As the film industry has continued to grow over the decades, the importance of high-quality, distinctive sound has become one of the most vital elements to include in a movie. Throughout these decades, new genres have emerged, allowing production teams to experiment with all different kinds of sound effects to help capture their vision and display it on screen.
With science fiction as one of the signature genres from the ’80s, it was this decade that saw some of the most iconic and influential sound effects. The sci-fi genre never hit the brake pedal, being the genre that pioneered endless amounts of technology to provide us with the spine-tingling sound effects we’ve heard over the years.
It isn’t just sci-fi that’s treated us to some incredible sound effects, however — genres such as action-adventure take a simpler route for their effects, but are by no means any less brilliant. From dinosaurs to spaceships, here are 10 of the best sound effects in movies, ranked.
10 The Wilhelm Scream — Distant Drums
If there’s one sound effect that everyone who’s ever watched a movie can recognize, it’s the Wilhelm scream. First recorded in 1951 to be used for the epic Western Distant Drums, this sound effect has been used in over 400 movies and TV shows, leading to the stock sound developing into one of the most iconic movie sounds of all time.
Some of the most notable uses of the Wilhelm scream are in films such as Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke Skywalker shoots a stormtrooper off a ledge, and Avengers: Infinity War when Ebony Maw falls out into space. George Lucas also used this sound effect in all six Star Wars films he directed, as well as the Indiana Jones films of which he was a producer. From comedies like Anchorman to action films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 4, — see if you can pick out the next time you hear it.
Here is the first ever Wilhelm screen, via Youtube channel Jean-Francois Boivin:
9 The Seismic Charge — Star Wars
Keeping on the topic of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, one of the most memorable and outright satisfying sound effects came in Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones, when Jango Fett (Tamura Morrison) released a seismic charge from his ship. The chase scene itself with Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) is already one of the coolest parts of Episode II, but the hair-raising sound of the seismic charge makes it one of the best moments throughout the entire prequel trilogy.
With fans instantly wanting more of the seismic charge, the moment when Boba Fett released another bomb in season 2 of The Mandalorian caused a stir all over social media, thanking Jon Favreau for bringing the sound effect back for us to experience one more time. In a franchise full of so many groundbreaking sound effects, standing head and shoulders over most others is something truly special in itself.
Here is the unique seismic charge sound effect from Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones via Youtube channel Tathka:
8 Predator’s Clicking — Predator
If there’s any sound effect that instantly strikes fear into audiences and characters alike, the Predator’s ominous clicking sound might just be it. Featured in the first Predator film released in 1987, this action/sci-fi quickly turned into a horror/thriller, cementing the hunting alien Predator as one of the scariest threats in the science fiction genre.
The most recent installment into the franchise came in 2022 with the highly-acclaimed Prey, a film that did not shy away from showing how brutal the iconic antagonist can be. The clicking sound is more than prominent in this film, proving just how disturbingly timeless Peter Cullen’s sound effect is and will always be.
Here is the Predator clicking sound effect from Predator via Youtube channel SFX only:
7 The T-Rex Roar — Jurassic Park
Throughout cinema history, some non-human characters have established themselves as some of the most iconic, sometimes even more popular than the human protagonists in the same film. One of the most iconic examples of this is the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park.
The signature element of Spielberg’s T-Rex is without a doubt the deafening roar, with it being the only effect needed to instill fear into everyone who hears even the faintest echo of it. The Jurassic Park franchise made the T-Rex into one of the coolest dinosaurs ever discovered, with everyone recognizing the synonymous roar.
Here is the T-Rex roar sound effect from Jurassic Park via Youtube channel Blue Balloon:
6 Proton Packs — Ghostbusters
The ’80s is a decade filled with so many influential science fiction movies, making it unsurprising that so many great sound effects come from this decade. The the choice between the best is made a little easier when we have sounds like the proton packs in Ghostbusters. The original film from 1984 took the sci-fi genre to new heights through its witty characters and excellent visuals for its time, but the sound effects featured were also among the best.
As the main piece of equipment that the Ghostbusters used to defeat the seemingly endless threat of ghosts and monsters, it’s only right that the proton packs have one of the coolest sounds in the entire series. The unique presentation of the sound and special effects made proton packs something that every kid wanted to own.
Here is the proton pack sound effect from Ghostbusters via Youtube channel SFX only:
5 Lightcycles — Tron: Legacy
A newer sci-fi film that doesn’t get anywhere near enough love is Tron: Legacy. The 2010 sequel to the 1982 original film provides endless fun with stunning visuals that only this genre can produce. The Tron franchise has a distinct style and tone that simply can’t be mistaken for any other sci-fi world.
The key element of the film is, of course, the bikes, which are fantastically named ‘Lightcycles.’ Throughout the non-stop entertainment in the film, the Lightcycles are involved in some of the coolest sequences in recent sci-fi films, with their futuristic yet gusty sound etched into the memory of every viewer. The sound team managed to create a distinct noise for the Lightcycles, falling perfectly in between electronic and raw. They were great in the original film, but made even better in the underrated sequel.
Here is the Lightcycle sound effect from Tron: Legacy via Youtube channel Trey Henry:
4 TIE Fighters — Star Wars
This isn’t the first incredible sound effect from the Star Wars franchise on this list, and it won’t be the last. From the undoubtable skills of sound designer Ben Burtt, the large impact Star Wars left on pop culture was largely due to it’s sounds, from Chewbacca’s roar to Darth Vader’s breathing. And arguably, one of the best was that of the screaming TIE (Twin Ion Engine) fighter.
No spaceship in any film has as much of an iconic sound as the TIE fighter. The spaceships that feature in the films each have their own characteristic style, helping depict the tones and intentions of whoever is flying them, and the TIE fighter is easily one of the most threatening ships, with a sound that perfectly matches its appearance.
First seen in Star Wars: A New Hope, the ominous, deafening noise created for the TIE Fighter always instills fear into the characters and audience before you even see the ship appear over the horizon. George Lucas was heavily inspired by World War 2 regarding the spaceships, with the TIE Fighter’s distinct noise strongly resembling the “Stuka” sound that German bombers used to scare the Allies.
Here is the TIE Fighter sound effect from Star Wars: A New Hope via Youtube channel Darth Samsonite 94:
3 Godzilla Charging Up — Godzilla
Another dinosaur to feature in this list, but this time in a very different form, is the all-powerful Godzilla. In 2014, the kaiju was brought back to the big screen in explosive fashion. Godzilla received an excellent redesign, along with an equally memorable roar with the ability to breathe beams of atomic breath. However, it’s the part before the attack that makes everyone’s spine tingle.
Before Godzilla lets out his almighty beam of energy, he goes through a charging phase that induces a similar sense of fear as other entries on this list. Watching Godzilla’s tail scales light up one by one in unison is without a doubt one of the most chilling moments in modern-day sci-fi that we can’t get enough of.
Here is the charging up sound effect from Godzilla (2014) via Youtube channel BestClips:
2 The Bullwhip Crack — Indiana Jones
Moving away from the monsters and spaceships, one of the simplest yet most powerful sound effects to ever be used in a movie is the bullwhip crack in the Indiana Jones franchise. Jones himself is one of the most iconic characters of all time, so it’s only right for him to have his weapon of choice sound as satisfying as his whip.
First appearing in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the sound effect used in these films is a perfect example of not needing to use the latest cutting-edge technology to create a brilliant sound effect — being memorable and easily recognizable is most important. It also goes to show that multiple elements need to come together to create an iconic sound effect, with the character being insanely cool, as a whip sound effect isn’t anything that we hadn’t heard before.
Here is the whip sound effect and behind-the-scenes footage from Raiders of the Lost Ark via Youtube channel Marko Juni:
1 The Lightsaber — Star Wars
There’s no question about it — the lightsaber had to be at the top of the list. With the first movie in the franchise Star Wars: A New Hope being one of the most influential films of all time, there was no possibility that the unmistakable sound effect of this plasma sword wouldn’t also make waves throughout the industry. There’s no weapon across all of science fiction that has managed to come close to what legendary sound effects creator Ben Burtt made back in 1977, using the combination of a 35mm projector and a ’70s tube.
As Star Wars continued to grow into the gigantic franchise that it has become today, spanning from movies to animation to video games, the lightsaber noise has always stayed true to its routes, with studios only tweaking the sound slightly. Each time a Jedi or Sith cross paths, the most iconic weapon in film history is ignited.
Here is Ben Burtt talking about how he made the lightsaber sound effect from Star Wars: A New Hope via Youtube channel Peter Hobbs: