Rise of the sad voice, science fiction

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In science fiction movies, almost nothing matters more than world building. It doesn’t always mean great shots of spaceships or distant planets. For every sumptuous sight like Dune, there are many more smaller-scale sci-fi films with modest or no special effects budgets. These films must use other methods to flesh out their futuristic vision. An atmospheric soundtrack can create an exciting mood. Clever scenery design, like a homemade time machine in Primer or the cables of a quantum computer strung through a forest in Lapsis, can immerse viewers in a new world without advanced CGI. Even the way the characters talk to each other can be an economical way to set the tone. In fact, it’s so cost-effective that there are a number of recent films in which a distinctive speech pattern plays a critical role in the creation of a fictional universe. Call it science fiction Sad Voice.

Not trembling, on the verge of tears sad. Sad, as in anhedonic, exhausted by passion, depressive. Pronounced flat affect, sometimes combined with unnatural intonation. A prime example: Colin Farrell looks straight at Yorgos Lanthimos. Lobster. The 2015 film is set in a fantasy dystopia where people who fail to find a match with a suitable romantic interest are turned into the animals of their choice. Farrell’s character, David, only has a month and a half to track down his soul mate after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend. Stress! strange! Yet he is blank-faced, passively accepting this strange fate. He calmly explains that he would like to turn into a lobster because, among other attractive qualities, they “remain prolific all their lives.” The other lone misfits that David meets throughout the film also speak in a harsh monotone no matter what they encounter. Lanthimos’ actors often remain unflappable despite highly emotional circumstances, so much so that it has become a hallmark of many of his films. AT Lobster, this trick works by highlighting David’s pathetic loneliness, how difficult it is for him and the others to get along. The way he reacts to seemingly meaningless rules with balanced submissiveness shows that this is a universe where a person has little chance against a system, no matter how absurd that system may be.

Farrell has established himself as the reigning king of Sad-Voice science fiction. In addition to Lobsterhe recently starred in After Yang, filmed under the pseudonym of Korean-American director Kagonada. Farrell plays Jake, a tea shop owner married to the beautiful corporate warrior Kira (Jodie Turner-Smith). They bought an android named Yang (Justin H. Ming) to tell their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tyandravijaya) about her Chinese heritage, but Yang glitches early in the film. He lived with his family for many years and Mika lost. (Kira, to a lesser extent. “Maybe that’s a good thing,” she says. Cold!) As Jake unsuccessfully tries to fix Yang, he gains access to the robot’s memory bank. Watching Yang’s memories, he realizes how deeply the serene robot really felt, how he had hopes and dreams, and even a love interest. Melancholy, meditative, beautifully filmed. It is also distinctly subdued. Although Jake argues with Kira about how much time it takes him to heal Yang, their disagreements remain surprisingly calm, as if they’d be electrocuted if they raised their voices above a whisper.

This is how all the conversations in the film are hushed up; I wonder if there is some massively prescribed sedative in Kagonade’s vision of the future. This, of course, is the point – a sad voice is a cheat code that displays alienation and dissociation. (See also: Gloomy Theodore by Joaquin Phoenix in early 2013. Heror the placid Cathy Carey Mulligan narrating the 2010 film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro Never let Me Go, two early entries in the “Sad Voice” sci-fi canon.) It’s easy to see why directors might like this, since the sad voice effectively tells viewers they’re watching “Repressed Characters.” Till After Yang it’s a fine film, although the wall-to-wall whispering has another side effect. It works like an auditory novocaine, leaving viewers numb at the emotional impact of what could have been the plot’s most tender moment.

This is the risk of a sad voice. His highly educated nature not only conveys the character’s aloofness from himself, but creates a distance between story and audience that can rob the film of its emotional resonance. In another recent film set in a dystopian world, Double, a woman named Sarah (Karen Gillan) creates a clone of herself after learning that she has an incurable disease. When she unexpectedly recovers, her clone is legally required to be destroyed, but the clone (also played by Gillan and referred to as “Sarah’s doppelgänger”) enforces the law allowing her to challenge the “real” Sarah to a duel. To make matters worse, Sarah’s boyfriend leaves her for a clone, and even her own mother seems to prefer the doppelgänger’s company. Sarah decides she needs to train to destroy her prettier doppelgänger.

It’s an exciting story – in theory. However, the performance is scary to the core. Both Sarahs are so annoying that viewers would apologize if they thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a tragedy if they just got it over with and killed each other. Like the original Sarah, Gillan speaks as if she’s doing her best to act like a robot trying to pretend to be human. “Why am I not crying?” she asks the doctor with dead eyes and a stiff upper lip after she learns she is dying. Sarah’s clone is a little more cheerful, but just as pompous. The fact that she sounds as unnatural as her “original” underscores how out of touch Sarah is with humanity.

As with LobsterSarah’s dry acceptance of absurd circumstances should make them even more absurd. warmly received, Double some critics compared it to a Lanthimos film. This is an insult to Lanthimos. His work can be repulsive, even repulsive (could you pay me to watch Killing a sacred deer again), but the oddity, including the stylized dialogue, serves a cohesive vision. This is not true Double. Detachment alone does not make a character interesting, and suppression alone does not make the world attractive. A poorly made sad voice can, alas, turn even a clever sci-fi script into a one-tone bore.

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