In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

In November 2014, it was announced that a new edition of Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY would arrive in a “Silent Space” edition, removing Steven Price’s Oscar-winning score and giving viewers the experience of what it might be like in space.

I was appalled when I read the announcement. Whatever you think of Price’s score, the thought of someone—whether it’s the studio, the film’s Oscar-winning director, or whomever—eliminating an essential part of the film seemed gimmicky and money-grubbing. And while I understand the appeal of the gimmick for this particular film, I found the whole enterprise insulting to Price.

But I decided to put up or shut up. I ordered the film on iTunes and watched the two versions—the original film and the “Silent Space” edition—back to back.

I haven’t seen GRAVITY since an IMAX 3D preview before the film opened. While no later viewing can duplicate that original atmosphere, the film still holds up in a 2D viewing on a 42″ screen at home. And while the script still has its weak spots, the film is a lean, taut 90-minute adrenaline rush.

The “Silent Space” edition, while still the same film, is an entirely different experience. Without the score, I found further nuances in Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s excellent performances and the film becomes an intimate two-character study. The grandeur of the situation is gone and the film focuses on the peril and humanity of these two people in danger.

Another plus is an even greater respect for the effects supplied by the Oscar-winning sound team. Space really is silent. Screams get sucked into nothingness, bodies slam into the ship’s hull with a muffled crunch, and Bullock hums nervously and quietly as she tries to disengage the parachute before the debris hits again. These are all subtle sound effects that potentially get lost in the original film. Is that important? Not necessarily, but it provides an interesting aural experience for this edition.

But without the score, the film lacks tension and emotion. It becomes a cerebral exercise rather than an immersive cinematic experience. Price’s score pummels you with electronically processed debris or flings you out into the void. It supplies the sound that doesn’t exist in space. There were moments where what I thought was music was actually part of the sound design and vice versa that actually turned out to be the opposite. I’m still not crazy about the screaming female vocals in the climax of the film, but I missed the grandeur that Price supplied for that final cue as Bullock returns to Earth.

If the blackness of space sucks all life out of sound, so does the elimination of the score from the film. It no longer pulses with the frailty of human life. The “Silent Space” edition is still an interesting experiment, but that’s all it is—an experiment. And a dangerous one for fans of film music.

In his introduction to the new edition, Cuarón concedes, “I love the music of the film. I think that the ultimate version of the film is with the music.” But I’m not convinced he actually means it. Cuarón says that the new edition would be “a more demanding experience for the audience,” which to me comes across as a backhanded slap to film music.

Film music should be more than a palliative solution to make movies more palatable for an audience. Price’s score is certainly not an easy listen for many audience members but watching GRAVITY without it confirms how exactly right for the film it is.

If this experiment succeeds (which my tax dollars may have helped), I shudder at the thought of what studios can do to the music of iconic films. JAWS becomes a waterlogged movie about a rubber shark. THE LORD OF THE RINGS becomes a 10-hour trip to hell and back. TITANIC would sink under the weight of James Cameron’s “Jack!”-“Rose!” dialog. I shudder to think that this could become a trend.

If experiments like this continue, you can be sure I’ll be screaming. But will anyone out in space hear?

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