So I had an idea for a post the other day and hiatus or no hiatus, dissertation or no dissertation, it had to be written. As Pharoah said: So let it be written, so let it be done.
The other day I was listening to David Arnold’s Independence Day score and remembering just how much I loved it back when I first saw the film (four times in theatres) and thinking that it still is great to this day. I came back to the score for two reasons: 1) I had just watched the last two James Bond films (both scores by Arnold) and 2) While listening to Alan Silvestri’s new score for Captain America I heard elements that reminded me a whole heck of a lot of Arnold’s ID4 work. So I listened to it the other day on the bus while reading about the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro (see how much fun doing a PhD is kids!), and the thought crossed my mind of not only great Sci-Fi scores (which Constant Readers will know is my bread and butter, go to, all time favorite genre), but also great Sci-Fi films with great scores.
But I thought that a mere Top 5 could not contain such a list, John Williams alone has composed five great sci-fi scores for great sci-fi films. So I decided to do a Top 10 list, but also with some very strict rules so that it isn’t burdened by too many scores of films from the same people. I’m not going to try to define a “sci-fi” score here as having the qualities of any type of music. Rather, this list, I feel, reflects the wide stylistic traits that marks Science Fiction as such an adaptable genre, both in terms of music and film. Before we get to the list, though, here are the ground rules I laid out:
1) Only one film each from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises can be on the list.
2) Only one film per director or composer, with the exception of John Williams for which one film each from his collaborations with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg will be allowed.
3) Both the film and the score must be of high quality, classics of the genre in both instances.
4) Film must first and foremost be a Sci-Fi film, not a superhero or horror or another genre with hints of science fiction.
With that said, I’m not going to go into as much detail as I have in the past on each of the entries, but what I will say that each of these films and scores deserve a spot in your collections if you’re a Sci-Fi fan. I’ll also present at the end my runners-up. As is tradition, I present these not in order of quality, but in chronological order.
Metropolis (1927): dir. Fritz Lang, music Gottfried Huppertz – A true classic of the silent era, don’t both with new scores by anyone, pick up the Kind DVD of the new restored cut with the original score by Huppertz. His score is a tour-de-force of lush, late Romanticism that would make Richard Strauss blush at its sometimes over-the-top, melodramatic tendencies. But that was par for the course in the silent era, and if you real want to experience what a pre-composed score for a silent film could do, you must see Metropolis. The film itself is still considered by many to be one of the best ever made and still holds up very well to this day.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): dir. Robert Wise, music Bernard Hermann – I’ve already written about this and the next film before so I will merely direct you there.
Planet of the Apes (1968): dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, music Jerry Goldsmith – If you want to read more about these two films see my earlier post on Influential Science Fiction Scores.
Closer Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): dir. Steven Spielberg, music John Williams – All right, everyone whistle the five note theme of CE3K just to get it out of your system. Done? Good. Williams’ score uses so many different techniques, from his trademark post-Romantic romanticism to atonal cluster chords, and the most whistleable melody ever written by man. In fact, one of my professors in undergrad had Williams’ autograph and he then wrote out the theme underneath. I had a bit of a geek out moment when I saw that. But let’s not forget the film, a great exploration of so many different themes: fear of the unknown, madness in the face of an uncontralable drive, war, peace, and finally family. Some might say that E.T. would be the better choice for this list, but sorry, my go to Spielberg alien film is Close Encounters.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980): dir. George Lucas, music John Williams – No film and its score has influenced me more than Empire. If there was a ground zero for me diving head long into film music as a subject of study it was my first time hearing the “Imperial March.” The film made me appreciate how not all films can or should have happy endings, sometimes evil can seemingly win (as long as they blow up in the next film), and some days you just get your hand chopped out and find out that the evil bastard you’ve been fighting against is your dad. Hey, momma (or Aunt Beru) said there’d be days like this.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): dir. Nicholas Meyer, music James Horner – For my thoughts on this film and the entire Star Trek franchise, see my earlier post. But on the film itself, which is considered by many to still be the high point of the franchise on the big screen, it is iconic for so many reasons: a terrific villain who can match the lead tit-for-tat, an epic space battle that still looks good by today’s standards, and a Shakespearean sweep to it that was only approached by Star Trek VI‘s story – and that was only because they had a villain who would quote the Bard almost constantly.
The Terminator (1984): dir. James Cameron, music Brad Fiedel – I might have easily put T2 here instead, and maybe I should have, but everything that was so great about the music and film in T2 is because of The Terminator. The one-liners, the leather jacket, the great pulse-pounding electronic score (that rhythm in the main theme!), so I made the decision to have the original on the list.
Independence Day (1996): dir. Roland Emmerich, music David Arnold – The film that spawned this list actually gets in to no one’s surprise. I know some don’t like this film, too much over the top summer disaster carnage, but if there is a film to blame for the glut of disaster films in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it is ID4. But what it had and others didn’t was a sense of humor about itself and conscious homages to Sci-Fi’s past. From the ominous shadow ripped from the opening of The Day the Earth Stood Still to the casting of Brent Spiner (better known as the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as the kooky Area 51 scientist, the film was equal parts comedy and love letter…and the White House getting blown up (though right now I would vote for the Capitol to go first). And Arnold’s score is both rousing and patriotic along with dissonant and ominous. I still own my original CD release along with two-disc set released last year by La-La Land records.
Moon (2009): dir. Duncan Jones, music Clint Mansell – I said almost everywhere on this blog that this was my favorite score of 2009, and the film and score have only increased in my esteem as time has passed. It’s not always the most listenable score on its own, but its tone fits the film so well. My original remarks on the score are here, though I go into a bit more detail here.
Inception (2010): dir. Christopher Nolan, music Hans Zimmer – I hesitated in putting this one on the list. One could argue that Inception isn’t pure science fiction like the rest of the entries, but the essential tech that makes the movie work is pure science fiction, so I say it makes the list. I’ve said so much on the score, most notably this post that single-handedly jumped my view counts over 100 a day for a solid week. I’ve heard some that don’t like the score, but Zimmer’s ingenious use of the Piaf song as a template for the trombones was wonderfully done and just adds layers upon layers to the whole dream-within-a-dream motif of the film. As to the critics of the film itself, I think it will stand the test of time as will Nolan’s entire filmography. In my opinion, he is one of the best mainstream directors out there today, and I look forward to each and every one of his films.
Finally, to close out, I would like to highlight these films that didn’t make the list for one reason or another: Alien (1979: dir. Ridley Scott, music Jerry Goldsmith), Blade Runner (1982: dir. Ridley Scott, music Vangelis), E.T. (1982: dir. Steven Spielberg, music John Williams), Aliens (1986: dir. James Cameron, music James Horner), Robocop (1987: dir. Paul Verhoven, music Basil Poledouris), Total Recall (1990: dir. Paul Verhoven, music Jerry Goldsmith), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991: dir. James Cameron, music Brad Fiedel), Jurassic Park (1993: dir. Steven Spielberg, music John Williams), Stargate (1994: dir. Roland Emmerich, music David Arnold), Sunshine (2007: dir. Danny Boyle, music John Murphy and Underground), and, of course, many of the Star Trek and Star Wars films.
Okay, enough time-wasting, back to my dissertation.