Why the Space in Outer-Space Movies Should Be Silent

Alien silentIn space, the tagline for Alien (1979) once noted, no one can hear you scream. Apparently, everybody can hear Death Stars and intergalactic starships explode, though, while laser beams pew-pew-pew through the ether.

Someone, please, someone give the world a film where the no-atmosphere environment is nice and quiet.

Hollywood offers a culture of standards. The standard is to provide background music to motion pictures … even though nothing like that ever accompanies human beings in real life. Another standard: to make scenes set in outer space as loud as your neighbor’s drum-practice sessions for that rock band he’s playing in. Why? Well, there’s probably good reason. A silent space would be unnerving—as well as dramatically impractical. I mean, come on: Which are you going to believe, the noisy zaps of lasers cascading through the stars or an inaudible sequence of an X-wing Starfighter blowing up?

Betcha two outta three moviegoers pick the former. Which is a shame, because in reality, if such a conflict were present, you wouldn’t hear a thing.

That’s right—not a thing. For generally speaking, there’s no sound in space. And I wish more filmmakers would take advantage of this scientific phenomenon more, as the opposite has become pretty damn unbelievable.

All right … I accept the Star Wars and Star Trek universes just fine, unscientific idiosyncrasies notwithstanding. So do all who live to see such times, as Gandalf might say. They’re fun. They’re iconic. They’re part of that Hollywood standard, the one we find credible in its own peculiar context. Spaceships explode. Sound carries. I get it. I enjoy it. This celluloid is the stuff of legend.

But it’s not the stuff of reality, and that makes it all the more difficult to take such pictures seriously. You know the one I do take seriously, despite its fictional bent and sometimes hard-to-believe scenarios? That’s right—2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which to this day is one of the few Tinseltown flicks to feature soundless space sequences. Yes, many were set to music … but that’s it. No crashes. No pew-pew-pews. The world outside our Earth, in 2001, made no noise.

That, dear reader, is what should be done a helluva lot more often in the movies.

We’ve had touches of this in films such as Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014). The practice, however, hasn’t been consistent … or, for that matter, all that frequent. Silence in outer space should be the standard—not sound. The aforementioned pictures proved that sequences could be tense and suspenseful without the cacophony of noisy pyrotechnics. Incidental music, that’s OK. Sound? Not on your life.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) out of protest for its willful misuse of scientific phenomena. Or condemn Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) as well. But I have to relegate my appreciation of these pictures to that of appealing fluff, the cotton candy of science-fiction moviemaking, rather than the artisanal chocolate of, say, 2001. Perhaps one day, audiences’ tastes will veer toward the latter. The more sound is nullified in space sequences, the more chance we have of that happening.

In the meantime, I’ll just continue to putter along and suffer the whooshes of the Starship Enterprise. Maybe that’s all for the better. I’ve already gotten used to it. I sometimes even appreciate it. For it you can’t dig a bit of fiction-science, then what’s the good of science-fiction?

I won’t answer that question. I’ll just remain quiet. Because in that light, silence is golden.

And that’s what I hope more directors realize—pew by pew and beam by beam.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

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