SciFi Scores: The Sound of Other Worlds

Recently I contributed to an article for INVERSE.COM about the best Science Fiction Scores of all time.  I was part of a panel of experts that included a film studies professor and self-procalimed ‘snooty cinephile.’ It got me thinking about how score is normally used in a film, to back up and support the emotion on screen, and how that general understanding just doesn’t work in science fiction. 

In a SciFi film, every detail becomes part of the atmosphere creating this previously unknown place.  Maybe it's an alien world, like in James Horner’s score for ALIENS, maybe it's a new understanding of ourself like in Shane Carruth’s own score for PRIMER, but in a SciFi film, when the director is asking the audience to take a leap of faith with them into some mysterious territory, score must do much more than just be an audible backdrop for the dialogue.  Here are a few ‘classic’ SciFi scores, ones that come up time and time again as being the best, and my thoughts on them (spoiler: I often disagree), with a few often overlooked gems.

ALIENS (James Horner) – James Horner is (was) a bit of a machine, and I often feel his scores are a bit paint by numbers.  Every so often he finds a film that he really connects to or is so out of his comfort zone it brings something really special out of him.  That’s what ALIENS is – it’s dissonant and creepy, other worldly and subtle.  The themes are melodic when they should be, but aren’t afraid to dive into some pretty challenging material.  

PLANET OF THE APES (Jerry Goldsmith) The 1968 masterpiece is a combination of spaghetti western and Avant Garde jazz weirdness that perfectly captures the experience of crash landing on a foreign planet.  This is a score that actually can’t be put on as background music to study or at a dinner party, it demands the visual image for context.  He did the third film as well, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF APES, and reset many of themes in a more domestic mold (modern day US).  Goldsmith did a number of great scores, and seems to always match the tone of the film, such as his joyous bizarre chaos of GREMLINS.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (John Williams) – You cannot have a conversation about Science Fiction scores without this one.  This is the definitive example on this list where the score actually becomes the plot of film, allowing the aliens to make contact with us through musical phrases, at the climax of the film. It’s a jarring collaboration of synthetic tones, brass stabs and majestic strings that draw the film from its widespread opening mystery to its unified beauty at the end. Of anyone, John Williams most deserves to have two films on this list (that’s right, Star Wars after the jump). 

ROBOCOP (Basil Poledouris) – To me, ROBOCOP always felt like the most preposterous idea for a TV show that somehow got made as a film instead, and the score captures that – 80’s procedural chugging along with strings, brass and xylophones just getting more and more dissonant.  This is a very original score, which doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  Another great SciFi score from Poledouris is STARSHIP TROOPERS which captures the jingoism and patriotic bombast of WW2 USA in a future context.

THE FOUNTAIN (Clint Mansell) – Mansell is a great composer – REQUIEM FOR A DREAM may be the most played score in my collection -- but the problem is, The FOUNTAIN is just not a very good film, so no matter how good the music, the images on the screen just do not do it justice – and that is the fundamental thing about a score, it only exists to serve the film.  In this case, the music overwhelms the imagery, because the story is so convoluted and forced.  I can listen to the score by itself, and enjoy it as a piece of classical music, but it doesn’t make me want to watch the movie.  Nothing could do that.

TRON (Wendy Carlos) --  This feels like the culmination of science and music that Walter/Wendy Carlos had been working toward his/her entire career (and in film going back to CLOCKWORK ORANGE) – altogether synthetic and organic at once, perfectly matched to the movie.   The theme is triumphant and memorable but the soundscape Carlos paints throughout the film place us in a world of books and beeps and bits and bites in a way no other composer could.  Computers seem old hat now, but in 1982, this really was alien stuff.

CHILDREN OF MEN (John Tavener) – This is one that comes up a lot, and I can’t really see why.  The music is nice, with a strong Opera influence (in fact, a lot of what people think of as score is lifted directly from a Arias and hymns), but it’s not anything special to me.  Moreover, the beauty and calmness so often present in the score seems entirely out of sync with the energy on the screen.  This is a near-apocalyptic world, a time of chaos and unrest, the stately sound of the score (and source music) belies a peace that doesn't exist and often undercuts the tension.

DUNE (Toto) -  The score of the David Lynch classic (that I will defend to my death) done by Toto, with the main theme by Brian Eno is perhaps the greatest rock score of all time, edging out Queen’s FLASH GORDON because it doesn’t rely on songs but really does play as score that just happens to be by some of the greatest studio musicians of all time.  They tackle combat, love, solace.  In this day and age where people are falling over themselves to congratulate Trent Reznor, it's nice to think of some rock pioneers who made that shift less preposterous.  And think, Sting is IN THIS FILM, and no one even asked him to sing a pop song.  That's confidence. 

INTERSTELLAR (Hans Zimmer) – Or should we say the Hans Zimmer workshop, as there are countless stories across the internet that Zimmer hasn’t written a lick of music in years, instead counting on his assistants.  That said, I quote like this score.  It reminds one of 2001 without being restricted by it, and it owes a lot to the work of John Murphy (especially Sunshine which has kind of a similar storyline).  The depth of the universe comes out in the lines of repetition in the strings, that brings to mind Phillip Glass, but with a much more directional focus.  

PRIMER (Shane Carruth) - No one knows a film like the director, and John Carpenter has been doing it for years, but Shane Carruth's incredibly understated and sparse score for his film about time travel is an undiscovered masterpiece.  With simple piano and strings, he makes a box in a storage shed about as mysterious as they come.  There is not much score in the film, but part of being a great director is when to use the tools in your box.  Too often the score is used as a crutch to overcome an issue with the film.  In PRIMER the score sneaks up on you, you often don't even realize you are hearing music until it ends.  Carruth also did the score for UPSTREAM COLOR a film that in a large part is about sound.

BACK TO THE FUTURE (Alan Silvestri) – I don’t think there is much special about the score in this film – all the really memorable music moments come at the Enchanted Under the Sea Dance care of Marvin Berry and his band with Marty on guest guitar, or Marty’s own audition.  And of course the great 50's soundtrack.  As for the score, the main theme is fantastic, but it sort of looses its effectiveness the hundredth time you hear it in the film.  It also feels like an obvious attempt to sound like John Williams.

STAR WARS (John Williams) – Clearly an unarguable classic, in fact, it's hard to disagree with either of the films in the original trilogy, and even The Phantom Blemish had some truly outstanding moments. Williams has his style, but the regality and bombast fits perfectly with the epic nature of this sprawling story that stretches across galaxies.