Monthly Archives: April 2013

The world is going to hell fast, sources say

Franco Berardi’s After Future is both depressing and cathartic. Maybe I’m not alone in being depressed by sad and stupefying stories that dominate the news everyday. And according to Berardi, things have been going to hell for the last 36 years. That’s a bummer. I just hope he’s wrong.

Berardi lays out a slew of possibilities for the future of humanity, and he asserts that if humans don’t change their ways, life on this planet will be dark or impossible. Is there anything we can do, other than kill ourselves, to change the course of things, even in a minor way? Although Berardi says suicide is our only form of resistance, it seems difficult to agree with him. Perhaps there are other, smaller measures we can take to make a difference.

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A sonic science fiction project

As I consider the potential topics I can approach for my final project for the sonic science fiction seminar, several stand out as clear, substantial choices.

  1. The portrayal of robots in science fiction films, and the use of audio to imply agency. Different films suggest different degrees of agency, ranging from relatively dehumanized robots in films such as Silent Star to the ultra-human replicants in Blade Runner, also considering the works in between that question how much agency a viewer should grant the robots on screen, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. As a predominately written piece with video supplements, this would be an extensive analysis into what suggests agency and what detracts from a sense of agency. Alien Phenomenology would likely also be a great resource for this option.
  2. The emergence of serious science fiction horror. As considered in a previous post, it appears that Alien (1979) marks the first serious science fiction horror film, with numerous others following in the coming decade, such as Scanners, The Thing, and The Fly. What separates these films from the science fiction films that came before? How is “seriousness” and “horror” reflected sonically? Does Franco Berardi’s theory that 1977 marks the turning point of visions of the future from utopia to dystopia factor into the change in tone of these films? Do special effects play a role? This option would be equal portions written investigation and cinema mashup exploring contrasts.
  3. The differences between science fiction subgenres. How are different subgenres portrayed differently from a sonic perspective? How does hard science fiction differ from soft science fiction, and how do science fiction dramas (such as Solaris) differ from science fiction action (Terminator), science fiction horror (Alien), science fiction fantasy (Star Wars), or science fiction comedy (Mars Attacks). Like option two, this would be equal portions written investigation and cinema mashup.
  4. Follow the career of one particular actor who frequently works within the science fiction genre (such as William Shatner or Sigourney Weaver) and follow the science fiction films on his or her resume. How does the audio support his or her characters? Does the role he or she takes change during the course of his or her career, and does the audio change with him or her? Like option one, this would be a predominately written piece with video supplements.

Star Wars blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy, adding a heavy dose of the “John Williams” genre

To realistically gauge how many times I’ve seen each of the three original Star Wars films would be an exercise in futility, and a sad one at that. For me, Star Wars fever began near the end of elementary school, at which time I began accruing toys, action figures, and trading cards, watching the films whenever I had the chance, especially on days when I would be home sick from school. It remains a staple in my life, as well as in my girlfriend’s life, as we return to watch the trilogy from beginning to end at least once a year to relive the magic. (She’s a keeper.)

As Michel Chion writes in Film, A Sound Art, everybody — including Ewan McGregor on set during production of The Phantom Menace — mimics the noise of the light saber during a mock light saber battle. It is perhaps this single detail that best makes his point about the new and different world the Star Wars films situate themselves in. As he writes, the sounds are there to get us to play along, with ships whooshing in outer space, laser blasters all adhering to a similar zapping sound, and light sabers crunching when they collide. However, I must say my favorite sound effects are the sound of the death star charging its canon, the indescribable screeching of the tie fighters as the zoom through space, and the sinister laughing of Jabba the Hutt and his belly companion, Scrum. I’ve been known to walk around our apartment mimicking each of these, including the cry of the Tuscan Raiders.

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2001: A musical mix of the sublime and the horrifying

Three years ago on Halloween, I decided that I wanted to make my house “scary” for the neighborhood kids. This, of course, was before I learned how to use arduinos, build circuits, or write code in any language other than HTML. So I decided to do the best thing I could think of at the time: put a couple big speakers in the window and blast a sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey on repeat. Specifically, it was the music behind the scene in which the monkeys discover the monolith. The music comes between 2:00 and 4:30.

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Alien: The birth of serious science fiction horror?

I never had the experience of seeing Alien without preconceived notions. I had not yet been born when it was released in 1979, and before I was able to see the film I had heard numerous jokes regarding aliens erupting from chests and had seen the previews for Alien 3, which of course boasted a really scary, bald Sigourney Weaver.

I'm not sure which one here is scarier.

I’m not sure which one here is scarier.

When I first watched Alien, I patiently waited for the iconic chest eruption scene. I knew it was coming, and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. When it happened, I was immediately disappointed; it wasn’t all that exciting. This was supposedly one of the scariest moments in the history of film, and it didn’t make me budge. Quite simply, Alien had been built up far too much. But as I sat and watched the remainder of the film, the subtle elements of the film proved genuinely terrifying. Not only was an alien ripping people to shreds, but the crew’s antagonist — Ash — is revealed to be an android, and a way more convincing one than current CGI would yield. The crew is deemed expendable in the effort to bring back the new life form, adding further elements of truth to the science fiction tale.

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Omega: The MIT student of robots

Will intelligent robots become common occurrences in society? If they will, what will they look like? Will they be bipeds, or would they roll like vehicles. Would they speak to us, and if so, would it be language as clear as that from a living being, or would it be jagged and mechanical?

At this point, it’s all conjecture. Much of it also relies on your definition of intelligence. At what point are robots intelligent? We certainly have robots already, and they open our garage door, brew our coffee, vacuum our floors, and even provide many people with pleasure in the bedroom. Roombas have some intelligence, as they know what parts of the house they’ve already cleaned, but none has sprouted legs or begun communicating with us beyond the preprogrammed happy beeps or sad beeps (which correspond with completion of cleaning and getting stuck on furniture or walls, respectively).

Roomba

“How about you vacuum your own damn floor.”

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Can you forget the future beyond Forbidden Planet?

Is it possible to completely put aside preconceived notions held by an entire generation? Regardless of whether you’re a science fiction fan, as a 20-something watching Forbidden Planet from 1956 is sure to remind you of forthcoming popular science fiction films. The plot is just like that of Event Horizon, with a crew searching for a group of vanished humans (minus the torture and Sam Neill’s nasty head).

Event Horizon

My skin’s a bit dry.

The ability to beam is one of the most iconic elements of Star Trek. The ability to manifest terrors into reality is used in Sphere. Robby the robot is clearly like R2-D2 from Star Wars, complete with human spunk, as he expresses his displeasure with Alta’s need for new clothes. Even the Barron’s soundtrack, with its squelching, screaming, and decaying electronics, became a heavily recycled style (often by the Barron’s themselves, as Brend writes in The Sound of Tomorrow).

But what would it have been like to see the movie in 1956, without the clichés that would later follow? Would the electronic soundtrack be completely novel, or would it still sound somewhat like the Theremin at times (given that it makes heavy use of vibrato) or other earlier electronic scores? Consider the music from The Thing From Another World.


Of course, the music in The Thing From Another World has more melody than Forbidden Planet as well as a backing orchestra, so this comparison has its limitations. Watching the film nearly 60 years later, it’s hard to overlook extensive sound art that follows, even with the Barron’s one-time friend John Cage. In what ways would the tone of the film have been different? Clearly, there is still intended to be some humor in the film (such as when the cook arrives to find the overflowing pile of full bourbon bottles), but would the tone have been substantially more serious?