Film is, of course, a visual medium, but while we cinephiles can get all too caught up slavishly obsessing over the quality of the image we’re thrusting into our eyeballs, we should never forget the other key dimension in out film-watching experience: sound.
Yes, there were great films made before Al Jolson told us we ain’t heard nothing yet back in 1927, but these days sound and vision go together like bacon and eggs, coffee and cigarettes, metaphors and similes. For all that we can watch movies on our phones, tablets, and laptops, there are movies that really demand an excellent sound set up to get the best effect – in the cinema for preference of course, but a top-notch home system can work wonders and get you as close to the theatrical experience as possible. Here then, are five flicks that will make you prick up your ears.
A Quiet Place
Paradoxically, John Krasinski’s widely lauded horror smash is know for its silence, telling as it does the story of a family hiding from monsters who hunt by sound. In terms of sound design, though, what that means is every tiny noise matters, both to the characters in the film and us as viewers. Every footstep, every breath, every rustle of cloth or leaf, could mean instant horrible death – a narrative truth brought home by sterling work from sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, plus a wonderfully understated score from the great Marco Beltrami.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Junkie XL’s extraordinary score is the highlight of the post-apocalyptic soundscape that backs George Miller’s masterpiece (yes, masterpiece. Shut up), but it’s not the only dish on the aural smorgasbord the instant action classic offers. Fury Road’s sound team picked up a ton of awards in the 2015 season, culminating in a much-deserved double win at the Oscars for Best Sound Design and Best Sound Editing. Zackery Ramos-Taylor put it best when he noted that “This film uses sound to enhance and add texture to the story in order to create an auditory post-apocalyptic world full of chaos, adrenaline, and suspense. From hearing the sound of the protagonist slowly rising from the sand to mechanised vehicles exploding one after another, this film seeks to add sound to every action shown.”
The Dark Knight
Say it with us now: BWAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHMMMMM. Hans Zimmer’s incredible score not only set the tone of Christopher Nolan’s superhero crime epic perfectly, it changed the blockbuster music paradigm altogether (for better or worse? That’s for the courts to decide). It’s arguably a career best score from the veteran – consider the eternally rising notes of the Joker’s leitmotif, but there’s more going on here than just music. For all the Dark Knight trilogy’s much-ballyhooed “realism”, the sound design brings in many fantastical elements that tend to fly beneath the viewers’ radar but nonetheless are integral to the overall experience – such as the choice to mix the mechanical roar of speedboat engines with the roars of actual animals to produce the Batmobile’s noise signature. It’s attention to detail like this that led to The Dark Knight taking home the Best Sound Editing Oscar.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Another non-verbal experience (there are maybe 40 minutes of dialogue spread across over two and a half hours of movie), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 boasts one of the most famous musical scores in film history. Although he had commissioned a new score for the film from composer Alex North, Kubrick made the decision to retain the classical music that he had been using as a temporary music track in the finished film – something the hapless muso only discovered when he saw the film himself. North’s loss is our gain, and Strauss’s classical piece Also sprach Zarathustra is now synonymous with Kubrick’s science fiction epic.
Another SF classic with an indelible score, this time by Greek composer Vangelis. Director Ridley Scott had only two features under his belt when he mounted the 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but his reputation for exacting detail and close supervision of every element of production was already in place. This extended to the sound mix: Blade Runner’s urban dystopia is underscored by an omnipresent cacophony of thrumming motors, creaking fans, humming neon tubes, choral voices, electronic voices, and more. This is blended with the Vangelis score with the aim of creating a “cohesive acoustic environment”, one that is as oppressive and haunting as the smoke-wreathed and shadowy streets that Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard stalks.
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