In science fiction films, almost nothing matters as much as world-building. This doesn’t always necessarily mean grand shots of spaceships or far-flung planets. For every lavish spectacle like Dune, there are many more smaller-scale sci-fi movies with modest or nonexistent special effects budgets. These movies must use other methods to flesh out their futuristic visions. An atmospheric soundtrack can go far to create a thrilling mood. Clever set design, like the homebrewed time machine in Primer or the quantum-computer cables strung through the woods in Lapsis, can immerse audiences in a new world without cutting-edge CGI. Even the way characters talk to one another can be a cost-effective way of setting the tone. So cost-effective, in fact, that there is a whole crop of recent films where a distinctive speech pattern plays a crucial role in establishing the fictional universe. Call it Sad-Voice Sci-Fi.
Not trembling, on-the-verge-of-tears sad. Sad as in anhedonic, sapped of passion, depressed. A pronounced flat affect, sometimes paired with an unnatural cadence. A prime example: Colin Farrell deadpanning his way through Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. The 2015 film is set in a fantastical dystopia where people who fail to pair up with a suitable romantic interest are transformed into the animal of their choice. Farrell’s character, David, has just a month and a half to hunt down a soul mate after he gets dumped by his longtime girlfriend. Stressful! Bizarre! Yet he’s blank-faced, passively accepting of this strange fate. He calmly explains that he’d like to turn into a lobster because, among other appealing qualities, they “stay fertile all their lives.” The other unlucky-in-love singletons David encounters throughout the movie also speak in a stiff monotone, regardless of what they’re facing. Lanthimos’ actors often stay deadpan despite highly emotional circumstances, so much so that it has become a signature across many of his films. In The Lobster, this gimmick works, underlining David’s abject lonesomeness, how difficult he and the others find it to connect. The way he responds to seemingly nonsensical rules with sedate resignation conveys that this is a universe where the individual stands little chance against the system, no matter how absurd that system is.
Farrell has established himself as the reigning king of Sad-Voice Sci-Fi. In addition to The Lobster, he recently starred in After Yang, directed by the pseudonymous Korean-American filmmaker Kagonada. Farrell plays Jake, a tea shop proprietor married to lovely corporate-warrior Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). They’ve purchased an android named Yang (Justin H. Min) to teach their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) about her Chinese heritage, but as the film opens, Yang malfunctions. He’s lived with the family for years, and Mika is bereft. (Kyra, less so. “Maybe this is a good thing,” she says. Cold!) As Jake tries and fails to repair Yang, he is able to access the robot’s memory bank. Watching Yang’s memories, he realizes how deeply feeling the serene robot really was, how he had hopes and dreams and even a love interest. It’s melancholic, meditative, beautifully shot. It’s also distinctly subdued. Although Jake bickers with Kyra about how much time he’s spending on trying to fix Yang, their disagreements remain strangely calm, as if they’d receive an electric shock if they raised their voices louder than a whisper.
All of the conversations in the movie are hushed like this; one wonders if there is some sort of mass-prescribed sedative at work in Kagonada’s vision of the future. That is, of course, the point—the sad-voice is a cheat code to infer alienation and dissociation. (See also: Joaquin Phoenix’s mopey Theodore at the beginning of 2013’s Her, or Carey Mulligan’s placid Kathy narrating the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, two early entries into the Sad-Voice Sci-Fi canon.) It’s easy to see why this might appeal to directors, as sad-voice efficiently gestures to the audience that they are watching Repressed Characters. While After Yang is a lovely film, though, the wall-to-wall whispering has another side effect. It works like aural novocaine, numbing viewers to the emotional impact of what would have been the tenderest spots of the plot.
This is the risk of the sad voice. Its highly mannered nature doesn’t just convey a character’s alienation from themselves, it also inserts a distance between the story and the audience that can sap a movie of its emotional resonance. In another recent film set in a dystopian world, Dual, a woman named Sarah (Karen Gillan) creates a clone for herself after learning she has a terminal illness. When she makes an unexpected recovery, her clone is legally supposed to be destroyed, but the clone (also played by Gillan, and called “Sarah’s double”) invokes a law allowing her to challenge the “original” Sarah to a duel. To make matters worse, Sarah’s boyfriend dumps her for her clone, and even her own mother seems to prefer the double’s company. Sarah decides she must train to destroy her more likable doppelgänger.
It’s a gripping tale—in theory. However, the execution is viscerally grating. Both Sarahs are so intensely annoying, viewers would be excused if they thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a tragedy if they simply got it over with and killed one another. As the original Sarah, Gillan speaks like she’s doing her very best impersonation of a robot trying to pretend to be a human. “Why aren’t I crying?” she asks the doctor, dead-eyed, upper lip stiff, after she learns she’s dying. Sarah’s clone is slightly more chipper, but equally stilted. That she is only as unnatural-sounding as her “original” underscores how disconnected from humanity Sarah is. As with The Lobster, Sarah’s dry acceptance of absurd circumstances is meant to render them all the more absurd. Warmly received, Dual has been compared to a Lanthimos film by some critics. This is an insult to Lanthimos. His work can be off-putting, even repellent (you could not pay me to watch The Killing of the Sacred Deer again), but the oddness, including the stylized dialog, is in service of a coherent vision. This is not the case with Dual. Detachment in and of itself doesn’t make a character interesting, nor does repression alone make a world compelling. A poorly done sad voice, alas, can turn even a clever sci-fi script into a one-note bore.
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