Science in Storytelling: Interstellar and ’39

Both Queen and Christopher Nolan have used the theory of relativity as a foundation for storytelling in surprisingly similar ways. Their ventures show how science can be used to tell human stories.

By Sadie MacDonald

I don’t think that everyone is aware of the song “39” by Queen. This underrated gem sounds like a folksy shanty with its lyrics about ships and seas, but it’s not what it seems.

“39” was penned by Brian May, who put his astrophysics studies on hold to pursue his career as lead guitarist of Queen (as one does). With that fact in mind, the song becomes very different from what its genre initially implies it to be.

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Dr. Brian May eventually did finish his Ph.D in astrophysics thirty years after starting it! Photo: HuffPost

The song’s “ship” is a spaceship, and the “milky seas” refers to the Milky Way. The “world so newly born” is another planet that offers hope for an “old and grey” Earth. Some lyrics in the song are strange: the chorus mentions “the land that our grandchildren knew” and the narrator observes in the final verse that “so many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” He addresses someone mournfully, saying “your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

May once explained “39” in an interview:

It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.

Essentially, “39” is about the human effects of the theory of relativity. I had too much of an arts education to explain relativity properly, but what’s important to this discussion is that time is relative; it will not pass at the same rate for all observers, and can be distorted. Some causes for extreme time dilation include black holes, which can distort the fabric of space-time itself, and light-speed travel (the closer something gets to the speed of light, the slower time will pass for it). For the traveller in “39,” only a year has gone by, but much more time has passed back on Earth, and the person who wrote him “letters in the sand” is no longer alive when he returns.

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, this might sound a little familiar.

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Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper in Interstellar. Photo: FilmGrab

To sum up (and spoil) Interstellar: the film is set in a future where the Earth is a dying dust bowl and its population is at risk of extinction. NASA sends explorers into space to find a planet to serve as a new home. Protagonist Cooper is one reluctant explorer, leaving his children in hopes of giving them a future. Near the midpoint of the film, Cooper arrives on a planet where time is so dilated that while a few hours pass for him, 23 Earth years go by, as he discovers when he returns to the ship to find recorded messages left by his aging children. By the end of the film, his daughter Murphy is an old woman, and Cooper reunites with her on her deathbed.

When I saw Interstellar’s trailers, I wondered if it was connected to “39”, and after watching the film, I felt certain of it. As far as I’m aware, though, Nolan never confirmed if “39” inspired Interstellar. There are several key similarities. Both feature explorers leaving a failing Earth in a spaceship in search of a new world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but at huge personal – and temporal – cost to the explorers and their loved ones. Time acts as a destructive force that irrevocably disrupts the natural lifespans of those involved, but it is also a precious resource for the protagonist, who gets to see his daughter in her old age.

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Cooper saying goodbye to his daughter Murphy as he leaves for his mission. Photo: FilmGrab

These stories show that science fiction can be intimately human. Both “39” and Interstellar use physics to tell stories of love, loss, and hope. Cooper realizes that his and Murphy’s love for each other is “the key” to transmitting the data that will save humanity, and the narrator of “39” promises his partner he will return to Earth. Interstellar ends optimistically, but the narrator of “39” laments that “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand / for my life still ahead, pity me.” Scientific discoveries and saving Earth’s population is not enough to make up for what was lost on a personal scale, but love endures nonetheless.

Science fiction, though often maligned, offers unique opportunities to explore human relationships and emotions in technologically fantastic settings. These elements have been tied to the genre since its beginnings in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and have endured up through Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Contact. We could use more marriages between science and storytelling. As Dr. Brian May himself says, “I think we all realize ourselves best by opening up both sides of our intellect… artistic and scientific.”

A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.

At the Movies, Music is the New Sports

The recent proliferation of superhero movies leaves us with specific associations regarding blockbusters. Sports films had their heyday in the 1990s, but does the imminent release of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman signal a resurgence of music biopics?

By Serena Ypelaar

Is there a sports team that everybody likes? No way.

Are there bands/musicians that (nearly) everybody likes? I think so!

Why am I asking these questions? Mainly to posit a recent theory of mine that music biopics are the future of the film industry. The upcoming release of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), in which Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen, and Rocketman (2019), starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, got me thinking about the marketability of popular cinema genres these days.

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Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Photo: YouTube

Ever since the Harry Potter films were finished (which in my completely unbiased opinion set the standard for franchise/adaptation blockbusters), I’ve felt like there haven’t been as many blockbusters that don’t wear thin. The creative industry of Hollywood seems increasingly stale with its endless superhero reboots. I feel sorry for the dead horse that is the Marvel franchise – it’s taken so many beatings over the last few years (Infinity War is aptly named). Just when you think nobody wants another superhero flick, people still flock to the theatres without fail.

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Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Marvel keeps making the movies because people keep watching. Movies are creative, but they also have to sell, which is where formulas come in. With the ever-pressing need to make more high-grossing films, it looks like we might be in for an oncoming surge in music biopics.

Why do I think music flicks are so universally marketable compared to, say, sports? Well, for starters, I know from experience that sports are highly emotional, and at times, controversial.

  1. Not everyone likes sports. Nearly everyone likes music of some kind (correct me if I’m wrong).
  2. Of those who do like sports, they have a team/athlete they love, and teams/athletes they HATE. Just look around during the World Cup or the NHL – people are at each other’s throats over sports teams.
  3. The competitive nature of sports (win/draw/lose) is much different than the non-discrete, creative nature of music – it’s possible to like many genres without needing to “beat” others (award shows aside).

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Sports disagreements can loom large; there’s a deep sense of loyalty to one’s team that doesn’t hold as much emotional tension in music preferences. Unless you are Nickelback. Photo: Gifer

Maybe my evidence is anecdotal, but there’s a certain type of community that comes from music. There are songs that seem exempt from hatred, and it’s this phenomenon that I think makes music flicks much more viable than sport flicks. Not that there can’t be good sport films, but in terms of mass marketing, making a film about a timeless and popular band has a higher chance of box office success than a movie about a given sport, team, or athlete who has a smaller group of fans.

For instance: one of the most timeless songs of the twenty-first century so far is The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”. I’d be hard-pressed to find a single person in my generation who couldn’t/wouldn’t belt out the lyrics at a moment’s notice (COMIN’ OUT OF MY CAGE AND I’VE BEEN DOING JUST FINE) upon hearing the opening chords. I wholeheartedly expect a Killers biopic in thirty years’ time titled Mr. Brightside, because what better way to bring in the masses than by using a tune that’s instantly recognizable and which personifies the band itself?

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Swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis… Photo: WeHeartIt

It certainly seems to be the strategy that the teams behind Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have employed. Based on the widespread popularity of both these musical acts, I almost wonder if the storyline even needs to be stellar, as long as the cast puts on a good show musically (just ask Mamma Mia!). The film industry is under pressure to deliver some fresh takes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t draw upon timeless old classics in a new light. After all, classics are guaranteed popularity.

Perhaps, based on the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, music flicks will take off – I certainly wouldn’t mind. May they pack a more satisfying punch than the exhausted superheroes can muster.