Ten Great Movies for Demonstrating Home Theater Sound Systems—Part 1

Ten Great Movies for Demonstrating Home Theater Sound Systems—Part 1


1.Apocalypto. No matter what you may think of Mel Gibson as a person or as a director, it is arguable that there are more than a few moments of real greatness in his film Apocalypto, and part of this is attributable to his masterful use of surround sound. What makes this movie tick is its ability to shift back and forth between literal and figurative images and sounds, so that it deliberately blurs lines of distinction between conventional narrative story telling and the invocation of prophetic (or apocalyptic) visions.

Recommended Chapters: “Ravage”, “Reborn Of Mud And Earth”, and “Warrior’s Death”.


•In “Ravage”, note the transition between natural jungle and village sounds (birds chirping, wind in the trees, a dog barking in the distance) to the slightly distorted sound of Jaguar Paw’s prescient dream of warning, where a fellow villager warns him to “Run!!” As the Mayan warriors attack the village, notice how selective sounds of violence are “spotlighted” for greater impact. Finally, pay close attention to the way the film score is tightly interwoven with the action.

•In “Reborn Of Mud And Earth”, observe the way the soundtrack underscores the transition where Jaguar Paw, who has been hunted throughout the day before, suddenly is transformed after he escapes the mud bog, becoming the hunter. Note the cool “slurping” sounds as Jaguar Paw falls into, and later extricates himself from, the bog. Also, check out the unusual use of voices—especially the triumphant word “Paaaahhh”—as Jaguar turns the tables on his Mayan pursuers and attacks them with a grenade-like hornet’s nest.

•In “Warrior’s Death”, check out the intricate way in which natural sounds and the film score seem to fuse for a time as Jaguar Paw races to set a trap for his pursuers. Note, too, the way the sound designer gives selective emphasis to certain key sonic details—the Mayan warrior’s final gasps for breath, for example—and also uses powerful dynamic swells in the music to give certain passage an otherworldly, apocalyptic feel.

This is one surround sound experience that will really get under your skin and that demands (and rewards) repeated viewings.

2.Aviator. Martin Scorcese’s film about Howard Hughes offers several chapters that beautifully exploit the capabilities of surround sound. Three particularly impressive scenes involve the maiden flights of aircraft that Hughes and his team helped to developed.

Recommended Chapters: “H-1 Racer, Breaking The World Speed Record”, “XF-11, Inaugural Flight And Crash”, and “Flying Boat”.


•“H-1 Racer, Breaking the World Speed Record” shows the flight of a small racing monoplane in which Hughes set a world speed record the first time out. First, listen to the sound of the “silence” before the flight including the gentle creaking of the controls as Hughes tries the feel of the control stick. Next, observe the tightly focused sound of switches being flipped and the crack of the engine coming alive as it prepares for ensuing speed runs (where the exhaust notes of the engine will build to a furious bellow). Finally, note the agonizing return to silence when Hughes inadvertently runs the plane out of fuel, so that all we hear are the sounds of wind whistling over the wing surfaces and cowling, and the quiet sounds of Hughes frantically (but unsuccessfully) trying to restart the engine. Hughes avoids disaster only by making an emergency, “dead stick” crash landing in a beet field where the thumping, grating sounds of the beets splattering against the sides of the once-beautiful airplane add just a touch of comic relief.

•The “XF-11, Inaugural Flight and Crash” chapter unfolds almost like a Greek tragedy. The XF-11 was an innovative, twin-engine spy plane that was intended, at the time, to be Hughes’ masterpiece, as it used an unorthodox propulsion scheme where each engine was fitted a pair of counter-rotating propellers. At first, the flight goes beautifully as the light, airy music score make plain—so that Hughes, who loved to pilot his company’s newest designs on maiden test flights, feels compelled to fly the plane at higher than planned cruise speeds, and wants to extend the flight past its maximum scheduled length.

But suddenly, everything goes horribly wrong (an oil seal in one of the props has failed, causing the prop to start rotating backward—a problem impossible to diagnose from the cockpit, since both props appear to be spinning correctly). The soundtrack becomes progressively more intense as Hughes struggles, unsuccessfully, to keep the XF-11 aloft. In the end, the best he can manage is a semi-controlled crash landing in Beverly Hills. We watch—and listen—in horror as the landing gear tears through the tile roof of one mansion, the right wingtip slices open the sidewall of a second mansion like a giant filet knife, and the starboard engine tears off the wing and crashes through the kitchen window of a third home. Eventually, the battered fuselage of the XF-11—now shorn of both wings—grinds to a stop in alleyway, amid a pool of flames.

Amazingly, Hughes, though terribly injured, survives the crash but has trouble exiting the cockpit (we hear the sizzle of his fingertips and his screams as he tries to push open the clear canopy, which has been scorched by the flames outside). Eventually, Hughes frees himself, crawls from the wreckage and collapses with his clothes partially on fire. A passing military man comes to the rescue, putting out the flames and pulling Hughes away from the fiery crash site. Frantic, Hughes pulls the man close and asserts, in a thick, distorted, phase-shifted voice, “I’m Howard Hughes, the aviator.” It is perhaps at that moment that we fully grasp how tightly Hughes’ self-image is tied, not to his great wealth, but to flight itself.

•“Flying Boat” shows the surprise flight of Hughes’ Hercules flying boat, which was then (and may still be) the largest airplane ever constructed. The scene begins with a stunning sequence where Hughes and his lead aircraft designer go through an elaborate startup procedure for the eight huge, radial aircraft engines that power the Hercules. Your hear the scene as if perched on the airplane’s nose and facing aft, hearing four engines to your left and four to your right, each starting up in turn and joining a thundering chorus of internal combustion. If your system has the dynamic clout to pull it off, the sound is very realistic and full of impact. Later, you’ll hear a flashback to Hughes’ passionate testimony before Congress, where he fiercely asserted that if the Hercules failed to fly he would “leave the country and never come back.” By the end of the scene, of course, the Hercules does fly, creating a soul stirring sound as it passes overhead.

3.House of Flying Daggers. This Zhang Yimou film combines, in equal parts, a highly stylized martial arts movie and an implausible but touching love story, and has become one of the most popular surround sound demos ever. A big part of this has to do with the two innovative chapters discussed below, whose surround soundtracks are so compelling (when reproduced properly) that they seem artful and appealing even to viewers who don’t much care for the film’s genre.

Recommended Chapters: “The Echo Game” and “Assassination Attempt”.


•In “The Echo Game” and “Assassination Attempt” we see that Mei, an ostensibly blind dancer, is challenged to play a game that is itself based on real-world surround sounds. Mei stands in the center of a semi-circle of drums mounted on stands, while a Chinese garrison captain throws beans at the drumheads. Mei’s task is to identify the locations of the drums by sound alone, and then—through a stylized dance—to point out which drums had sounded by flicking the weighted sleeves of her dance costume against the correct drums.

•Mei performs this feat first with one drum, then two, then four, and finally with the entire set of drums, as the Chinese officer—tacitly acknowledging her great skills—throws an entire bowlful of beans at the drums, giving Mei the opportunity to dance and interact with all of them at once. It’s a spectacular scene and one that, with a good surround system, should sound highly enveloping and three-dimensional while conveying the subjective “feel” of what it might be like have the heightened hearing sensitivity of a blind person who has learned to navigate the world through sound.

•At the end of the game, Mei makes what appears to be an assassination attempt on the captain, using the long sleeves of her dance gown to snatch a sword and to swing it in the direction of the commander’s head. An elaborate, stylized fight scene ensues with the sighted captain dueling with the blind dancer. Interestingly, for surround sound enthusiasts at least, the fight ends with captain luring Mei into a room that contains a bubbling fountain and whose multiple entrances are hung with strands of glass beads. The captain craftily drags the tip of his sword against one set of beads after another—so that all of them ring out at once, creating a swirl of noise the keeps Mei from pinpointing point the captain’s location. Before the ringing of the beads can subside, the captain approaches Mei from behind and takes her captive.

The chapters I’ve referenced make a great introduction to surround sound for newcomers to our hobby, in that they are vivid, artful, and make it easy to hear differences between various grades of equipment. Once you hear “The Echo Game” and “Assassination Attempt” on a good surround rig, there’s just no going back to ordinary “TV speakers.”

4.Letters From Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s film Letters From Iwo Jima is part of a bookend-like set of movies, with its counterpart being Flags of Our Fathers. Both films tell the story of America’s WWII invasion of the Japanese island Iwo Jima, with Flags taking the American point of view and Letters presenting the Japanese side of the story. Unlike some war movies crafted by American directors, this one does not demonize the Japanese, nor does it minimize the profound differences between Japanese and American cultures. Instead, the film shows the Japanese defenders’ frailties, strengths, idiosyncrasies, and profound humanity (and, yes, even nobility) as they vow to fight to the death in what many sense is already a lost cause.

Recommended Chapters (untitled for this film): Chapters 11, 14, 15, and 16.


•The grim reality of the Japanese situation is driven home by a vivid scene where we see Japanese troops huddled in tunnels and caves dug far below ground level, with the men cringing and driven almost to the cracking point by a seemingly endless U.S. naval barrage. The surround effects in the scene are terrific, so that listeners can hear shells exploding overhead, some from afar and others from almost directly overhead (with concussive effects that will shake your listening room floor). To emphasize the gravity of the situation, you can even hear small bits of grit and debris raining down from the ceilings of the cave when shells land too close by. From a sonic standpoint, the scene is a little too realistic for comfort.

•But no less effective are the film’s quieter, dialogue-driven moments. A great example can be found in the scene where we find two Japanese enlisted men trying to grapple with the fact that most of the members of their squad have just killed themselves rather face defeat. This leaves the characters in a life or death argument, trying to decide whether or not to join their comrades in committing suicide. Saigo, the film’s chief protagonist, argues that it is better to follow orders, to escape, and to live to serve the Emperor another day, while Shimizu, who is more of a traditionalist, argues that suicide is the only honorable way out. You can not only hear but also feel the edginess and all-or-nothing desperation in their voices, echoing in the interior of a cave that has become a tomb.

Surround sound just doesn’t get much better than this.

5.Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The opening chapters of Peter Weir’s epic about naval warfare during Britain’s war with Napoleon’s France are acknowledged surround sound classics. As those who know the film can attest, the four chapters unfold in what seems almost like the cinematic equivalent of a symphonic suite (picture, for example, something along the lines of Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite).

Recommended Chapters: “The HMS Surprise”, “A Shape In The Fog”, “Under Attack”, “Lucky Jack’s Gambit”.


•In “HMS Surprise”, which introduces Captain Jack Aubrey’s beloved 28-gun frigate, we see—and hear—life aboard ship as we follow the sailor charged with the night watch as he makes his rounds. Note the subtle surround effects revealing a gentle breeze in the sails and rigging above, the almost subliminal rustle of the hull passing through water, and the soft creaking of timbers and deck planks as the ship rolls softly on gentle swells. On a good surround system, you should experience the eerily realistic illusion of sounds coming not only from beside but also from above the listening position.

•In “A Shape in The Fog” we see life aboard the ship at daybreak, replete with the sounds of hands working the decks, climbing rigging, and so forth. But then, in a nearby fogbank, a mysterious, unidentifiable sound is heard. As the crew investigates, the officer of the watch, Mr. Hollom, sees through his spyglass a fleeting, vague “shape in the fog” that appears—for just a split second—to be another square-rigged ship. Hollom, who lacks self-confidence and thus is indecisive, doesn’t know what to do, so that a younger midshipman finally steps in, shouting, “We shall beat to quarters!” (i.e., prepare for possible battle). In response, the well-drilled crewmembers rush to clear the decks, prepare the guns, and ready the ship for action, as Captain Aubrey comes on deck to see what has occasioned the action. Aubrey listens to Hollom’s fumbling explanation, studies the fogbank carefully, and begins to turn away when a sound—is it a distant shout from an opposing ship’s crew or just a shift in the tone of the wind?—makes him look back, just in time to see flashes of cannon fire coming from within the fogbank. Aubrey has just enough time to order his crew to “Get down!” before cannonballs come crashing into the Surprise.

•“Under Attack” is a classic naval battle scene, where the thunderous roar of cannon fire and the sounds of splintering woodwork and of rigging being shredded are contrasted against the quiet intensity of the ship’s surgery below decks, where Dr. Stephen Maturin (a degreed physician and not merely a common ship’s “surgeon”) tends to the wounded. Note that few subwoofers can really do justice to the sound of the cannon fire, which actually goes to lower frequencies (and at louder levels) than most subs can handle. On really first-rate systems, the sounds of battle are very intense and dynamic, though in most systems you’ll encounter at least some degree of compression (which, frankly, isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it probably saves equipment from self-destruction and keeps neighbors from appearing on your doorstep with pitchforks in hand…). The HMS Surprise does not fare well in its battle with the French privateer Acheron and appears doomed when its rudder is shot away, until “Lucky Jack” Aubrey comes up with a makeshift plan of escape.

•“Lucky Jack’s Gambit” shows Aubrey ordering his gun crews to man the Surprise’s lifeboats and to row for all they are worth to try to tow the rudderless ship into the nearby fogbank (thus blocking it from the Acheron’s view). We hear the furious exchange of cannon fire between the ships as the Acheron, which had sailed past the Surprise during the battle, has turned and is closing fast from behind. Battle sounds are contrasted against the quieter, but no less urgent, sounds of sailors’ labored breathing as they man the oars of the lifeboats or labor to turn the crank handles of hand-powered bilge pumps. Fortunately, Aubrey’s gambit pays off, as the Surprise is pulled into the fogbank just before the Acheron comes within range. The narrowness of Aubrey’s escape is dramatized, however, by a spectacular sound effect where we hear one last cannon ball from the Acheron come sizzling directly overhead, tearing through the sails of the Surprise as it flies past.


In Part 2 of this blog, we’ll look at five more great films for demonstrating home theater surround sound systems: Open Range, The Hurt Locker, The Rundown, Sherlock Holmes, and The Strangers. Until then, may superb home theater experiences be yours.

In the spirit of “sharing the wealth,” I’d like to encourage blog readers to suggest and describe other films (and specific scenes in those films) that they’ve found make good surround system demo pieces.

There are many more great ones besides the ten I’ll describe in these blogs, so please let us hear from you.

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