1. Apocalypto. No matter what you may think of Mel Gibson as a person or as a director, it is arguable that there are more than a few moments of real greatness in his film Apocalypto, and part of this is attributable to his masterful use of surround sound. What makes this movie tick is its ability to shift back and forth between literal and figurative images and sounds, so that it deliberately blurs lines of distinction between conventional narrative story telling and the invocation of prophetic (or apocalyptic) visions.
Recommended Chapters: “Ravage”, “Reborn Of Mud And Earth”, and “Warrior’s Death”.
• In “Ravage”, note the transition between natural jungle and village sounds (birds chirping, wind in the trees, a dog barking in the distance) to the slightly distorted sound of Jaguar Paw’s prescient dream of warning, where a fellow villager warns him to “Run!!” As the Mayan warriors attack the village, notice how selective sounds of violence are “spotlighted” for greater impact. Finally, pay close attention to the way the film score is tightly interwoven with the action.
• In “Reborn Of Mud And Earth”, observe the way the soundtrack underscores the transition where Jaguar Paw, who has been hunted throughout the day before, suddenly is transformed after he escapes the mud bog, becoming the hunter. Note the cool “slurping” sounds as Jaguar Paw falls into, and later extricates himself from, the bog. Also, check out the unusual use of voices—especially the triumphant word “Paaaahhh”—as Jaguar turns the tables on his Mayan pursuers and attacks them with a grenade-like hornet’s nest.
• In “Warrior’s Death”, check out the intricate way in which natural sounds and the film score seem to fuse for a time as Jaguar Paw races to set a trap for his pursuers. Note, too, the way the sound designer gives selective emphasis to certain key sonic details—the Mayan warrior’s final gasps for breath, for example—and also uses powerful dynamic swells in the music to give certain passage an otherworldly, apocalyptic feel.
This is one surround sound experience that will really get under your skin and that demands (and rewards) repeated viewings.
2. Aviator. Martin Scorcese’s film about Howard Hughes offers several chapters that beautifully exploit the capabilities of surround sound. Three particularly impressive scenes involve the maiden flights of aircraft that Hughes and his team helped to developed.
Recommended Chapters: “H-1 Racer, Breaking The World Speed Record”, “XF-11, Inaugural Flight And Crash”, and “Flying Boat”.
• “H-1 Racer, Breaking the World Speed Record” shows the flight of a small racing monoplane in which Hughes set a world speed record the first time out. First, listen to the sound of the “silence” before the flight including the gentle creaking of the controls as Hughes tries the feel of the control stick. Next, observe the tightly focused sound of switches being flipped and the crack of the engine coming alive as it prepares for ensuing speed runs (where the exhaust notes of the engine will build to a furious bellow). Finally, note the agonizing return to silence when Hughes inadvertently runs the plane out of fuel, so that all we hear are the sounds of wind whistling over the wing surfaces and cowling, and the quiet sounds of Hughes frantically (but unsuccessfully) trying to restart the engine. Hughes avoids disaster only by making an emergency, “dead stick” crash landing in a beet field where the thumping, grating sounds of the beets splattering against the sides of the once-beautiful airplane add just a touch of comic relief.
• The “XF-11, Inaugural Flight and Crash” chapter unfolds almost like a Greek tragedy. The XF-11 was an innovative, twin-engine spy plane that was intended, at the time, to be Hughes’ masterpiece, as it used an unorthodox propulsion scheme where each engine was fitted a pair of counter-rotating propellers. At first, the flight goes beautifully as the light, airy music score make plain—so that Hughes, who loved to pilot his company’s newest designs on maiden test flights, feels compelled to fly the plane at higher than planned cruise speeds, and wants to extend the flight past its maximum scheduled length.