In Fear of the Vacuum

Image of Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo courtesy of The Nerdist.

This contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But only as a jumping off point. The power is in your hands.

When I was watching The Last Jedi, what struck me more than the story was the visuals. The movie has a lush sensibility that pairs modern graphical technology with an aesthetic that hearkens back to the old films in terms of bombast. It’s a perfect marriage, more so than any of the other attempts that have been made thus far.

The one sequence that exemplified this union was Vice Admiral Holdo’s last stand against the First Order. Holdo, looking to keep the Order from entirely destroying Leia’s transport fleet, decides to sacrifice herself by ramming the Order’s star destroyer with her ship at light speed, cutting through it with an instant impact. The moment is undeniably cathartic and cool, a noble and tactically brilliant move to scuttle the enemy. But what highlights the moment so much is the near-silence that occurs during the explosion. It’s a revision to the overly noisy space that the original trilogy occupied, in concert with the actual laws of science. When the Death Star blew up, it was a practical effect accompanied by a percussive boom. In The Last Jedi, the moment is crystallized by that lack — it is perfection writ large, and the honing of the visuals stands out.

What stuck with me after the film, however, was thinking about the power of silence. In cinema, use of silence can be just as tense, gripping and explosive as well, explosions might be. And what it can represent with that emptiness or lack of words is thought-provoking. But it can also represent the truth of particular moment or environment. One of the biggest fights film fans have had around silence is whether or not to use diagetic sound in sequences involving the vacuum of space. According to the laws of science, it technically shouldn’t. The sequence from The Last Jedi highlighted why this is so hotly debated: the accuracy is great but it also creates a level of drama. The scene’s strength is in reminding us why space is so awe-inspiring; this is awe in the most potent meaning of the word, the terrifying sublime, a deep fear of something that can wring out our mortality like a used dishrag. In space, as the Alien poster told us, no one can hear you scream.

It is in this sentiment that I feel unravels the other particular anxiety we have about silence — so much our puny lives are spent processing sensory input that the lack of using one of those senses can unnerve us on a primal level if we typically have the capacity for them otherwise. It takes the philosophical argument about a tree falling in the forest to the next level: if we were there to hear the tree fall but it made no sound, what does that mean for us as audience? We are primed as people, as much by our fictional and non-fictional media, to expect an equal sound to accompany equally large events, so when there is none, it is chilling.

But it does make for good cinema.

The moment in Star Wars joins others that represent space like Cowboy Bebop or Cuarón’s Gravity, where silence (or the inference of such) is allowed to punctuate moments when we are powerless in the face of the overwhelming lack. It is an effective tool to focus the audience’s attention, especially when so many of us are used to Dolby Atmos and 7.1 surround. When everything rushes out, what are we left feeling for these moments? We have been allowed to bear witness to something that otherwise could not be known. Our collective participation in viewing is tensed and heightened because of this. We can hear our own pulse in our ears. We wait for things to happen. The true magic of the visual is allowed to rush into the gaps even more so than usual. If comics as a visual medium allows us the terrible power of closure, film forces us to confront our powerlessness as sensory beings.

I think that because of these things that we might see more and more visual media tackling this topic in the coming years. In the case of actual vacuum of space, this collective powerlessness is present in what is seen as the newest frontier. We will never fully conquer the void. We will always dance with death behind an eggshell of technology, but as sci-fi reminds us: eventually we will die. The danger we court may come to us and leave us gasping for just a moment, quietly.

And then nothing.

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