ESSAYS ON STAR WARS: It’s the Sound That Defines ‘Star Wars’

“Aaaaauuuuugh!” — Wilhelm

In November 2014, when the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens posted online, much hay was made about its focus on the new. Some writers marveled how the first Star Wars faces seen in nearly a decade were exclusively of new characters. Even the one familiar entity in the entire trailer, though satisfying to behold again, is the back of a spaceship. And while arguably those characters—Finn, Poe, Rey, BB-8—have since earned their right to stand aside the more classic characters, the greatest nostalgia cash-in in an era known for nostalgia cash-ins used strange faces for their inaugural footage. At the time it seemed daring.

And yet, it was less daring than it seemed.

Watch the trailer again. Only this time, close your eyes:

To those for whom Star Wars was their babysitter, their toy collection, their religion between Sundays, this trailer sounds considerably more familiar. The sound of an Imperial Probe Droid babbling, the torrentially cutesy beeps of an astromech droid. The humming of a gravity-defying speeder. The unmistakable ignition of a Jedi lightsaber. And finally, the engine roar of the greatest hamburger-shaped spaceship in movie history. Paired with the familiar melodies of John Williams, it almost doesn’t matter that you’ve never seen Rey or Finn before. You know this is a Star Wars movie. It sounds like a Star Wars movie.

Among George Lucas’ more quizzical assertions these last four decades has been that the Star Wars movies play like silent films. While you can make the argument that much of the movies’ emotional power arises in spectacular imagery, and the occasional unspoken moments paired with Williams’ score (more on that in a future essay), little in the storytelling feels exclusively visual. With each longing glance into the binary sunsets comes a horn solo accompaniment. Accompanying each heroic maneuver of a rebel spacecraft is the scream of their engine and the bleat of their lasers. With each close-up of R2-D2, a face as inscrutable as they come, the robot’s electronic bleats inform us precisely how he feels, without the need of subtitles. Same goes with Chewbacca, only replace beeps with growls.

True, Lucas might simply have trotted out this line to lampshade the shortcoming of his dialogue—which at its best doles out snappy one-liners in between talk of tractor beams and power converters, and at worst inspires doubt human beings ought ever to have evolved language. But even his bullshit latches to some truth. Apart from those one-liners, little of what’s spoken triggers the most indelible moments.

Had that Force Awakens trailer not included the voice over, it’s hard to imagine too much would be lost. In a universe where the words being spoken amount to beeps and whistles, beeps and whistles might as well play the dominant role. Star Wars is very much a talkie, even if the actual talking is less necessary than the other sounds.

Depending on your obsession with Star Wars—or depending on how deep down the internet wormhole you care to delve—stories of how Ben Burtt and his team of sound designers innovated each recognizable crash or bleat or growl run amok. For Chewbacca, the assemblage of various wild rodents and mammals. For the beeping robots, a cocktail of electronic sounds and Burtt’s vocalizations. For those laser samurai swords, whose crackling sound even Hayden Christensen couldn’t resist imitating on set, they married the hum of old movie projectors and microphone interference.

In other words, to make Star Wars, Burtt used a bunch of junk.

I want to be careful about how much credence I give these stories—in a lot of ways, the idea of these sounds coming from the most unlikely of places feeds a little too nicely into the spurious narrative Lucas and company have been able to cement the last few decades: that they were a bunch of scrappy underdog filmmakers who overcame a meager budget and skeptical execs to make the most popular movie of all time. (With the benefit of hindsight and the existence of the prequels, I’m more sympathetic to the theory Lucas’ editors—including his then-wife Marcia—salvaged a calamitous production in post.) Even if you take the narrative as part of the myth and marketing, it’s hard not to see the poetry in using junk sounds to piece together a junk movie about a junky future.

It’s also hard not to see the prose. The junk sounds, designed to feel foreign, are what speak the language of these stories. I don’t merely mean Greedo as he grilling Han Solo in some alien dialect, preparing to shoot first. I mean communication totally unutterable with the human tongue populate that crowded, smoky cantina, including a patron haranguing Luke with choking seal barks. I mean the unmistakable sound of the Millennium Falcon swooping past, the punchy expectorations from the X-Wing fighters’ laser turrets, the elephantine scream of an Imperial TIE Fighter. These are distinctive. These are recognizable. In The Force Awakens, even Finn knew those familiar, faint elephantine squeals spelled trouble.

Finn’s own recognition brings me back, of all places, to the 2000 Academy Award ceremony, as the presenter rattled off the nominees for the category of Best Sound Effects Editing. Each nominee, while named, received an accompanying sound effect from their movie. As Ben Burtt’s name came up for his work on The Phantom Menace, his accompanying sound was unmistakable: the clashing of two lightsabers. Those altered hums of television static and movie projector motors, sounding more crisp and polished than ever. My ears perked up, yet not in a wistful, nostalgic way; the sound roused me, transported me. It did not matter that the movie being touted was The Phantom Menace; I wanted back into that universe.

And perhaps, beyond the archetypal characters and exotic locales, that’s really how Star Wars hooks you. How it siren-songs its way into the brain time and again. While these noises don’t beg the ear much attention they do hint, like a chorus of cicadas, at a universe of sound (and accompanying imagery) sensually unique to a very specific set of stories. Beyond the meticulously designed wear-and-tear of the sets, the sound effects are what really establish the scrappy tone. They are the sounds that bring you home, that plant you in a universe in ways not even attainable by the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

For the mega-fan—maybe even the casual watcher—the sounds of Star Wars evoke the scratch of an old vinyl record, the naive yet insightful notes you penciled in the margins of your college copy of Typee, the eternal waft of incense as you enter church. They are the quirk that is become the function of your nostalgia for the material that engaged you. Unlike the nostalgia artifact, though, Star Wars is bound to outlive us all, including its original cast and crew. Whether the stories will continue to resemble the same stories of a film generation passed, whether they calcify into something safe and stagnant, or whether they turn into a hardcore sex series so gradually, we don’t even notice, is uncertain.

But no matter how bereft the movies get, I can’t imagine even my octogenarian future self, closing my eyes for the trailer to Episode LXXXVIII, for the sound of a lightsaber ignited or of R2-D2 beeping, and not feeling the hairs in my ears stand upright.

This is the first in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:

  • Essay on Star Wars (1977) — TODAY’S ESSAY
  • Essay on The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — Thursday, December 7
  • Essay on Return of the Jedi (1983) — Friday, December 8
  • Essay on The Phantom Menace (1999) — Saturday, December 9
  • Essay on Attack of the Clones (2002) — Sunday, December 10
  • Essay on Revenge of the Sith (2005) — Monday, December 11
  • Essay on The Force Awakens (2015) — Tuesday, December 12
  • Essay on Rogue One (2016) — Wednesday, December 13
  • Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14

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