MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Do not read this unless you have either:
- Seen Interstellar already
- Hate yourself and want to ruin one of the best movies of the year.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Way back in July 2014, I wrote a little article suggesting that Christopher Nolan’s then-upcoming film Interstellar may be a feature-length adaptation of the Queen song ’39. This was all in good fun–I obviously didn’t have any insider details, and was basing my speculation solely on the official trailers and a few Wikipedia articles.
Cut to November, and Interstellar has been released (read the spoiler-free review here). The aforementioned article I wrote has been gaining quite a bit of traction as of late, so I decided that it’s time to revisit this idea and see if it actually holds up. Surprisingly enough, many of them do, and there are a lot of similarities between Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic and the Brian May helmed song from A Night at the Opera. So let’s break it down!
One more time, in case you missed the big text at the beginning: tons of spoilers lay ahead.
The General Premise: Space Exploration, the Future, and a Dying Earth.
Obvious Space Travel Comparison is Obvious
Interstellar and ’39 both share a similar general premise: a group of space explorers go out into the great beyond. Their really isn’t anything here to actually warrant further examination–it is what it is.
When we actually analyze the song lyrics and compare them to the plot of the movie, though, some of these coincidences are downright uncanny.
Both Stories Are (Probably) Set In A Near Future
Christopher Nolan is careful to not reveal the actual date as to when the events of Interstellar take place, but they’re probably set three or four decades from now. Most of the technology used in the film is modern, the awesome transforming robot TARS notwithstanding.
John Lithgow’s character also mentions a few things in the beginning that would suggest he is of the millennial generation, and since the actor is in his late 60’s, I’m guessing that Interstellar takes place around 2050.
Even though the song title (and the opening lyric) references a specific year, guessing the actual date for ’39 is a little trickier since songwriter Brian May doesn’t actually give us a century marker. From the get-go we can safely assume that it isn’t set in 1939, since space travel itself would have been considered science-fiction back then.
Here’s the deal–’39 could be referencing 2139, 2239, 2339, or even 3039. But I’m guessing that May had the year 2039 in mind. The song itself was released on an album from 1975, a time when space travel was still relatively fresh and people still had big, speculative ideas as to what the future would hold. And if the events of the song are set in the year 2039, that’s still 64 years away from the time of the album’s release–giving May plenty of leeway if things don’t actually turn out how his fiction predicated.
I’m completely assuming things here, but either way, both stories are set in the future. That notion itself is practically undisputable.
The Earth Is In Shambles and We Need a New One
You don’t have to have seen Interstellar to know that it features a dying Earth–this little tidbit has been a part of the film’s marketing from the get-go. Still, it’s the entire reason as to why the characters set out on their mission in the first place, and it’s an incredibly important part of the story.
It’s also revealed at the end of the film that Anne Hathaway’s character finds a successful new planet to call home, at least one that allows colonization.
There are two specific lines from ’39 that give weight to the fact that May’s explorers have similar reasonings for their adventure:
- “In the days when the lands were few” from the first verse
This is a little ambiguous, but it does suggest that there’s some trouble brewing on Mama Earth. May doesn’t say what the problem is, but like Interstellar, it could very well be ecological in nature. And this line from the second verse pretty much seals the deal:
- “And they bring good news of a world so newly born.”
Again, interpreting semi-ambiguous song lyrics is usually a fools errand, but think about it: if it’s set in a time “when the lands were few” and they return with “good news of a world so newly born,” it’s safe to assume that the explorers in ’39 are looking to solve a problem related to the condition of planet Earth.
The Ethical Implications of Interstellar Travel
Interstellar plays heavily on Einstein’s theories of special relativity, and major plot points revolve around the fact that the short time Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper spends in interstellar space translates to several decades for his family left on Earth.
Explaining the chronology of the events in Interstellar is a little tricky on paper, but it works splendidly well on-screen. In a nutshell, the film spans around 70 years in Earth-time, while Cooper only spends a year or two in space. When he makes his triumphant return to what’s left of human civilization, he finds his daughter on her old-age deathbed.
The big reveal of space-time dilation happens during the second verse, specifically with this particular lyric:
- “For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year”
This coincidence is pretty unsurprising, since the science behind it practically ancient (Einstein proposed the theory of special relativity in 1905). But the actual story behind the idea–the humanity factor, if you will–is rather similar to Interstellar. Consider these song lyrics (also from the second verse):
- “For the earth is old and grey, little darlin’ we’ll away
But my love this cannot be” and
- “Your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me”
The relationship between the explorers and the people they left behind on Earth isn’t given any elaboration beyond these lyrics, but they’re clearly exploiting the dynamic between people who love each other.
Longing For Reconnection
A key difference is that while Christopher Nolan’s explorers pretty much know exactly what they’re getting into, May’s “volunteers” from ’39 are seemingly surprised with what they discover. It’s a pretty important distinction, but the characters in both stories go about their emotional journeys in similar ways.
The explorers in Interstellar communicate to their loved ones via recorded video messages that they receive rather frequently. Conversely, however, the messages sent to Earth are received years (sometime decades) apart from one another (relativity of time, remember?). In a scene where Cooper binge-watches messages from his son, it becomes apparent that the family he left behind are desperate to hear from him.
The distance between May’s explorer’s and the people they left behind on Earth is detailed in the song’s chorus:
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew”
The initial point of communication here could go either way, but it makes a little more sense to assume that these are lines spoken from people left on Earth. As I mentioned a little earlier, the tragic tone of the song’s second verse suggests that the explorers are surprised to find that so many years have passed.
Gravity Transcends Dimensional Barriers
I have one more similarity to share with you, though I can’t take credit for this one (that goes to Ygor, who suggested it in a comment left on original comparison article). It all has to do with one specific line in the chorus of ’39:
- “Write your letters in the sand”
I’m pretty sure that May was thinking about characters actually writing lovesick notes on a beach or something like that, but they lyrics here are eerily reminiscent of the way Cooper communicates to his daugher via gravity from the fifth dimension near the end of Interstellar. Sure, it’s a stretch, but as far as speculative coincidences go, it’s a rather amazing one.
Final Thoughts On The Similarities Between Interstellar and ’39
At this point you probably think that I’m accusing Christopher and Jonathan Nolan of straight-up ripping off Brian May. But that really isn’t the case here at all. While there are some major similarities between the film and the song, suggesting that they are one in the same is a disservice to both (excellent) works.
If anything, it goes to show how ahead of its time Queen’s awesome song really was. It’s also a testament to the power of music: Brian May details an entire adventure in a format that clocks in under four minutes. It takes Interstellar almost three hours to do the same thing.
But again–don’t take this as a knock against Interstellar. The similarities to ’39 put aside, it really is a masterful film, one of the best I have ever seen. Comparing the two different mediums is ultimately impossible from an objective point of view. But it really does make you think.