Outer space is silent. This is something we all know and are all told from a very young age in the classroom. But what does this really mean? What is it like to be in a perfect vacuum? Very few have actually experienced complete silence, and without sticking your fingers in your ears, it’s hard to get an idea of what complete silence is like. No wind. No cars. No chirping birds. Nothing. If you close your eyes while sitting in a quiet room, you’ll notice there is much more peripheral sound than you had initially thought.
For All Mankind is fascinating in that it takes us as close to outer space as any other multimedia experience. From a sonic perspective, we hear the booming sounds of the rockets during takeoff, the crackle of the radio, and — once we arrive in outer space — we listen to the prerecorded tape cassettes the astronauts have taken onboard and the non-diegetic sounds added to supplement space. On top of all of this, the astronauts narrate the journey to the moon, providing commentary that provides additional perspective. Yes, this is still about as close to outer space as we can get from Earth. But what would For All Mankind be like if it took the next step, allowing viewers to see real life in outer space? Certainly, it wouldn’t be quite as entertaining. It would likely be difficult to sit through a feature-length film with no narration. (It would also be more difficult to understand what is happening.)But let us discuss this question. What if all we heard were the pre-recorded tapes? Like the astronauts, it would be the only sound of outer space, and the only thing we would have — other than the crackle of the radio — to associate with the environment. As the commentary adds, the life support systems are incredibly quiet, leaving virtually no sounds for the astronauts to hear as they float outside the ship. However, perhaps a more interesting aspect to this question is the use of non-diegetic sound. As the commentary notes near the end of the movie, one of the tapes contained classical music, essentially mimicking the space environment from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Did popular culture (such as the soundtrack to 2001) dictate the outer space experience? What would the experience of going to the moon have been like without any popular culture influence? The film essentially revels in its own similarities to 2001, playing epic and awe-inspiring classical music over its panning shots of the moon and outer space. As an audience, it seems like we need this, as we would simply feel uneasy watching these sequences in total silence. Think of the last time you sat in a very quiet film in a full theater. Every little noise stands out, making you afraid to adjust your posture, grab a handful of popcorn, or open the soda you of course have snuck in to avoid paying the outrageous concession prices.
At home, you may simply get bored. Silence just isn’t entertaining, and in this respect, silent space shots may be better suited to a gallery environment than a motion picture. Still, the disembodied narration does help. We never see the astronauts who tell the stories of outer space, making the film feel more like adventure and science fiction than a documentary. It’s almost like we’re on the ship with them and they’re inserting thoughts into our imaginations to make the experience more authentic. The film is more about the viewer than it is about the people telling the story. Does this give the film more or less merit? Does it change its merit at all? This is a question specific to documentary film, and it may go beyond our ability to answer.