Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: From "Terminator 2" to "Apocalypse Now," the films that crank it up to 11 -- and much higher
10. “Akira” (1988)
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
One of the greatest and most unsettling works of both cyberpunk cinema and anime, Katsuhiro Otomo’s post-nuke gloss on “Frankenstein” is also the loudest animated movie ever released — not because it’s jabbing at your eardrums the whole time (though it often is), but because it makes brilliant use of the quiet-loud dynamic that’s so integral to the horror film. Long sections of the film unfold with almost no sound at all, and no underscoring — a teenager wandering a hospital hallway late at night, characters walking dark and oddly depopulated streets — and then suddenly CRASH! RUMBLE! Rrrrrr-RRAAaaaaaaAHHHHHGGGGGGH! Bodies are being hurled against walls and splattered like ripe tomatoes, walls are crumbling, buildings are being ripped apart like architects’ scale models while the soundtrack fills up with multilayered animalistic growls, roars and screams.
And those rubbery, gloppy, “transformation” noises are truly horrendous. How in the hell did they make those? Did they put a couple of giant anacondas into a swimming pool full of jello, then drop a sheep in and record the sounds of the snakes fighting for their dinner?
9. “Fight Club” (1999)
Directed by David Fincher
“I want you to hit me as hard as you can,” says Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in “Fight Club.” And somewhere offscreen, director David Fincher is thinking, “And I will make sure it hurts the audience, too.” Not even “Raging Bull” made the sound of fists on flesh sound so epic and painful. The movie’s sound design is exquisitely, deliberately ludicrous. There are very few subtle effects; everything seems calculated to make you jump out of your seat, even outwardly “everyday” sounds such as elevator door bells, ringing phones and public address system announcements. The score, by Dust Brothers, seems to chip away at the edge of your sanity; even quiet scenes often have a faint synthesized hum or rumble or a faint rhythm track that suggests a nervous heartbeat. And Edward Norton’s narrator never stops talking; he’s constantly yammering in your ear, like one of those people you end up sitting next to on a bus or airplane who seems normal enough but eventually reveals himself to be a complete loon, and who talks just a bit faster and louder than anyone else you know. And that final detonation — timed to the moment when the drums kick in on the hilariously appropriate soundtrack selection, the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” — is wonderful, horrible and perfect.
8. “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ (2003)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino wants every movie to be a visceral experience, one that rattles your bones, and I remember “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ being especially so. When I left the theater afterward I felt physically wrung out, as if I’d submitted to one of those rolfing sessions where a chiropractor seems to be pushing your muscle groups around beneath your skin. If Sergio Leone had been able to make a spaghetti western in the 21st century, with modern digital theater sound at his disposal, it might have sounded like this movie. Every footstep, every nervous breath, every unsheathed sword, every ringing clash of blade-on-blade seemed hyper-realistically, at times ludicrously intense. The climactic showdown between the Bride (Uma Thurman) and an army of foes at the House of Blue Leaves was especially punishing; between the clanging blades, the arterial blood spurting and the eardrum-rattling, crazy-making music cues, it’s one of the most aurally overwhelming action scenes in memory.
7. “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
The editor and sound designer Walter Murch won an Oscar for his groundbreaking sound design on Francis Coppola’s Vietnam epic, which made the fullest possible use of then-new multi-channel Dolby recording technology. The film is still debated by aficionados of its source novel, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” for applying 19th century themes and images to a late-20th-century war, but the film’s vision unquestionably captures the sinister, purplish quality of Conrad’s prose, not just in its chiaroscuro visuals, but in its clever use of ambient and abstract sound effects. Murch and Coppola put the low frequencies to stunningly effective use; when Carmine Coppola’s synthesized score hits those super-low notes, you could practically feel your brain cells being reconfigured by evil forces. Martin Sheen’s noir-styled narration somehow seemed to be happening inside your head. And the big action sequences — the chopper attack, the sampan massacre, the Do Lung bridge sequence with its distant screams and explosions and eerie, carnival-like score — were overwhelming.
6. “Die Hard” (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
The early posters for “Die Hard” promised, “This summer, prepared to be blown through the back of the theater.” At the time, this seemed a laughable proposition, mainly because the mid-’80s release schedule was lousy with inferior Stallone/Schwarzenegger wannabe action pictures, and this one starred Bruce Willis, who at the time was known as as a wiseacre romantic lead on ABC’s “Moonlighting” and for a couple of failed attempts to make it as a big-screen star (“Blind Date,” “Sunset”). The result was a modest hit as well as a classically structured example of bone-crushing, stuff-exploding action, and proved Willis not only had the stuff to carry an action epic, but was convincing as an Indiana Jones-style vulnerable, self-deprecating, Everyman superhero.
But in the end, director John McTiernan’s raucous classic earned its tag line through sheer decibel level. Between Michael Kamen’s playful yet urgent “Savor each moment, you are about to die!” score and the picture’s aggressively insistent sound design (which was nominated for two Oscars), every moment of the movie seemed to be vibrantly, insistently alive. Remember when Hollis (Hart Bochner), the yuppie swine with designs on the hero’s wife, tried to negotiate with hero John McClane on behalf of the villainous Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and the bad guys poured him a Coke? When the scene cut away to McClane’s end of the conversation, you could hear the carbonated bubbles fizzling as if the beverage were being poured right next to McClane’s ear. (Why? Because McClane is thirsty? Because McTiernan wanted to help sell concessions? Because the fizzy noise sounds cool?) And the expected action picture sound effects — the shouts, gunshots, body blows and explosions — were LOUDER THAN HELL. When the C-4 packed elevator detonated, and McTiernan cut away to the base of the building exploding, the series of fiery flashes slapped the audience across the face. I saw the movie several times in a theater that summer; at every screening, a good percentage of the crowd ducked when the C-4 went off, as if the shattered glass was about to rip through the screen and shred their faces.
5. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
Directed by James Cameron
As critic-filmmaker Steven Santos points out in a video essay about the film, James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was an important transitional film in cinema’s analog-to-digital changeover, one that heralded a new kind of filmmaking in which computer-generated effects would dominate screen space, even storytelling itself. But it’s also a sensationally effective and INCREDIBLY LOUD action picture, packed with old-school as well as new-school visual effects, and a peerless demonstration of audience manipulation that makes brilliant use of a classic horror filmmaking technique: the moment of eerie aural dead space right before all hell breaks loose. Check out the 1:50 mark in the movie’s first big chase sequence; when the T-1000′s stolen truck trailer goes off the bridge, almost all the sound drops out for a moment, and when the vehicle hits the concrete, it goes: KEEEEE-RASH!!!!!! There are innumerable moments like that, and they’re all stunningly timed. And the last 45 minutes — the siege of Cyberdyne, the freeway chase and the climactic steel mill showdown — is one of the wildest, most extravagantly overproduced, hellishly LOUD action sequences in any film, every. (The molten steel noise is brilliant, like a thousand strips of bacon being fried at once.)
4. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom “(1984)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
From Kate Capshaw’s opening number (“Anything Goes” in Mandarin!) to the opening shootout in Club Obi-Wan (mass hysteria, machine-gun fire, a rolling gong) through the plane crash and the raft slaloming down the mountain, it’s a totally relentless film, one that takes the summer-movie-as-thrill-ride comparison about as far as it could go in the ’80s. And that’s just the opening section!
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ nasty, giddy, casually racist sequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a slapstick comedy, but with moments of unexpectedly real-seeming blood and pain, one that gives Dolby sound a bruising workout. Every punch sounds like a phone book being dropped onto a marble tabletop. Every pistol shot is as deafening as cannon fire. When the bad guy rips a follower’s heart out and holds it up, it’s still beating, and the lub-DUB sound is processed so that it seems to be happening inside your ear canal. Indiana Jones’ whip-cracks seem to split the screen open. John Williams’ score never lets up; even in a theoretically light, funny romantic interlude, it sounds like the music that Norman Bates hears in his head as he cleans up Marion Crane’s body in “Psycho.” Indy yells a lot. His sidekick Short Round complains a lot, and yells even more. And Capshaw’s gold-digging nightclub hostess, Willie, whines and cries and screams pretty much all the way through the film.
Love or hate this movie — and for some possibly sick reason, I love it — it’s absolutely, unquestionably one of the LOUDEST FILMS EVER MADE.
3. “The Fifth Element” (1997)
Directed by Luc Besson
Luc Besson’s sci-fi action-comedy is all excess, and the sound is a big part of the experience — maybe the aspect that drives everything else. The Euro-pop synth elements, the traditional action film scoring, the bizarre intergalactic opera house scene, Chris Tucker’s distorted jabber-mouthed patter and earsplitting girly-man shriek, the roaring hovercraft and spaceship engines, the deafening gunfire and explosions … I’m sorry, what did you say? I can’t hear you.
I just realized that Bruce Willis is in this movie, too. Hmmm. Next slide, please.
2. “Armageddon” (1998)
Directed by Michael Bay
Michael Bay is the only director with two films on this list. A dubious distinction? I’ll let you decide. But one thing’s for sure: He is not a subtle filmmaker; even his modest touches are in italics and boldface. And this movie, about a hardy band of astronauts trying to blow up a giant asteroid before it destroys Earth, was controversial for its utterly relentless camerawork and editing. People couldn’t just have conversations; they had to be talking while the camera whirled around them at high speed or jammed itself right up into their tonsils. Few shots were held for longer than three seconds, prompting more than one critic to say that the movie was a two-and-a-half hour trailer for itself. Hans Zimmer’s score was hysterically over-the-top no matter what was happening; even in quiet scenes it suggested fanfare for a military parade in some mythical sci-fi dictatorship. Then there were the roaring rocket sounds, the screech of tires, the gunshots and ricochets in that bizarre and unnecessary sequence where grizzled roughneck Bruce Willis (Him again? Jesus!) catches co-worker Ben Affleck with his daughter (Liv Tyler) and chases him around the oil rig with a shotgun like a hillbilly in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Watching “Armageddon” is indeed like riding a roller coaster — specifically of those old, poorly maintained roller coasters with no shock absorbers on the cars, the ones that leave you feeling sore for two days. And sweet mother of pearl, is it LOUD.
1. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011)
Directed by Michael Bay
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new champion. Direct from the imagination of Michael Bay: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” It’s the loudest of the “Transformers” films, louder than “Armageddon,” louder than “The Rock” or either of the “Bad Boys” films, and it’s in 3-D. You’ve got to hand it to Bay. He figured out a long time ago that most critics don’t like or respect the kind of cinema he makes — as I wrote in a 2009 piece, invoking “This Is Spinal Tap,” “His movies go to eleven” — and rather than knock himself out trying to gain admittance to a club that would never have somebody like him as a member, he’s gone in the opposite direction and become increasingly Bay-ish, cutting faster, moving the camera more chaotically, and packing the screen with so much information that the shots make George Lucas’ overly busy compositions in the “Star Wars” prequels seem austere.
Take it away, Andrew O’Hehir: “With ‘Dark of the Moon,’ [Bay] pushes the dumbass summer popcorn-movie formula to the max, and then pushes beyond that into an incoherent, purely symbolic realm that’s closer to experimental cinema than to Hollywood: sunsets and helicopters and vertical plunges through space and aircraft crashing to the ground and images of apocalyptic destruction and male bodies in motion and female bodies at rest (always as observers and objects, but never as subjects), all of it set to a throbbing score that never quite reaches the moment when it tries to sell you a beer or a pickup truck or pills to make your dick bigger.”
Watching the last 40 minutes of this movie is probably the closest most of us will ever get to being trapped inside a car that has crashed through a guardrail and is tumbling end-over-end until it reaches the bottom of the mountain. The mountain is Everest.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.