The first time I saw it, in a small setting on a small screen, I had been closed off and angry. I was tense and clenched up, hard-pan soil that would not take rain. I didn’t know how badly I needed human connection. I thought I didn’t like Interstellar because I believed it wasn’t original enough, and I couldn’t get on its emotional wavelength. In reality, I didn’t like the movie because it hit a nerve so deep I didn’t even know it existed until years later. I saw so much of myself in Murph—her inquisitive spirit, her dreams of academia, her love for her father—that her reaction to her father’s departure cut me to the bone. I was Murph, and yet I could not imagine myself behaving so outwardly distraught.

The second time I saw Interstellar, my reaction was different because I had changed. I was open to the possibility that I might have been wrong, both about Interstellar and 2001 before it. I was also emotionally vulnerable again, and more receptive to what Interstellar had to offer. Previously, I had been so concerned with how the story was constructed that I neglected to understand why it was built the way it was. By referencing 2001 so openly, Nolan was able to build his own story on a firm foundation. Interstellar is concerned with the basic concepts that govern human existence: gravity, space, time, and—above all else—love.I don’t know if my current opinions about 2001 and Interstellar will remain fixed. 2001 is an incredible film, but even though I like it now, I wouldn’t watch it on a casual movie night, like my family tried to do. I appreciate and admire it—and will always consider seeing it on the big screen to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater—but I’m not sure I can call the film a favorite. Maybe a third viewing will change my opinion. Or maybe I’ll never see it again. I’m content with this.

As for Interstellar, it’s not my favorite movie (the ending still feels like a cheat, and there are parts that I find more of a distraction than a help to the story), but it’s rising in my estimation. I can accept the cheat now because the plot is less important to me than the characters. The pieces that distract me explicitly spell out Nolan’s thesis a little too broadly for my taste, but they don’t take away from the full impact of the film. Ultimately, Interstellar is a story about a separated family trying to come home to each other. It’s about Murph learning to accept her father’s departure, and about Cooper learning to forgive himself for leaving. It’s about the love a father and daughter share across space and time.

Like Murph, it took me years to understand my father’s message of love for me. Cooper sends the answers she’s looking for as an adult to her younger self; as adult Murph decodes her father’s messages from so many years before, she realizes that he didn’t abandoned her when he left. My father communicated his love by showing me movies whenever he was home. Some of his choices, I liked right away. With others, it took a long time to understand what my father was trying to say. The message has always been the same: I love you and I’m here for you, even if you can’t see me right now.

That alone can keep me coming back.