Sound and Silence in ‘Gravity’: In Space, No One Can Hear You…
Among the slew of Oscar nominations Alfonso Cuaron’s space thriller Gravity has received are three for its sound: Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. A beautiful 3D spectacle, the film was heralded upon its release for its stunning cinematography and impressive visual effects, yet despite these impressive features, I would argue that it is with the film’s sound-scape that the film-makers were at their most accomplished.
Gravity is a film which, from the get-go, establishes the importance of sound. A pre-title statement declares:
At 372 miles above the Earth
There is nothing to carry sound
No air pressure
Life in space is impossible
It is interesting to note that, after an opening statement about no sound, this is a film which ultimately surrounds us in the importance of it. As the film title appears on screen, a cacophonous wall of sound rises in volume steadily; it reaches a crescendo of loud, almost unbearable noise, before stopping to give way to sheer silence. With such a sharp edit, the silence comes to feel as loud as the noise. Here is where we first see, and hear, the vast emptiness of space.
“What is you like most about being up here?” George Clooney’s Matt Kowalsky asks our heroine Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) close to the beginning of the film. “The silence. I could get used to it.” is of course her reply. This short answer from Ryan will serve to define part of her character throughout the remainder of the film, as she will ironically begin to desperately search for and crave sound.
As Ryan works on the Hubble telescope at the start of the film, she is surrounded by several noisy distractions. Matt Kowalsky is particularly talkative, with tales of his unfaithful wife and a hairy man at Mardi Gras. Houston is hounding her with questions about her health. Music is also playing throughout, in response to which she asks the NASA communicator to turn it off. She wants silence.
Ryan’s initial affinity with the silence of space is an important starting point for her character development. In one scene, while in conversation with Kowalsky, Stone speaks about what she would be doing on Earth at that time. She listened to the radio. In an attempt to escape her thoughts on Earth, she surrounded herself with sound as a distraction; now in space she seeks silence.
Ryan’s main motivation is searching for an escape. We get the impression that the tragedy in her life was so great it has led her to drastically seek distance from it – and how much more distant can you get than in outer space? In learning to face her past and move on, sound is an important tool. Silence soon becomes her enemy as she is left stranded and alone in her womb-like airlock. Like an in-utero child not wanting to leave the safety and calm of her mother’s womb (childbirth and gestation being primary themes within the film), Ryan is an avoidant character. Scared and overwhelmed by the circumstances thrown her way, she wants to hide herself away in a soundless bubble. This avoidance leads to torment however. As stated earlier, on Earth Ryan used sound to help her block out negative thoughts relating to the death of her daughter. Now, in lonely and quiet space, she cannot help but face her past.
The sound design throughout the film cleverly gives us glimpses into the harshness of pure silence. It says a lot about a score when it evokes the correct emotions, yet can seemingly also go almost unnoticed. It is easy to miss the constant presence of sound in a film, and so when the film then confronts you with a wall of silence (one particularly evocative example in Gravity being when the door of Stone’s airlock is opened, “letting in” the silence from outside) we realise that a lack of sound can be as abrasive as the loudest of volumes.
Ryan’s desire for sound becomes more apparent as she desperately seeks communication from her fellow workers and NASA. In one scene she renders herself hoarse by repeatedly asking for a response from Houston. When sound begins to filter through the speakers, she soon realises she is receiving a signal from Earth. In the vast silence of space, her one connection back home is through sound. Ryan contacts a Chinese man singing a lullaby, and upon hearing such sound is not only comforted but reminded of what she is cutting herself off from. In trying to avoid the pain of her loss, she has restricted herself from experiencing the joy of life, and the comfort of people. It is this sound, and this communication with another human being, which begins to thrust the astronaut back into action. In a touching moment, Stone begins howling loudly like one of the dogs she can hear through the radio. Her sheer inhibition is affecting, it is indicative of her desire to now make a mark, a sound, but in space no one can hear you howl.
Another sound filtering through the radio is that of a baby crying. This moment comes to represent everything she was seeking to escape from on Earth, and serves to compel her forward in the final act of the film. In the lonely silence, the sounds of Earth are her biggest comfort and motivation. At the conclusion of the film, Ryan seems to be “re-born” in a burst of sound. She is surrounded by noise in a complete contrast to the silence of space.
Like a baby emerging from the womb into the chaos of the world, Ryan has chosen to embrace life and all the intimidating sounds that come with it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.