Back in 2009, the landscapes of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar looked an awful lot like the paintings of Yes album artist Roger Dean. Dean tried to sue but his case was dismissed, legally ruling the similarity a coincidence.
Here in 2014, there’s another similarity between film and classic rock: The plot of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar seems like an expanded version of the song “‘39” from Queen’s A Night at the Opera.
Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But I still want to talk about it.
BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
Interstellar takes place on a not-too-distant future Earth, where the human population has drastically shrunk due to a series of crop-killing blights. Soon there won’t be enough food (or oxygen) to sustain human life. A secret NASA project recruits former pilot Cooper to leave his family behind and lead a team of astronauts (and robots) through a wormhole to distant planets, in search of a new home for humanity. Despite many monologues stating otherwise, the crew’s most valuable and limited resource isn’t love: it’s time.
Ultimately, Cooper falls into a black hole and is able to relay secrets of quantum mechanics or whatever back to Earth. Surviving the fall, Cooper is finally reunited with his young daughter, Murph, on a space station/human colony. Though Cooper hasn’t visibly aged, Murph is on her death bed at well over 100 years old.
More information can be found here.
Written by guitarist and actual astrophysicist Dr. Brian May, “‘39” tells the story of a space voyage made by volunteer astronauts in the year XX39, “in the days when the lands were few.” Their mission: find a new planet to colonize in order to save humanity. The volunteers succeed in discovering a new, habitable world, and they return to Earth to share the “good news of a world so newly born.”
But upon their return, they discover that 100 years have passed on Earth, though the astronauts are “older but a year”. The Earth itself is now “old and gray,” and it is unknown what humanity’s ultimate fate is. The song ends with the narrator finding both comfort and lingering sadness; he meets his grown-up grandchildren, though their “mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to [him].”
Complete lyrics can be found here.
First and foremost, the story told in “‘39” bears quite the resemblance to a stripped-down plotline for Interstellar. In each, a team of astronauts is sent to find a new home for a dying Earth. In “‘39” the volunteers successfully discover a new planet to colonize. In Interstellar, though the crew fails to find a new planet, Cooper does relay the data needed to evacuate Earth and save humanity.
More importantly, both the film and the song deal with the effects of time dilation, as described by Einstein’s special theory of relativity. In “‘39”, the effects were not anticipated. From the perpective of the volunteers, their journey only took a single year. But, due to faster-than-light travel or some other force, they were gone for 100 years as experienced on Earth. Their success in finding a new world is bittersweet, because all their loved ones have now passed away.
Time dilation isn’t unknown to the crew in Interstellar. Knowing that time was among their limited resources, the crew is forced to make all their actions count. For example, one several-hour trip to a distant planet orbiting close to the black hole costs them 23 years. That constant threat of time running out - not just for Cooper’s family, but all of humanity - keeps the tension high among the crew and throughout the film itself.
Both “‘39” and Interstellar tackle the interesting themes of space travel, time, and relativity, an oddly specific combination that leads to an uncanny similarity. If you haven’t yet, go watch the film and listen to the song!
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