Lots of people overlook the importance of sound in film. It’s usually treated as a given, not as something that should be celebrated. A utility rather than a necessity, if you will. It’s quite clear that some directors treat sound as a utility as well, especially in action movies. Hands up if you’ve ever heard something like this in a movie. All of you should have your hands up by now because that’s the usual archetype for “suspenseful scenes” and high-octane moments. The same four to five drumbeats with a bunch of horns and synths.
The ubiquitous nature of such “suspenseful” music has almost caused it to be a point of parody. Since it’s so easy and recognizable, many would consider it to be the “safe” option for movies. Why go with something the audience will be confused by, even if it’s a better choice for the particular scene. It’s easy to not go against the status quo and just provide something that can be easily digested. However, there are still a lot of movies that treat sound with respect. One of these is Interstellar.
I am an unashamed fanboy of Christopher Nolan and where Nolan is, Hans Zimmer is always in the background. Zimmer has composed a plethora of films and some of his work can be classified under the “safe action movie” sound that I raved about above. However, his work in Interstellar was something else. This was a creatively driven project where Zimmer poured his heart and soul into it. He made sure each piece complemented the scene that it was playing in and before we knew it, the music became a centerpiece rather than set dressing.
The blistering organs, the subtle piano, and the choir hymns really crafted this immense feeling that slowly builds inside you. What is also striking about it was it’s grounded in a lot of ways, which is very unorthodox for an action-packed sci-fi movie. The instruments were simple, the sounds almost droning and all they served to do was build an atmosphere. Elegant would be the best word to use to describe the soundtrack and it has an immense effect.
Listen to the following track. This played during a pivotal moment in the movie and the piece was so masterfully created that it was an integral part of the emotional journey of the scene.
The build up is incredible and the resulting catharsis after the scene is one of my most memorable moments in any movie. I can still watch the scene to this day and be entirely captivated by it because of the immense soundtrack that complements it.
Other than music, the movie’s sound design was also incredibly well thought out. People often forget that there is no sound in space. Even if there are massive explosions going on or a supernova going off, we wouldn’t hear a peep because sound does not travel in the vacuum of space. This was reflected in the movie and even during visceral explosions that sent metal flying everywhere, there wasn’t a sound. The absence of sound reminds us that everything is taking place in the cold expanse of space. With so much bombast and ear bleeding effects in other movies, it was refreshing to find silence being used to its full effect.
There are many smaller instances that I can compliment about the movie. Moments where the sweeping soundtrack evokes emotions out of you, the light organ playing that cast this mystique on an otherwise realistic functioning movie, the use of a ticking clock during a moment where time really was of the essence. This is all even more astounding when you learn that Nolan just gave Zimmer a single page that told him the essence of the story and told him to compose based on only that. Grounded in sound and grounded in execution.
Soundtracks are a given in any movie and while many hit the mark, many simply go with the easiest route. The scene has to have music so let’s get some music. It doesn’t receive the attention of the narrative or the special effects, but the sound can be just as integral as both of those. It elevates the experience. It’s like colouring in a canvas with only the lines drawn on it. Interstellar’s sound did the colouring impeccably and with that, it created a masterpiece.
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