Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Top Ten Science Fiction Film Scores

Top Ten Science Fiction Films Scores

Top Ten Science Fiction film scores
by Steven Sharratt

Science fiction has always been a regular feature throughout the history of film. As early as the silent film era we’ve had memorable takes on the genre such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1920) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). In the 1930s H.G. Wells brought us Things to Come (1936) and we also saw the birth of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers characters in several low budget film serials.

Sadly, due to the events of World War II, science fiction wouldn't become popular again until the 1950s when the world was looking for escapism and they found it in the guise of aliens. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers all excited viewers with alien invasions. Meanwhile, When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) showed us that there was a taste for turning science fiction novels to the big screen.

The space race of the 1960s saw the focus shift to space travel with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Planet of the Apes (1968) both hugely successfully. But it wouldn't be until 1977 when George Lucas’ Star Wars arrived that the history of science fiction wouldn't be changed forever. The genre became a guaranteed money maker and all the major studios looked to cash in. We saw the Star Trek TV series become a film franchise in 1979 and other franchises started to grow throughout the 1980s and 90s such as Alien, Back to the Future, Terminator and Robocop.

Since the turn of the century, this trend has continued, most noticeably with The Matrix Trilogy. The recent focus has been on prequels and sequels (Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Terminator), remakes (The War of the Worlds, Total Recall) and reboots (Star Trek, Robocop) but science fiction is still as popular as ever.

The genre has also often inspired composers to be at their most creative. Whether it is looking into the future, the past or into space, science fiction has produced some of the very best film scores. It’s also hard to pin down one particular style for the genre; composers have used various successful techniques over the years to help us to escape into an unknown world such as symphonic orchestras, synthesizers and unusual sound effects.

The purpose of this top ten is to discover which scores have been the most successful in portraying science fiction in film. But before you go straight to the list, there are a few things I’d like you to consider. Firstly, these are subjective views of just one person, so please don’t be too disappointed if your favourite score isn’t here. Secondly, to give a broader perspective, I've only included one score from a single franchise - it wouldn't be very entertaining to see a top ten littered with my bias towards Star Wars now, would it? Finally, I've tried to narrow science fiction down to its most true meaning – “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances… frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.” Therefore I’ve eliminated sub-genres. You won't find any super hero or fantasy movies in this list even though they often have sci-fi elements.

I hope this list generates some lively discussion; please do send us your own top ten, we'd love to know what you think and it might highlight some great scores that I may have omitted (“Blade Runner” anyone?).

Thank you and enjoy...

10. Tron Legacy (2010) Daft Punk

French Grammy award-winning electronic duo Daft Punk was given the rare chance to spread their wings into the world of film music with Tron Legacy. They took the option of using an 85 piece orchestra (something they’d never done before) and mixing it with their familiar synth sound. The results are excellent and provide a heroic and rhythmic soundtrack that really makes us believe the characters are trapped inside a digital world.

If you like this, you might also like:
Tron (1982) Wendy Carlos
Oblivion (2013) M83

09. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann’s first taste of science fiction seems to be quite clich├ęd these days. This is because his brilliant and original score for The Day the Earth Stood Still has been so heavily influenced upon since. His unique use of two Theremin electrical instruments instantly makes people think of a UFO whenever they hear them. Another highlight is the bombastic brass theme for the robot, Gort, as well as some exciting action music. Don’t let the age of this one put you off!

If you like this, you might also like:
The Thing From Another World (1951) Dimitri Tiomkin
Mars Attacks (1996) Danny Elfman

08. Back to the Future III (1990) Alan Silvestri

Perhaps Silvestri’s original Back to the Future score would have been the obvious choice for a top ten, but this third instalment captures the iconic theme from the first two movies while bringing in fresh themes and melodies of its own. The love theme for Doc and Clara is simply beautiful and the over-the-top western overture blends in perfectly with the main heroic theme.

If you like this, you might like:
Back to the Future (1985) Alan Silvestri
The Abyss (1989) Alan Silvestri

07. Robocop (1987) Basil Poledouris

The cyber police officer Robocop, part-man, part-machine, is given a full dose of brass laden heroism by Basil Poledouris. The aggressive action music, a combination of orchestra and synths, is both bold and patriotic and is great fun to listen to. We can only hope that the score for the unnecessary 2014 remake will be anywhere near as good.

If you like this, you might like:
Robocop 3 (1993) Basil Poledouris
Starship Troopers (1997) Basil Poledouris

06. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Brad Fiedel

There is no doubt that Fiedel's Terminator theme for the original film was very iconic. However, on CD that score is a difficult listen, relying too much on dissonant electronics and cheap sounding effects. Terminator 2 uses the same style but the themes are much more refined and mature giving the score a more cohesive feel. Fiedel’s synthesized performances also feel more technologically advanced which add to the drama on screen. It’s easily the best Terminator score written so far.

If you like this, you might like:
Terminator Salvation (2009) Danny Elfman
Blade Runner (1982) Vangelis

05. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) John Williams

E.T. is full of wonderful themes and melodies and of those the infamous ‘flying theme’ is a real highlight. It generates such emotion in the listener as the strings soar making you really relate with E.T’s desperation to return to his home planet. Director Steven Speilberg sums up the score perfectly in the original album liner notes: “It is soothing and benign. It is scary and suspenseful and, toward the climax, downright operatic.” E.T. is a true classic.

If you like this, you might like:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) John Williams
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) John Williams

04. Planet of the Apes (1968) Jerry Goldsmith

The score for the original Planet of the Apes is quite unique. Unlike other scores in this list, it doesn’t obtain its merits from melodies. Quite the contrary, it is impressive due to its lack of them! Jerry Goldsmith creates simple musical progressions and motifs using minimalist orchestral effects together with unusual instruments such as pots, pans and even a ram’s horn! This creates a brilliant sense of the unknown as the protagonists search the strange new world they’ve discovered. As the film develops, Goldsmith unleashes some truly violent action pieces featuring plenty of exciting percussion. It’s a stand out moment in the composer’s long career.

If you like this, you might like:
Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1973) Jerry Goldsmith
Logan’s Run (1976) Jerry Goldsmith

03. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) James Horner

Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture almost made the list, but as I’ve decided to only feature one score per franchise, I opted for one of James Horner’s earliest efforts instead. The music he wrote for the Wrath of Khan is full of excitement and adventure. His opposing themes for Kirk and Khan play off each other perfectly setting up the grand finale “Battle in the Mutara Nebula”. This is Horner at his very best, eight minutes of gloriously mixed desperation and heroism.

If you like this, you might like:
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984) James Horner
Krull (1983) James Horner

02. Alien (1979) Jerry Goldsmith

Musically, the Alien franchise is full of highlights. With the original, Jerry Goldsmith perfectly creates the claustrophobic atmosphere of space. He expertly weaves his main theme to suit the situation; chillingly quiet and moody to start, then romantic and bold (“The Landing”) to a rousing finale during the end credits. Combine this with some terrifyingly dissonant percussive set pieces and we have one of the best science fiction scores ever written.

If you like this, you might like:
Alien 3 (1992) Elliot Goldenthal
Freud (1962) Jerry Goldsmith

01. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) John Williams 

So much has been said and written about the Star Wars franchise, that it is difficult to know exactly how to portray how I feel about John Williams’ music. Simply put, “The Empire Strikes Back” is a masterpiece and is the epitome of grand orchestral writing. Highlights include the infamous “Imperial March”, the emotive “Han Solo and the Princess”, the awe inspiring “Yoda's Theme” and the action packed “The Asteroid Field”. However my personal favourite is the brilliant 15 minute 'Battle of Hoth' (split across several tracks on some album presentations) and is one of the best dramatic action pieces ever written. This score (along with Star Wars and The Return of the Jedi) is the reason why so many people (myself included) fell in love with film music. Roll on 2015, where I hope the music for Episode VII is even half as good as this.

If you like this, you might like:
Star Wars (1977) John Williams
The Return of the Jedi (1983) John Williams

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