by Matt Clemens
It’s a sad truth, but no matter how great a film is, they do reach a point when they start showing their age. Special effects start to look too fake to be believed, dialogue can seem stuck in the past and previous cultural nuances can be lost in translation to modern audiences.
The one true constant in cinema is the score – the beautiful accompaniment to film that many of us often barely register, but something that would make the experience seem incomplete if absent. Whether it be the romantic symphonies of Williams, the gladiatorial charges of Zimmer or the heart-warming melodies of Newman, composers very often turn a good cinematic experience into a great one.
In terms of science fiction, Blade Runner has historically been revered as one of the most influential movies of its time. Vangelis’ soundtrack is met with the same high regard, and with Blade Runner 2049 set for release on October 6th, the pressure is on to replicate his genius.
With that in mind, here are the science fiction soundtracks (in no particular order) we think live longest in the memory. See what you think and have your say in the comments below.
Composer: Brad Fiedel
Release Year: 1984
Back in the day, Brad Fiedel was revered for his unique synthesizer-heavy style and now known for his genuinely iconic collaboration with James Cameron, namely on the original Terminator, the soundtrack for which is one of his finest outings.
The relentless beat that constantly puts the viewer on edge, futuristic tones and synthesizers perfectly capture the sense of impending threat (even doom) that looms from the threatened rise of the machines. The score is mechanical meets melancholy, with a good dose of 80’s thrown in that make it a real throwback film. It won’t be a soundtrack many will kick back and relax to on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but it is the perfect sci-fi accompaniment to one of the best robot uprising flicks ever made.
Composer: James Horner
Release Year: 1986
James Cameron famously gave the late (great) James Horner just six days to complete the score for Aliens. The music for the final scene where Ripley faces off against the alien queen was written in one night. These are truly remarkable facts, in light of how ground-breaking Horner’s score for the film turned out to be. The score itself contains many references to Gayane’s Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet, which was used directly in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (notably not included in this list). It also includes sound treatments and other audio used from Jerry Goldsmith’s original soundtrack to Alien (1979), who of course should also be commended.
The difference is that Goldsmith was scoring a psychological horror movie, whereas Horner was scoring an action-adventure movie with horror elements. The frenetically loud mix of brass horns, deep drums and other worldly synthesising sounds creep up on you like a slimy Xenomorth with its tail between its legs and generate a constant and ever-growing feeling of tension. Mixed in with the continuous beep-beep-beep of the motion trackers, this adrenaline-fueled journey keeps you on the edge of the seat throughout. It’s a true masterpiece and undoubtedly one of his finest achievements. RIP James Horner.
Composer: Thomas Newman
Release Year: 2008
For anyone that knows me well enough, they’ll know I’ll never write a list of musical scores without featuring Thomas Newman. The man is a true Hollywood legend, having been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and three Golden Globes, and having won two BAFTAs, six Grammys and an Emmy Award. Wall-E unquestionably should have been an Oscar winner in 2008. Although the animation is some of the finest ever created by Pixar, with virtually no dialogue, Newman’s score was a critical accompaniment to the visuals and it carries the film to new heights. From the very first scene, you get a sense of just how important the score is, and the job couldn’t have been in better hands. No one can manifest feelings of emotion through music like Thomas Newman can. He is the absolute master.
The hauntingly beautiful 2815 AD captures Wall-E’s inquisitive nature and demonstrates the monotony of life alone on Earth. But it’s track 13 on the soundtrack (The Axiom) that hands down steals the show, combining Newman’s signature string work (sending shivers down spines since 08), along with a majestic NASA inspired exploration piece to convey Wall-E’s epic journey ahead. Notable also is the beautiful ‘space dance’ scene between Eva and Wall-E, which is both playful and joyful, but also deeply emotional. It’s yet another reason why Newman deserves to one day win an Oscar, at the very least a lifetime achievement award.
Composer: John Williams
Release Year: 1982
Some might disagree with John Williams’ E.T making the list, but you can’t argue with childhood memories, and that’s what makes this a classic soft sci-fi caper for anyone growing up in the 80s/early 90s. Even if Williams’ score isn’t what people traditionally imagine as a sci-fi score, every time I hear it, I’m taken on a cosmic journey of the mind, contemplating the possibility of other worlds and alien lifeforms – and not in a “they’re going to punch a hole through my chest and eat me” kind of way.
The soft dreamy strings and woodwind instruments, the deep bellowing horns, the epic drums. Everything about this soundtrack is amazing. When the music simmers down to a barely audible level for the final goodbye, one of the most touching scenes in cinema history, Williams draws you in and has the power to make you weep. But there are elements of horror too, most notably any scenes involving the mysterious white suited men and the chase through the woods, which end in a triumphant and satisfying foray of brass. It’s typical John Williams and it doesn’t get any sweeter than E.T.
Composer: Daft Punk
Release Year: 2010
The overwhelming sentiment when my friends and family watched Tron Legacy was “yeah, I guess the film was ok. But OMG, that soundtrack was amazing!!” And this pretty much sums up the experience. Tron Legacy is a substantially better film because of Daft Punk’s ground-breaking soundtrack, a piece of orchestral meets electronic music that you will frequently hear in adverts, sport events, Super-bowl commercials and even other move trailers, because it is that good!
The soundtrack is a compilation of electronic and analogue soundscape, pulsating synths and Daft Punk signature electro-beats. But unexpectedly, it’s fused with a world of symphonic strings, horns and drums. It is the perfect match for a film that merges organic life with synthetic/computer generated ‘matter’. It is an absolute triumph, one that I still listen to on a regular basis. Here’s hoping Daft Punk (whether it be for Tron or otherwise) get to do more screen composition. Like those giant metallic helmets, it looks good on them.
Composer: David Arnold
Release Year: 1994
Like Williams’ E.T score, Stargate is perhaps not your typical sci-fi score. In the traditional sense, it again does not contain the futuristic synth and electronic sounds of say, a Terminator or a Tron Legacy. However, it remains one of the most powerful and emotive scores ever created for a science fiction movie, and for that, it deserves to be on the list.
Following what is an extremely moving overture, every piece of music is the perfect accompaniment for each scene that infolds. Whether it’s the haunting string and drum sections to represent the strange supernatural forces at work, the more uplifting melodic sequences to convey the feats of human exploration and intrigue, or the slightly more unsettling military style brass work, David Arnold’s score just nails it in every sense of the word. I remember Stargate as a real spectacle when I saw it at the cinema as a boy. Although visual effects have come on leaps and bounds since 1994, David Arnold’s score has helped preserve its legacy as a truly ground-break sci-fi movie and it continues to be a genuine spectacle even today.
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Release Year: 2014
When Hans Zimmer spoke with Christopher Nolan about the score he envisioned for Interstellar, Nolan apparently said he wanted Zimmer to “push the limits”, to “explore pushing boundaries and exploring new territories”. What Zimmer actually achieved was a highly inventive score that ranges from gentle electronic, keyboard melody to brassy crescendos. It’s a suitably unnerving accompaniment that reverberates feelings of exploration, isolation and abandonment in a truly terrifying way.
The use of classic organ counterbalances the futuristic and paranormal events that unfold on the screen. It’s not a conventional score by any means, and given Nolan’s statement around pushing the boundaries, I’d say Zimmer achieved that in spades. It’s not my favourite Hans Zimmer score, but nonetheless, it soars like a bird in zero-G.
Composer: Basil Poledouris
Release Year: 1988
A list of greatest sci-fi soundtrack wouldn’t be complete with the original RoboCop, and for good reason too. Basil Poledouris’ score remains one of the most original pieces of sci-fi orchestral music ever to be matched to the screen. The use of xylophones and scratchy strings really give those scenes where synthetic technology is front and centre an extra layer of believability. The main theme tune has an incredibly uplifting (perhaps even soaring) quality that always holds the promise of redemption, even in spite of such extreme brutality – because let’s be completely honest, even for today’s standards, RoboCop is a very violent movie.
Poledouris’ score remains as iconic now as it was in 1988, so much so that for the 2014 remake, Pedro Bromfman incorporated elements of the original composition into his new version. Bravo Mr Poledouris, you will forever live long in the memory (in mine at least) as revolutionary composer in the sci-fi movie industry.
Planet of the Apes
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Release Year: 1968
Okay, let’s put this into perspective. Next year, it will be the 50th anniversary of Planet of the Apes. That’s a whole half a century, which is proof enough just how ahead of his time Jerry Goldsmith was, particularly in regard to his work on the Charlton Heston ape classic.
Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes is weirdness personified, but it breeds an originality that is just too interesting to ignore. Besides, it makes for the perfect accompaniment to the strange ‘new’ world that Charlton Heston finds himself marooned on, and it really heightens that sense of isolation, otherness and the alien. The score is a mixing bowl of fierce brass, erratic keyboard and whiny strings, not to mention sounds of tribal African drums and other woodwind instruments. It’s organised chaos – building up intensely to set up the film’s final big reveal, when whooshing horns, flute and echoing coda are suddenly silenced by the crashing of waves. It’s mesmerizingly otherworldly and a masterclass in sci-fi orchestral accompaniment. Goldsmith truly was the master of the bizarre!
Composer: John Williams
Release Year: 1977-2017
John Williams has written so many fantastic scores, it’s easy to lose count of them. But none have been so ground-breaking than his work on Star Wars, a franchise that set the bar for science fiction on the big screen – a bar that has never quite been reached by external forces (see what I did there). Williams’ score for Star Wars utilises an eclectic variety of musical styles, using the works of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and various contemporaries as inspiration and creating something that has often been credited as the revitalisation of the grand symphonic scores of the late 1970s.
If I had to describe Williams’ Star Wars score, I’d label it as epic romanticism. This tone is achieved through Williams’ adoption of leitmotifs, a technique used by Wagner to signify or establish a change in plot, mood, character or relationship. Such is its influence that Williams is able to dictate how the audience responds or even feels based on his chosen composition. It’s also incredibly complex and dense, with around 15 different themes used in each movie. If there is such a category as space opera orchestral, John Williams is the Daddy.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
Release Year: 1979
For many, the original score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a musical achievement that stands independently of the film. Like Planet of the Apes, Goldsmith uses a mixture of strings, drums and jarring otherworldly sounds to create an often frenzied and uncomfortable atmosphere. There are also sections that express the deep sense of wonder, friendship and the sheer awesomeness of space exploration, playing greatly on the theme of “one giant leap for mankind”.
Although the film is (in truth) a bit of a slog, Goldsmith once again proves he is the master of providing evocative and emotionally charged sci-fi accompaniment. It’s subtle, haunting and just downright intriguing. When the opening theme (written by Alexander Courage) suddenly blasts out from all of the oddity, it truly is a spectacle to behold. These musical geniuses will certainly live long (and prosper) in my memory.
Release Year: 1982
Blade Runner is the big screen adaptation of Philip K Dick’s dystopian novel about humanoid robots and remains one of the most celebrated sci-fi films ever made. For good reason too. Not only is it visually resplendent and stylistically ground-breaking, is also has one of the most original scores of all time, a big component of its success.
Vangelis’ score is dark, brooding and melancholic. Its combination of classical composition and synthesising sounds helps to mirror the futuristic (film noir) setting of the movie, and as a result, is incredibly thought provoking. There is an icy alienation conveyed throughout, which helps to convey Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) estrangement from humanity. Somehow though, Vangelis managed to also show (in conjunction with some sensational dialogue) the deep synthetic emotion that runs through the wiring of the replicants being hunted. The music is truly haunting and ethereal, with each note matching the tone and dialogue perfectly, stroke for stroke.
I’m thinking of Rutger Hauer’s final words: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Let’s hope Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t ruin his or Vangelis’s beautiful legacy.