Science fiction movies are known for their amazing visuals, from majestic spaceships to desolate landscapes. But many of the best science fiction films use sound just as much as picture to tell their stories. Here are 22 films that you'll appreciate way more if you have a great speaker system to go with that widescreen TV.
Top image: Hello Dave by Godmachine.
As William Whittington explains in his groundbreaking book Sound Design and Science Fiction, a whole generation of science fiction film-makers came of age as audiophiles, listening to rock albums that played with sound in innovative ways in the late 60s and early 70s. Seeking to set themselves apart from other genres and older movies, these people tried to make science fiction films that used sound in a unique way — influencing other film-makers who came along in the decades since.
And now, with the rise of Blu-ray discs and really good home theater systems, you can experience these films the way they were meant to be experienced.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This film helped start the trend towards science fiction films that tell their stories using sound — but it's the musical score, in particular, that's the most striking. You really need to be able to feel Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" in your bones when you're watching some of the key monolith sequences. Only about 40 minutes of this 149-minute film have dialogue, and the emotional and symbolic storytelling comes largely from the music.
There's a reason Gravity won the Oscar for sound design. Sound designer Glenn Freemantle and director Alfonso Cuarón worked to create a completely immersive auditory experience. They wanted to "create sounds through touch and vibrations." Their innovative approach added an an essential layer to the movie. And according to AV Forums, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack on the Blu-ray intensifies the experience: "Every word, every breath comes across clearly, as if you were trapped in the same space suit as the characters. It's this first person perspective that comes across as much in the sound design as in the visuals, with LFE reverberations rocking you throughout the various debris assaults; the surrounds crafting a veritable sonic minefield for you as you desperately claw your way to safety. The breaths intensify; the characters are knocked and buffeted across the screen, and, all the while, the impassioned score ignites the piece, focusing the tension and channelling the emotions."
When we reviewed this movie, we talked about how the creepy sounds in the film make it that much more scary, as the main characters seek to record ghost sounds in an old hotel. And when you pop in your Bluray copy, you are advised to turn up the volume.As you're watching the movie you'll hear little bumps and scratches on the surround sound, elevating the tension considerably. The louder you turn it up, the scarier it is.
When a Kaiju screams, you want the whole house to feel it. The Pacific Rim blu ray offers DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and 5.1 surround tracks that are sure to give you everything you want in more out of a soundtrack. You'll be able to hear every part of the epic battles that made this movie awesome — even when the rain-soaked visuals are harder to make out.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The sound design in these films is largely responsible for bringing Middle Earth to life. Seen without a good home theater system, the Lord of the Rings movies lose much of their allure. Peter Jackson and his sound team created an organic, magical soundscape to go with the beauty you seen on the screen. The Balrog, the Ents, and the battles all come to life thanks to the incredible soundscape.
Legendary Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt was in charge of the sound for the 2009 Star Trek, so of course it is amazing. Taking inspiration from the original show, Burtt worked hard to make sure every button made a unique sound, and he filled the spaces in between with "things you can pick up in-between the dials on a shortwave radio." The detail of the background sounds add a layer of realism to the movie, as each planet and room on the ship has a different sound to it.
When we interviewed director James Wan, he told us: "My philosophy with horror movies is: Sometimes the visual is a lot less important than the sound design. It's been proven time and time again that low-budget horror movies, that don't have the budget to show you all the good stuff, have really good sound design to help convey the mood and the atmosphere." And the sound in The Conjuring really amps up the horror. From the muted sounds of everyday life to the Clapping from Hell, the sounds in the movie create an atmosphere of tension and fear. Hiding your eyes won't make this movie less scary.
Sounds are important to main character India Stoker in this vampire-influenced drama. She opens the movie by telling the audience that: "My ears hear what others cannot hear." While sound designer Chuck Michael says they didn't take that line literally while working on the film, the the auditory world of Stoker is just as important as the visual one. The sound in Stoker gives viewers important information about what India is feeling and thinking. Without a good quality sound system, a vital part of the story is lost.
From lightsabers to wookies, the sounds of Star Wars give us some of the most memorable parts of the movies. Sound designer Ben Burtt took sound design to the next level with his work on Star Wars. It was the first film ever recorded in Dolby stereo. They've updated the sound a few times since then, and today's blu-ray editions come with lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 surround tracks. If you have a good sound system, it might sound even better than it did originally in theaters.
House of Flying Daggers
The stunning visuals aren't the most impressive part of this award winning wuxia film. The sound design is a masterpiece all of its own. The music, the clang of swords, the rush of arrows and the quiet background noises combine to put the viewer directly in the world of the movie. The blu-ray offers versions of the film in 4 languages including uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround sound in Mandarin. Get your popcorn ready and settle in for an excellent surround sound experience.
The Mad Max Films
Sound tells a lot of the story in the original Mad Max trilogy — especially for the long stretches where there is no dialogue whatsoever. As scholar Rebecca Coyle writes, "Mad Max's sound design is steeped in machine noises, often in competition with one another and with composer Brian May's music," and the story of "oil-refining compound dwellers" in Mad Max 2 relies even more on distinguishing different machine noises. "This mixture is further diversified by the sonic bombardment providedby the eighty vehicles used in the film (many of which have their own sound characteristics)," adds Coyle. By contrast, the third film, Beyond Thunderdome, has a more subtle "post-industrial soundscape."
The Wachowskis' classic cyberpunk film involves the clash between humans and machines in an immersive virtual world — so it makes sense that it features an immersive soundscape. This was also one of the first films to be produced during the era when home theater systems were featuring full surround-sound capability. As DVD Verdict notes, when The Matrix first came out on DVD in 1999, its robust audio mix "made it a reference disc that geeks everywhere used to show off their surround sound systems." The sound of gunshots and bullet casings clattering to the floor in the "lobby shootout" sequence really helps to sell the action.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Fresh off of his triumph with Jaws, Steven Spielberg wanted to create something special — and the invention of Dolby stereo helped him to draw you into his alien spectacle. And now, with surround sound, you can actually hear the sound of the alien spacecraft moving,as they fly past. You can hear the chatter on the government radios. And the swell of the music works even better than it ever has. This is a film that relies heavily on sound to create a feeling of wonder and awe.
John Carpenter plays tricks using sound in pretty much all of his films — but this one is especially loaded with sonic effects. To quote from Whittington's seminal text, in The Thing, "the ambient wind first punctuates the isolated nature of the location, drawing a connection to the horror convention of the haunted house in the middle of nowhere... As Clark places the infected dog in a holding pen, the volume of the wind rises noticeably and takes on anthropomorphic qualities, moaning and screaming." And it just builds from there, with a sonic cacophony that conveys viscerally that this creature cannot be contained and humanity is doomed.
Shane Carruth's first movie Primer is ground-breaking for the opposite reason to the films on this list: Primer is incredibly low-fi, with a simple stereo sound mix that centers all the action right in the middle — helping to ground the viewer in the mundaneness of the action. But his second film, Upstream Color, features a lot of sequences with no dialogue — and some of the scenes with dialogue intentionally pull the dialogue deep into the sound mix. Meanwhile, sound is also important in Upstream because one character, the Sampler, goes around sampling noises and making his own weird electronic music. The result is a movie where sound is one of the main characters — and it won the Sundance Festival award for best sound design. And DVDTalk's reviewer praises the Blu-ray's sound mix as "one of the best I've ever experienced... There are so many moments in this film that are sold purely by how they sound, and this track presents it all wonderfully."
This isn't David Lynch's most well-regarded film, by any means — but watching it with a really good sound system might help you to gain a new appreciation for Lynch's science fiction epic. Even the theatrical release didn't capture the intricate sound mix of this movie, as High Def Digest explains: "Dune has a truly fascinating sound design. (It was actually nominated for a Best Sound Academy Award, despite the fact that everybody hated the movie.) Listen to the Guild Navigator's complex mechanical breathing/pumping noises. Listen to the faint sound of crashing waves heard through the Caladan palace walls. Listen to the echo of a far-off wind howling through the Fremen caves. Remarkable care and attention was paid to this sound mix, and that work is clearer [on Blu-ray] than any previous video formats (and even most 35mm theatrical prints) could ever capture."
This is a movie that owes a lot to 2001 — but it also changes gears from "space wonderment" to "slasher horror," and the sound mix does a lot to sell that transition. The Blu-ray features a mix that uses the rear speakers a lot for incidental sound effects, like the engines when the ships it urning, and the sound of metal tearing. And the spooky sounds later in the movie come from all four corners, making you feel even more claustrophobic on board this doomed ship.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
There's so much going on in the sound mix for this movie, which is a pioneering work of CG effects and widescreen spectacle. You should just read Whittington's entire chapter on the intricate process that went into creating the soundscape of this film, from Sarah Connor's opening voiceover to the industrial sounds at the end. This was one of the most visually overwhelming movies of all time when it came out, and the aggressive use of surround-sound in the theatrical release did a lot to help orient peoplein the middle of the insane action. The 2009 "Skynet Edition" on Blu-ray features a mix that will blow your head off. (Don't get the earlier Blu-ray release, which apparently features no HD sound mix.)
Like some of the other films on this list, Alien blurs the line between science fiction and horror, and uses "naturalistic" sounds not only to tell the story, but to express what's going on thematically. The heartbeat that comes before each Xenomorph attack, the different sound backgrounds for different parts of the ship, the heavy breathing and footsteps as the crew tries to escape — it's all a key part of the story. And the 5.1 mix on the Alien Anthology Blu-rays is the closest you'll get to how this would have sounded in theaters.
This film blends noir and cyberpunk in a unique fashion — plus the Director's Cut represents Ridley Scott's attempt to create a definitive soundscape that has no room for the voiceover he hated in the theatrical release. So you really need to be able to appreciate the "oppressive and immersive" world that Scott creates without any voiceover to pull you in (as Whittington puts it.) The 30th Anniversary Edition includes a new sound mix taken from the six sound elements of the original film.
Speaking of films with long dialogue-free stretches... this film draws you into its post-apocalyptic Earth and its robot love story using sound and nothing much else. And reviewers uniformly praise the "immersive" quality of the 6.1 sound mix on the Blu-ray version.
You might have come across the letters "THX" first as the name of a sound system, rather than in the title of a film — that's because sound design was so important to this film that George Lucas wound up naming a whole surround-sound system after it. Walter Murch's legendary use of spooky sounds and dynamic ranges is so amazing, there are numerous blog posts and essays about it. On the 2010 Blu-ray, by all accounts, "Walter Murch's hypnotic, altogether unnerving sound design has never been more engaging."
Sources: Sound Design and Science Fiction by William Whittington, Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Philip Hayward, Blu-ray.com