So you’ve been asking yourself what you should go see this holiday weekend. Well if the idiots outside my window who have been setting off firecrackers and other explosive devices for the last MONTH are any indication, then it’s probably a nice bar-b-que and a fireworks show. But should your plans also take you to the neighborhood cineplex, then perhaps I could help guide you…aurally speaking at least. For today, I shall review James Horner’s The Karate Kid score and James Newton Howard’s latest efforts to salvage a terrible film from M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender.
It’s a little bit funny that these films have so much in common: both are big screen remakes/adaptations of previously existing material, both deal with the martial arts in some capacity, and both have composers with James as a first name. But where The Karate Kid is an enjoyable and entirely watchable film featuring a stellar performance from a young actor, The Last Airbender is nigh unwatchable with a terrible script that even a cast made up of all-star child actors from days gone by couldn’t save. Seriously, I felt bad for the actors trying to deliver some of their lines with a straight face, like I felt bad for the actors in the Star Wars prequels. In fact, if there was an award for worst script to a summer tent pole film ever, I think The Last Airbender and Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones might actually tie. Oh wait, I forgot the sand speech in Clones. Okay Lucas, looks like you win again.
But enough about bad scripts, if there was an area where Airbender actually somewhat beats Karate Kid it is in the music department. Though, I do find both scores enjoyable and both have been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past few weeks. So let’s go to the digital tape.
The Karate Kid – Horner’s score here is not much of a stretch for James. The opening track on the album, “Leaving Detroit,” will evoke memories of classic Horner with its lone trumpet and piano based sound. It’s wistful and sad, though without falling into depression and melancholy. And for most of the score, Horner never really lets one forget that it is a Horner score, his fingerprints are all over it, though mostly in a good way. His tone matches the film well, though there are a few odd moments. The track “Backstreet Beating” sounds like it was stolen from an 1990s Hans Zimmer score with copious electronics (seriously, think Crimson Tide, but not as good), and the tournament montage track, “Tournament Time,” sounds at times like it was made from some leftovers of Zimmer/Newton Howard’s efforts for the Batman films – especially the first minute or so. But where Horner does shine in this score is when he beautifully blends traditional Chinese instruments into his orchestral textures. Tracks like “Journey to the Spiritual Mountain” and “From Master to Student to Master” show Horner in careful control of his orchestral timbres (they are also the two longest cuts on the album). The last cue, “Final Contest,” is a great ending track and builds to the final moment where our valiant hero wins the tournament. Listening to the track on its own, you would almost think that two large armies were about to square off, Horner plays it up the epic and it works. Having seen both this film and the original with score by Bill Conti, I much prefer Horner’s efforts. In the original I find Conti’s panpipes overwhelming and somewhat annoying. And, I know it was 80s, okay, but how many bad 80s montage songs could you find in one film, seriously? Luckily, for us, in the remake the director choice to forego montage songs and let Horner play the montages instrumentally. And while I think plotwise the original was a bit more solid, this new remake is enjoyable on its own and features a great Horner score. It’s hard to believe that this is a score from the same person that I was so incensed by back in December for what I still feel was some blatant cultural insensitivity in his Avatar score. And speaking of the Avatar, but not blue people, but rather Aang, let us turn our critical eye to…
The Last Airbender – Many people say that a large part of what makes the films of Alfred Hitchcock work so well is the music of Bernard Hermann, and while I haven’t seen enough Hitchcock films to say that with any certainty, I will concede this fact for now and use it as a basis for my critique that follows. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan has worked with largely with one composer throughout his film tenure. For Shyamalan, it was only his first two films that were not scored by James Newton Howard. But where some scholars think that Psycho would have only been a mediocre film without Hermann, I doubt that even Bernard could have saved The Last Airbender. And while Newton Howard is not Hermann, he did craft a great score here and I think it was just about the only thing that kept me from walking out of the theatre in the first ten minutes…and I sat through Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (granted, I was a teenager at the time, but that’s not an excuse). Now, as with Hitchcock, I have not seen many of Shyamalan’s film, and Last Airbender is the first time I had seen one of his films since I saw Signs in the theatre. But despite the film, Newton Howard has created an effective score here (though, he couldn’t help but hear some borrowing a bit from David Arnold in a few places, in my opinion). I can’t be sure, but I think one of the ways he approached this score was to create a different orchestral theme for each of the four elements. The last track on the album, “Flow Like Water,” feature what I think is, surprise surprise, the water theme. It would take more viewings to confirm this, but since in the Avatar world the cultures are so linked with the elements that they can command, it would only seem like a logical way to approach the score. And should they make the second and third films of the series, it would provide some ready material for them. Now, since seeing the film, I have been acquainting myself with the original cartoon series. The series is American made, but borrows heavily on the Japanese style of anime. Its score feature copious amounts of traditional Asian instruments, helping to establish the culture of the world, and while Newton Howard uses some of the same instruments, his score is pervasively Western in its orientation. Besides “Flow Like Water,” stand out tracks include the album opening “Airbender Suite” and “Journey to the Northern Water Tribe” (which also features that water theme). I don’t know what else I can say, really, without trashing the film itself further. Check out the score, though, it is one of the better ones this year so far.
Now speaking of the original cartoon, watch out next week for when FSFT5 takes on animated shows and their scores.
Finally, I’ve also been listening recently to Michael Giacchino’s Earth Days score. This documentary came out last summer and was also shown on PBS. The score is nothing truly special, but if you enjoy his work, especially many of his best moments on Lost, you should download it from iTunes. Well that’s all for now. Check in a bit later this weekend for my reivew of Star Trek: The Deluxe Edition and the expanded Star Trek III: The Search for Spock release from Film Score Monthly.