The rise of sci-fi with sad voices

In science fiction movies, almost nothing is more important than building a world. This doesn’t necessarily mean great shots of spaceships or distant planets. For any lavish spectacle like Dune, there are many more small-scale sci-fi movies with modest or non-existent special effects budgets. These films must use other methods to shape their futuristic visions. An atmospheric soundtrack can go a long way to create an exciting atmosphere. Clever set design, such as the homemade time machine in Primer or the quantum computer cables stretched through the forest in Lapsis, can immerse the audience in a new world without advanced CGI. Even the way characters talk to each other can be a cost-effective way to set the tone. So cost-effective, in fact, that there is a slew of recent films in which a distinctive speech pattern plays a vital role in the creation of the fictional universe. Call it Sad Voice Sci-Fi.

Not trembling, on the verge of tears sad. Sad as in anhedonic, immersed in passion, depressed. A pronounced flat affect, sometimes accompanied by an unnatural cadence. Case in point: Colin Farrell makes his way through Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. The 2015 film is set in a fantastical dystopia where people who fail to find a suitable romantic interest are transformed into the animal of their choice. Farrell’s character David has only a month and a half to track down a soul mate after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend. Stressful! Bizarre! Yet he has a blank face and passively accepts this strange fate. He calmly explains that he would like to turn into a lobster because, among other attractive qualities, they “remain fertile all their lives.” The other hapless loners David encounters during the film also speak in a stiff monotone no matter what they are dealing with. Lanthimos’ actors often remain calm despite highly emotional circumstances, so much so that it has become a feature in many of his films. In The Lobster, this gimmick works and David’s despicable loneliness underscores how difficult it is for him and the others to connect. The way he reacts with staid resignation to seemingly nonsensical rules shows that this is a universe where the individual stands little chance against the system, however absurd that system may be.

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 owner who is married to the beautiful corporate warrior Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). They have bought an android named Yang (Justin H. Min) to teach their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) about her Chinese heritage, but when the movie starts, Yang is not working properly. He has been living with the family for years and Mika has been robbed. (Kyra, less. “Maybe this is a good thing,” she says. Cold!) While Jake tries to fix Yang, but fails, he gains access to the robot’s memory bank. Looking at Yang’s memories, he realizes how deeply the serene robot really felt, how he hoped and dreamed and even had a love interest. It’s melancholic, meditative, beautifully shot. It’s also clearly understated. Though Jake bickers with Kyra about how much time he spends trying to recover from Yang, their disagreements remain strangely calm, as if raising their voices above a whisper would give them an electric shock.

All the conversations in the film are so muted; one wonders if there is some sort of mass-prescription sedative at work in Kagonada’s vision of the future. That’s the point, of course – the sad voice is a cheat code to infer alienation and dissociation. (See also: Joaquin Phoenix’s somber Theodore at the start of 2013’s Her or Carey Mulligan’s calm Kathy narrating the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, two early entries in the Sad-Voice Sci-Fi canon.) It’s easy to see. why this might appeal to directors, as a sad voice efficiently signaling to the audience that they are watching Repressed Characters. While After Yang is a beautiful film, the room-to-wall whispering has another side effect. It acts like auditory novocaine, numbing viewers to the emotional impact of what would have been the plot’s tenderest spots.

This is the risk of the sad voice. The highly mannered nature not only conveys a character’s alienation from themselves, it also adds a distance between the story and the audience that can sap a film 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 unexpectedly recovers, her clone is legally supposed to be destroyed, but the clone (also played by Gillan, and dubbed “Sarah’s doppelgänger”) invokes a law that allows her to challenge the “original” Sarah for a duel. To make matters worse, Sarah’s boyfriend dumps her for her clone, and even her own mother seems to prefer the doppelganger’s company. Sarah decides she must train to destroy her more lovable doppelganger.

It’s a gripping story – in theory. However, the performance is visceral grating. Both Sarahs are so intensely obnoxious that viewers would be excused if they thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a tragedy if they just solved it and killed each other. As the original Sarah, Gillan speaks as if she is going out of her way to mimic a robot trying to impersonate a human. “Why am I not crying?” she asks the doctor, dead-eyed, stiff upper lip, after learning she is dying. Sarah’s clone is a little more shredded, but just as pompous. That she only sounds as unnatural as her ‘original’ underlines how disconnected from humanity Sarah is. As with The Lobster, Sarah’s dry acceptance of absurd circumstances is meant to make them all the more absurd. Warmly received, Dual has been compared by some critics to a Lanthimos movie. This is an insult to Lanthimos. His work can be off-putting, even repulsive (you couldn’t pay me to watch The Killing of the Sacred Deer again), but the idiosyncrasy, including the stylized dialogue, serves a coherent vision. This is not the case with Dual. Detachment in itself doesn’t make a character interesting, and repression alone doesn’t make a world interesting. A poorly executed sad voice can unfortunately turn even a clever sci-fi script into monotonous boredom.

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