In the world of the action film, sound and its importance to storytelling are very often overlooked. Usually, it is an afterthought, a surprising enhancement of whatever happens to be on-screen: thus, BOOM. However, sound is not only more integral to storytelling than just window-dressing, but is in fact extremely well suited to the narrative needs of the action genre.
Thanks to modern advances in sound recording and projection, modern action filmmakers are now putting sound to better use in storytelling than ever before. In this series, we’ll look at three modern films in the action genre with an eye (or, I suppose, an ear) for how each uses sound to communicate with the audience: George Miller’s acclaimed reboot Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning war film The Hurt Locker (2008), and Paul Greengrass’ comeback sequel Jason Bourne (2016).
Before we begin, some clarification is in order. When referring to the sound of a film, one may be referring to any aural experience, including dialogue, music, and even what we term sound effects. I’d like to focus solely on the third, quite simply because it often flies under the review radar.
While a score is easily evaluated for its emotional weight, and dialogue for its relative subtlety (or lack thereof) in revealing plot and character, it is far more difficult to find a film evaluated on the basis of its sound effects. Usually, they are simply taken at face value, or even for granted.
But it is this tendency that makes these sound effects (hereafter, sound cues) such effective storytelling agents, not just in general, but for the action genre specifically. They have the power to give an audience vital information about any story with precision, speed, and subtlety, without ever getting in the way of the action.
The three films I’ve chosen each illustrate the power and versatility of sound cues for storytelling. For the purposes of this series, however, the first two films (Mad Max and Hurt Locker) will be emphasized as genre standards, and the third film (Jason Bourne) evaluated on the basis of its priors.
Also, for the sake of brevity, I will assume that you have (ideally) had a chance to view each film before reading my examination. That said, I turn now to a brief synopsis of the first film.
A World of Fire and Sound
In shortest terms, Mad Max: Fury Road follows Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in an escape across the sandy wastelands of a post-nuclear earth, hounded by the tyrant Immortan Joe and his posse of vehicle-cult War Boys. Sounding crazy yet?
The catch: Furiosa has kidnapped Immortan Joe’s prized “breeders” (slave wives) and is rapturing them to freedom in “the green place” of her own youth. Max, branded “hi-octane” and stuck in the middle of an insane chase/race, is — much like the viewer — simply along for the ride.
Throughout this fantastic and fast-moving action film, sound cues are used significantly to keep the audience up to speed, and in three key ways: sound cues help to establish the world, identify factions and characters, and even drive the plot.
Firstly, even before the film opens its eyes to a striking visual world, its most defining trait is established by one aural cue: engine noise. The suggestion here, later confirmed: this world is dominated by engines, by machines and the mechanical. Mere minutes into the film, the audience’s ears are likewise dominated by a glorious overture of machine noises.
The growl of frankensteined car-beasts, the squeal of metal crashing on metal, and the clanking of the Citadel’s huge gear systems prep the listener for almost two hours of the grand mechanical symphony itself, much the same but louder. Even when the characters rest, at a poignantly silent moment towards the film’s end, a deep hum can be heard in the background as though the world were still only idling.
Atop these base sounds, the film accents the world with auditory hints of sickness. Max’s wince-worthy tattoo job early in the film lends the sound-suggestion of moist, bloodied flesh; and horrid, wheezed breathing racked with a mucous cough makes up our first introduction to Immortan Joe.
Outside of these, sound cues are used to establish the four major fuels of the world: blood, mothers’ milk, water, and gas. Each are spotlighted at least once with their own distinctive sound cues. A sick world, a monstrous and dying machine, fueled by the insane creatures that inhabit it — this is the world of Mad Max, received as much through the ears as in the eyes.
Secondly, the film uses sound cues to identify important factions and characters for the audience, all but necessary to help unravel a ragged flood of rusty vehicles constantly roaring by. The most notable cue is that of the “Doof Wagon,” a giant mobile speaker array topped with a metalhead guitarist; its rock intonations are a consistent signal of Immortan Joe’s appearances on-screen.
The War Boys usually follow suit, appropriately announced by gigantic drums-of-war on the Doof Wagon’s back. Furiosa, in her turn, is introduced by a segment of atonal mechanical sounds from the readying “War-Rig”, and continues to be tied to that vehicle’s engine sounds for the duration of the film.
Conversely, Max, having no vehicle and very little to say, is identified only by occasional bouts of hallucination, which are themselves marked with the traditional ghostly whooshing noises. And beyond this, each of the supporting warbands are marked by their own particular sound cues.
The “buzzards” are marked with a saw-blade din, the canyon-pass raiders with an appropriate BMX-bike growl, the “Bullet Farmer” amid his vehicle’s squealing tank treads, and the “Vuvalini” (“many mothers”) by their own, more muted chopper-cycle engines, to name a few. With consistent use of these sound cues, the audience is conditioned to know which of these is in play at any given moment, even before they catch sight of them.
Finally, the film employs sound cues to serve as indicators of a gear-shift in the narrative, through the mouthpiece of the War-Rig itself. Rather than sticking to a fully-realistic portrayal of the Rig’s ever-straining engines, several unique cues are used to reflect both the emotional state of the characters and the physical state of the Rig.
Each rev-up is an indicator that the character behind the wheel (generally Max or Furiosa) is currently exerting his or her willpower as much as the rig is exerting its horsepower. However, when things are running smoothly in the characters’ favor, the engine noise is reduced to an almost non-existent background hum.
Elsewhere, in an early combat scene, the gasping of the engine’s air intake valves communicates that the rig and its crew are still alive and breathing, despite having just been seriously firebombed by bandits. And finally (likely the most noticeable and frequent) an unusual rumbling or unexpected spin-down indicates to both the protagonists and the audience that things have just gotten a bit more complicated, either with the rig, the plot, or both.
Using these particular sound cues, the War-Rig is made the symbolic vehicle of the plot, keeping the audience aware of the protagonists’ situation at all times.
With a careful ear, these numerous sound cues and their uses can easily be discerned through the duration of the film. On the whole, they illustrate that sound cues indeed can take on the task of storytelling, and in particular those aspects usually relegated to dialogue — establishing various aspects of the world and its mood, identifying focal characters and factions for the audience, and even signalling significant changes in the plot.
Further, storytelling-by-sound-cue is seen to fit well with the requirements of a good action film. It adds depth and finesse, but never gets in the way of the film’s “hi-octane” action sequences. Mad Max: Fury Road’s successes as a smart, adrenaline-pumping action film are at least partly owed to its sounds.
I here make two final recommendations: First, keep an eye out in the near future for “Beyond the BOOM, Part 2,” in which I will take a look at Kathryn Bigelow’s war film The Hurt Locker, and highlight the behind-the-scenes people most responsible for storytelling with sound.
Second, the next time you watch Mad Max: Fury Road, pause for a moment, focus (if you must, close your eyes) hit play, and simply listen. The story will tell itself.
In your observation, how effective are sound cues for storytelling in Mad Max: Fury Road, or in action films generally? Let me know in the comments!
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