How Andor Uses Audio to Explore Oppression and Rebellion
The sound of a reckoning
In recent years Star Wars content has been under heavy fire from fans and critics alike with only a few series appealing to viewers. One of these series was Andor, a shining example of how Star Wars content can once again become compelling. There are a few distinct elements in Andor that sets it apart from the rest of Disney’s generic reboots and remakes. The first and more obvious is its return to the original themes of Star Wars: oppression and rebellion. The second and far more subtle element is the way it ties these themes the distinct sounds within the world of Star Wars.
It’s common for movies and series to tie certain characters or themes to certain musical motifs, but what is especially rare is to tie them to diegetic sounds: the sounds that exist within the world of said movie or series. Diegetic sound may include the sound of blaster fire or explosions, as opposed to the non-diegetic ‘imperial march’ theme. In addition to its musical score, Andor uses diegetic sound to explore the tense power dynamic between the desperate control of the Empire and the galaxy’s desire for freedom. Through this exploration Andor introduces a new idea to the audience: to be heard is to have power.
A potent example of the relationship between power and sound is the way the Empire uses sound to exercise control over the galaxy. One such instance occurs in episode nine when ISB agents torture the character Bix using audio. Dr. Gorst, one of the ISB agents, delivers a chilling monologue describing the method he will use. He reveals that in order to build a refuelling station the local population of an outer moon was brutally massacred. The sound that they made as they died had the unique property of causing intense emotional distress to whoever listens. Recordings of the sound were then adjusted into a brutal method of torture.
This scene is key to establishing the nature of the Empire. Transforming it’s most heinous crimes into its greatest weapons, the Empire has never seemed crueller. It is the immense pain portrayed by Adria Arjona that sets up the idea that sound can be used as a method of control. This idea is then further reinforced over the Narkina 5 prison arc.
Episodes 8, 9, and 10 are about Cassian Andor’s time in a unique prison where the guards, who carry no weapons, are rarely seen by prisoners. But they certainly make themselves heard. Through the intercom, prisoners are forced to comply to a strict program. Disobedience results in the floors being activated causing immense pain to anyone who is standing on the floor barefoot. By having the guards interact with the prisoners only through the intercom, there is an established distance between the two groups, and a distinct power imbalance.
In direct opposition to the dynamic between the guards and prisoners, the prisoners on different levels can see each other but cannot converse. To overcome this hurdle, prisoners communicate between levels communicate through sign language. This serves to reinforce the idea that being heard is tied to power, whilst being unseen creates emotional separation: the prisoners can see each other and thus form a community, but cannot speak and thus have no power.
At the end of the Narkina 5 arc, the prisoners use their ability to collaborate between levels to escape. In a powerful scene one of the prisoners, Kino Loy, gains control of the intercom system, flipping the power dynamic on its head. Now that the prisoners are in control, they are the ones who make themselves heard.
This scene harkens back to the Aldhani heist arc, wherein rebels shut down the intercom system of the Aldhani dam. The Aldhani heist arc is worthy of note because it is the first instance in which the Empire loses a significant amount of power and because they lost power because they lost control of the intercom. They could no longer make themselves heard.
While the Empire temporarily loses the weapon of sound, one character learns to wield it. Nemik, a member of the Aldhani heist crew, turns his mind to the politics of revolution and records his ideas in a manifesto. What is interesting is that he chooses to record his voice rather than simply typing his points. This means that although Nemik dies, his voice and his manifesto are present throughout the show. For example, Nemik records that the authority of the Empire is desperate and unnatural, an idea Cassian uses to stir an uprising at the Narkina 5 prison. The influence of Nemik’s manifesto shows that his choice to use an audio recording has immortalised his message and amplified his call to rebellion.
Andor’s season finale is the magnum opus of the series with all its pre-established themes and character motives culminating in the dramatic riot on Rix Road. The setup for this amazing finale also includes the identity of Ferrix and its populace that has been fleshed out through the use of diegetic sound.
Ferrix is characterised early on as an industrial planet with a close knit community focused on hard work. This characterisation is complemented by the unique bell tower. Rather than an actual bell, the bell tower uses an anvil, a symbol of mining and industry. Its purpose of signalling the start and end of the work day shows that Ferrix places an emphasis on everyone working to contribute to the community. The unique metal sound of the anvil is heard again in episode 3. Hanging outside homes and places of work are ornaments made of scrap metal. When law enforces arrive on Rix road, whoever sees them bangs the metal creating a loud noise to alert others. This alert system serves to characterise Ferrix in several ways. Firstly it is obvious that the people of Ferrix have a sharp distaste for law enforcers. Secondly, the use of scrap metal shows how integral mining and recycling is to Ferrix. Finally, this scene shows the audience how the community of Ferrix is one in which people help each other and rely on one another.
This detailed characterisation of Ferrix serves to enhance finale which involves a funeral for Andor’s mother, Maarva. The townspeople congregate on Rix Road, against the will of the Empire, and play two musical pieces. The first is a sombre marching theme, while the second is far more rousing. The entire scene fits perfectly into the pre-established characteristics of the people of Ferrix. The instruments used are similar to the anvil or the recycled metal ornaments: all metal, unique in design and made from spare parts. The community has banded together for one of their esteemed members, and are doing so in defiance of the empire. In this scene the very act of playing music is an act of rebellion.
As the band marches down the street, the Empire is scene setting up barricades in a panic. This panic is not new. Every time the people of Ferrix make themselves heard, the Empire panics. For example in episode three when law enforces hear the banging of metal ornaments, one demands answers from Maarva. Her reply perfectly explains the importance of diegetic sound in Andor:
The noise made by the people of Ferrix is the representation of defiance.
It is no coincidence that the finale includes a reading of Nemik’s manifesto which describes how ‘even the smallest act of insurrection’ contributes to the rebellion. Even Maarva’s speech, displayed by her droid as a hologram, contributes to the rebellion. One law enforcer covers up the display, but the audio can still be heard clearly. For the people of Ferrix it is a call to arms, and incites a riot.
In our own world, protesting can be described as the struggle to be heard, debating is often simplified into being louder than ones opponents, and winning elections often comes down to silencing all opposition. The series ‘Andor’ attempts to help viewers understand the relationship between power and being heard. During the course of the series, torture was conducted through headphones, prison breaks were incited through the intercomms and riots were started because of music. Every time a character makes themselves heard, they wield power.
Over the decades, star wars has somewhat lost sight of the original themes of the series: rebellion vs oppression. Andor has brought its audience back to those original ideas through the interesting medium of diegetic sound. Rousing speeches are not uncommon in film and TV series, but for a show to explore its key messages all through audio is very rare, and it is clear from the response Andor has garnered from star wars fans, this unique method of exploring the malice of the Empire and the spirit of rebellion was executed very well.
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