A few weeks ago I posted a list of influential sci-fi scores, going back the heady days of the 1950s with scores like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. Today I propose to stay a bit closer to the present day and discuss science fiction films since 2005. For this, though, I am going to expand on the rather restrictive definition of science fiction from the previous list. Mainly, I want to go with the broader classification of “speculative fiction.” Here, I’m not purely restricting to stories set in space or in alternate, dystopian futures but rather an sort of speculation past, present, or future about the world in which we live and its technology. So t in doing research in assembling this list, I considered stories set in the past with speculative technologies (sometimes called steampunk, though even that is a more specific term that what I was considering), or even ones not clearly based in technology but rather treading that thin line between fantasy/sci-fi/drama and just about everything else. All of this is to say that I cast a wide net in deciding on my five, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll actually list everything I’ve been listening to at the end of the post.
The other major criterion I had when making my choices was that it truly contributed something to the genre. Not the film itself, but the score brought something to the table that helped to push the dialogue of “what is sci-fi music?” further. As I mentioned in the previous list, the genre is one with little in the form of true “conventions” that can be stated as the prototypical sci-fi sound or style. I think part of reasons for this is that sci-fi combines with so many other genres and depending on what that other genre might be will help determine some of the approach. Science fiction is more than just a “genre,” it is a setting in which a whole slew of stories can take place. From the sci-fi thriller/suspense of Alien to the sci-fi action of Total Recall. Or from sci-fi drama/fantasy/epic of Star Wars to sci-fi noir of Blade Runner and Dark City. All of these films are “science fiction” but scoring choices were made to serve both the “science fiction” element and the other half of the genre equation. If we ask what a “pure” science fiction score (or even film for that matter) might sound like, I’m not sure I could answer that question. This is part of what I don’t like about Timothy Scheurer’s treatment of science fiction in his book Music and Mythmaking in Film: Genre and the Role of the Composer. While I agree with many of his premises, I think he over-simplifies many aspects of the genre in order to generate a succinct, codified theory. Science fiction is a wonderfully diverse and rich genre with scores to match and I hope this list reflects this diversity.
In Chronological Order…
Children of Men – John Tavener, et al (2006): This is a strange “score” because it’s not really a score in the traditional sense. It is part compilation score, filled with pre-existing Tavener works, pop/rock songs, Handel, Mahler, Penderecki, and others, and part new score because Tavener wrote a new piece for it. This piece, Fragments of a Prayer, is a sort of touchstone for most of the film’s score and comes back throughout the film. Taken as an aesthetic whole, the soundscape, musical and sound design, of Children of Men is a triumph in and of itself and that the film is also great makes the finished project one of the best science fiction films of the last decade, maybe even in the history of the genre. The fact that the score is a hybrid of pre-existing music and a piece composed for the film, but also an independent work, might conjure up thoughts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but what Cuaron did in assembling is score is not really what Kubrick did. Kubrick had a score written by Alex North but decided (rightly or wrongly, I have yet to compare them) that his temp score best fit his vision of the film. Cuaron and his team were inspired by the music of Tavener during the writing process and decided that his music fit the tone of the film (which is does to beautiful and heartbreaking effect) and rather than have someone try to imitate it made the choice to approach Tavener about being involved with the project. Thankfully to film and film music fans everywhere, the composer said yes.
Sunshine – John Murphy and Underworld (2007): A joint score written by two frequent collaborators of director Danny Boyle, Sunshine is the story of a crew on a mission to restart the dying sun. The composers devised two main thematic ideas for the score, one of which – “Adagio in D Minor” written by Murphy – is one of my favorite film themes of recent memory. Underworld, an electronic music outfit, contributed a contrasting theme that is more hopeful and could be said to represent the promise of a reborn sun. The composers collaborated on multiple tracks (or at least are listed as co-composers of five of the album’s nineteen tracks) and can be said to have contributed equally to developing the sound of the score. Equal parts orchestral and electronic and at times verging on noise and pure sound, the score helps to counterpoint the crew of the Icarus II’s striving against terrible odds and ordeals to complete their mission. (On a side note, while this is one of my favorite sci-fi films of the past decade, I do have some issues with the last act of the film…almost turns into a slasher film after being a taut, psychological thriller for the first two acts.) The score has some minimalistic elements with static chords, repeating rhythms, and other elements, but in the end, it is very distinctive and fits in with the film’s visuals almost perfectly.
Babylon A.D. – Atli Örvarsson (2008): This is probably the weakest entry on the list, but in the final analysis I decided to include it because while the film itself is not great (though not as bad as some reviewers would have it…which might just be the nicest thing anyone has said about the movie), I find the score compelling on a numerous levels. I want to do a more in-depth analysis of the score – though I haven’t had the time to prepare that post yet – but I almost feel like not all of the material from the score album is even included in the film. What I find intriguing are the inclusion of the texts for the Agnus Dei and Dies Irae from the traditional Catholic mass, the former as a theme for the girl Aurora and the latter seemingly paired with the Noelite Church that is ostensibly the antagonist of the picture…though this is very poorly explained in the film, just one of its main problems. And on the album, there seems to be more material with the Dies Irae in it than can be heard, which indicates to me that some footage was cut out or moved around or something. The score itself is fairly typical of what comes out of Remote Control Group, for which Örvarsson works, a blending of electronic sounds and beats with orchestral tones over it. But the voices echoing throughout the score singing about the lamb of God or the day of wrath help to bring out the religious overtones that were seemingly lost in either a poor script or in the editing room…or both.
Moon – Clint Mansell (2009): Well, you had to have known this would be on the list since I named it the best score of 2009, and everything I said then still applies. From the hypnotic opening track of “Welcome to Lunar Industries” to the mournful “Memories (Someone We’ll Never Know),” Clint Mansell’s score captured Sam Bell’s journey of madness, discovery, and escape in a way that helped to root the film in the essential humanity of the character. I’m not sure if Mansell is doing Duncan Jones next film – Source Code – but I hope so as their first collaboration produced such wonderful results. And speaking of Mansell, I would be derelict in my duties if I did not mention his score for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006). That score almost made this list (and I guess it now has), but mainly I left it out to avoid having two scores from the same composer in the main five. The film itself is a challenging one to classify as it’s not strictly sci-fi, though it can be more or less depending on how you interpret the film’s story. It is a beautiful score that I would recommend checking out.
Inception – Hans Zimmer (2010): I will mainly point you to my comments in the post prior to this one and my fuller review that will come after I’ve seen the film, but Zimmer’s score here knocked me out when I first heard it and even now, after about six listens in forty-eight hours, still holds my attention. I’ll leave further comment for later.
So as I said above, I did quite a bit aural research while compiling this list. As soon as I came up with the topic, Moon, Sunshine, and Children of Men immediately came to mind because not only are they three of the best science fiction films of the last five years, they are also three of my favorite scores of the last five years. But I ran into trouble trying to fill in the last two slots. I was hoping that Inception would fulfill on the promise of the music in the initial trailers, but that was no guarantee. Further, I was initially only going to cover the last five years (which ironically I did end up doing), but I expanded the period back to 2005 so that I could consider a Frodo handful (4 fingers) of sci-fi films from that year: The Island (Steve Jablonsky), Serenity (David Newman), Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and War of the Worlds (both John Williams). Along with those, I also considered the great crop of sci-fi from last year: Avatar (James Horner) District 9 (Clinton Shorter), Terminator Salvation (Danny Elfman), and Star Trek (Michael Giacchino), along with Moon. Then I also thrown into the mix films like The Prestige (David Julyan…and yes it is sci-fi, think about it), Wall-E (Thomas Newman), and the aforementioned The Fountain (Clint Mansell). And while many of those are really good scores, they didn’t demonstrate the innovative approach that I was looking for. Most were traditional orchestral scores that sound like so much modern film music. And despite the fact that I enjoy many of them, I was looking for something more for this list. That little extra.
Finally, despite listening to all or parts of these 16 scores along with a few others, this is by no means a comprehensive survey, but I feel good about my choices and stand by them. Though, as always, if you have any listening suggestions, I’m always looking for more material. So please let me know with your thoughts and comments.