The hit film and video game topping their respective charts right now are A Quiet Place and Far Cry 5. While they might have little in common at first glance, both borrow from science fiction to construct antagonists who are hypersensitive to sound – whether it’s the film’s predatory aliens or the game’s drug-induced zombie “Angels”. If we believe in the allegorical capacity of science fiction, then these elements carry important subtext for today’s social media-driven and communications-centric consumer culture.
Popular media that is influenced or led by science fiction has historically provided us with a glimpse into the fears held by society at a particular time and place. The assumption here is that the alien invasion movies of the 1950s were a reflection of Cold War-era anxieties about communist infiltration or anticommunist indoctrination, while many monster flicks of the 1980s shifted from political commentary to emergent social concerns.
John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing which is set in an isolated homosocial world, for instance, can be read as less about paranoia of Red Agents and more about suspicion in the early 1980s concerning AIDS and gay culture. Through science fiction, anxieties and fears are made comprehensible in a way that might not ever be achievable through a more realistic lens. My own research has explored how tropes from science fiction might even be borrowed to compellingly communicate and make sense of abstract threats such as consumption-related health risks.
With all of this in mind, what can we take away from current sci-fi’s emphasis on sound or its absence?
A Quiet Place and the absence of voice
In John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, a mother and father must protect their young children in a silent and desolate world following an alien invasion. The perennial silence hanging over the family’s lives throughout the film can be read as a commentary on the nature of family dynamics and how things are often left unspoken and pent-up within the modern family unit.
But, perhaps more than that, A Quiet Place can be read to have some resonance with the anxieties of “speaking out” in today’s society. In the film, peoples’ survival is dependent on their ability to remain utterly silent, as making the slightest noise could attract fearsome, unstoppable creatures who hunt their prey with indiscriminate aggression and an acute attraction to sound.
Various commentators have spoken about how cultural and labour conditions can facilitate systemic abuse and how patriarchal arenas enforce silence or sanction brutal reactions against those who speak out.
In the age of the social media call-out culture, many live in trepidation of being singled out by the eagle eyes of indignant organisers of public shaming.
Many have been “publicly shamed” for their transgressions. Think of Justine Sacco – who made a bad-taste Twitter joke about Africa and AIDS and subsequently lost her job. Or Lindsey Stone, a US careworker, who was sacked when a private photograph of her in Arlington National Cemetery making an obscene gesture next to a sign asking for respect became public. She was widely accused of disrespect.
Writer Angela Nagle says that a call-out can potentially “ruin your reputation, your job or your life” – no matter how minor the transgression or how well intentioned you may be.
The din of the loudest voices
In Ubisoft’s videogame Far Cry 5, you play as a silent sheriff’s deputy who must work with local rebel militias to stand up to a doomsday cult which has indoctrinated the fictitious “Hope County” via a weaponised hallucinogenic drug called Bliss. The game borrows liberally from science fiction tropes, including post-apocalyptic survival, biological terrorism and zombies in the form of drugged-up and brain-dead slaves of the cult called Angels. Religion is literally made into an opium for the masses and sound – like in Krasinksi’s movie – is a critical and allegorical tool.
The zombified Angels are sensitive to sound and loud noise is used to lead them. Cultists drive pick-up trucks loaded with speakers that blare music to attract the Angels and steer them towards targets. This might be read as a thinly veiled metaphor for the ability of charismatic individuals to amass large and puritanical groups who instinctively follow whoever makes the most noise.
In a world where those who are perceived to be “Angels” can be led so easily to seek and destroy, we are faced with a moral system which has been majorly compromised and difficult to intervene in. As admitted by the late British cultural theorist Mark Fisher when writing about what he considered to be the dangers of “witch-hunting moralism”:
The reason I didn’t speak out … I’m ashamed to say, was fear. The bullies were in another part of the playground. I didn’t want to attract their attention to me.
The radical solution, according to Far Cry 5, is to destroy the cultists’ means of making loud noises and, from there, no Angels can be led (or misled). However, at one point in the game – a sequence called “Quiet on the set” – the player is tasked with “killing the sound” by gunning down multiple cultists and Angels so that a privileged Hollywood director can shoot an asinine action movie in peace. Such scenes provide a nuanced reflection on who exactly you are helping by enforcing silence – the victimised communities or the elite outsider?
A Quiet Place and Far Cry 5 – while worlds apart in their narratives – continue in the science fiction tradition of tackling real issues in a way that other genres and forms of communication may not be able to achieve. So , if science fiction is indeed a platform for talking about important social concerns, then the themes of noise, silence, and finding one’s voice need to be carefully examined and discussed.