9 Favorite Science Fiction Film Scores, Vol. 1 – Space

Like many boys who liked to read, my genre of choice during my teenage years was science fiction. And since one of my earliest memories of the outside world was the moon walk, it will come as no surprise that I was enthralled by tales of life in space, stories that were heavy on the scientific end of things. Planets were just there as jumping off points to get you back into space. The more time that was spent aboard ship in the inky dark, the better. And to this day, tales beyond the stars represent “pure” science fiction to me. So in this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I’ve decided to space out. (No comment.)

With such a wide-ranging genre as science fiction, I had to lay myself some ground rules so that list didn’t become a free-for-all. First, the films had to take place mainly in space. No scientific experiments on Earth (FANTASTIC VOYAGE), alien visitors (E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS), fantasy (LORD OF THE RINGS) or any other sub-genre. Hence why this post says “Vol. 1.” Depending on whether you guys dig this post or not will dictate whether or not there are other volumes in the future. Also, no franchise scores by the same composer. Otherwise the list could have been filled with nothing but STAR WARS and STAR TREK entries. So, let’s blast off to nine of my favorite science fiction scores.

9. SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983)

[audio:spacehunter.mp3]

Maybe it’s because I wrote the liner notes for this Varèse Sarabande release, but I have particular affection for this Elmer Bernstein score. The movie? Not so much. The story is second-rate sci-fi fare as Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald try and rescue three women from a planet plagued by a fatal disease. Between the laughable script and the cheesy special effects, poor Strauss probably wishes he was back doing TV miniseries rather than having to drag along whiny Ringwald. And I can’t blame him. Through a memorable main theme and his period use of the Ondes Martennot, Bernstein, ever the pro, finds heroism and beauty in this lame space opera.

8. LOST IN SPACE (1998)

[audio:lostinspace.mp3]

Even worse than SPACEHUNTER as a film is this big-budget misfire of the popular TV series. From the look of the ship and the costume design to the wretched casting and the somnambulistic performance by William Hurt, there’s not one thing to recommend about this film…except for Bruce Broughton‘s score. Composed in classical symphonic sci-fi mode, the score features a memorable main theme, Broughton’s typically crisp orchestral writing and some kickass French horn riffs.

7. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

[audio:2001.mp3]

It’s hard to envision Staney Kubrik’s classic film without the strains of the Strausses, but the thought of Alex North‘s rejected score accompanying those legendary images is intriguing, if nothing else. For fans of the film, North’s atonal score can just sound “wrong.” But North’s music adds majesty and humanity to a film that I find lifeless and cold. North made good use of the material though, inserting elements from the music into later scores such as THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN, SHANKS, DRAGONSLAYER and UNDER THE VOLCANO.

6. THE BLACK HOLE (1979)

[audio:blackhole.MP3]

Disney cute and outer space was not a good combination. In a year that gave us far superior sci-fi films like ALIEN, even STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and MOONRAKER, the film turned into an embarrassment for the studio and disappeared into a cinematic black hole, except with film music fans. While you can download the old LP version on iTunes, a proper CD release of John Barry‘s score (preferably expanded) is a holy grail for many fans. It’s not hard to see why. Barry’s main theme, with its waltz tempo and its eerie descending synthesizer motif, gives the score a haunting, circular quality, as if it’s continually being flung into the outer reaches of the galaxy.

5. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978)

[audio:battlestargalacticastu.mp3]

In the wake of STAR WARS, film and TV studios cranked out sci-fi bastard children with varying results. Glen Larson’s original TV series may seem laughable to fans of the remake, but I have a fondness for the original, if for no other reason than nostalgia. While Bear McCreary’s jungle drums conjure up the musical landscape for this generation’s BSG, I prefer Stu Phillips‘ work on the original TV series. With a rousing main title theme, Phillips conjures up a space symphony very much in the John Williams mode that was in demand at the time.

4. ALIEN (1979)

[audio:alien.mp3]

In 1979, no one had ever seen anything like ALIEN. Ridley Scott’s film affected every sci-fi and horror film that followed and the alien monster provided the proptotype for every menacing space creature from that point forward. In a film where silence was everything, Jerry Goldsmith bucked the John Williams trend, composing a lean score that is every bit as frightening as the film itself. And yet, with its flute flutters and lonely trumpet solo, the score packs a wallop emotionally as well. While the story of how Scott butchered the score in the final print still makes fans burn, Goldsmith’s music (even with tracked-in cues from FREUD) is still incredibly effective.

3. STAR TREK (2009)

[audio:startrek2009.mp3]

My Trekker (which, I believe, is the proper word) days are long behind me, but I was intrigued by J.J. Abrams’ retooling of the STAR TREK franchise. Before I even saw the film, I loved Michael Giacchino‘s score from the moment I heard it. While some fans bitched and moaned about the lack of strong themes (which I wholeheartedly disagree with) and Alexander Courage’s classic theme from the ’60s TV series, the rest of us reveled in this rousing and moving reboot to a series in much of need of dramatic and musical oxygen. Fans of STAR TREK can breathe again.

2. STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)

[audio:startrektmp.mp3]

While you might be able to argue about which STAR WARS score is the best, there’s no question as to which STAR TREK score comes out on top. If you grew up hearing Jerry Goldsmith‘s main theme week after week in its TV incarnation, it’s hard to explain what kind of an impact this music had in 1979, especially to young ears like mine who were still in the early stages of discovering film music. While obeying the symphonic style of the period, Goldsmith adds electronics and his own distinctive voice, giving the score far more life than the lumbering film can handle. For die-hard Trekkers, nothing beats Kirk’s first view of the Enterprise accompanied by Goldsmith’s main theme in all its reverential glory.

1. STAR WARS (1977)

[audio:starwars1.mp3]

Personal preference could probably swap these top two scores, depending on your mood. But STAR WARS deserves the top slot for its game-changing status in the genre and in film music in general. Forget that John Williams composed one of the greatest scores ever written. STAR WARS is a seminal entry in my film music education, a member of the triumvirate that includes THE OMEN and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, three titles that cemented my love for this musical genre. I lost count decades ago as to how many times I’ve listened to this score. I memorized the original double-LP set as I did the expanded edition later on. Without STAR WARS, film music arguably would have followed a very different path.

30 comments

  1. Very interesting list. Surprised to see Star Trek (2009) so high up the list, although it is a fantastic score. No love for Blade Runner?

    How do you come up with your top 9 Jim? Aren’t you afraid you’ll forget to add your favorite scores? Whenever I try to make a list, I always get shocked that I could forget certain scores :P I’m such a perfectionist I guess.

            1. Ah, the question. Sorry about that. I come up with the list by starting with an exhaustive, LONG list and then I just pare it down. Note that the title of the posts say “favorite,” not “the best” or “the top 9 favorite,” just “favorite.” That is meant to imply that there are other titles worthy of inclusion and it’s a vague enough word to leave it open for discussion and rethinking it at a later date. That’s called covering your ass. :)

  2. Great 9 on the 9th installment Jim. You just introduced me to 2 scores I’ve never heard before….. what else is new? :-)

  3. I know I’m going to get a barrage of hate mail after I post this, but I just don’t *get* Williams’ stuff. Yes he’s done some truly iconic *themes*, but when I listen to Star Wars on its own, so much of it is noise. I speak mostly about the action sequences. Maybe I’ve just got a retarded ear for music, but putting aside the fact that he’s done great work and actually listening to the action sequences (Duel of the Fates excluded) it’s unattractive to my ears and doesn’t really add a whole lot when paired with what’s going on on-screen.
    There, I said it.
    Let the hate mail commence :)

    1. You’re not the first person I’ve heard say this over the years, Kate. I don’t get why you don’t get it, but there it is. LOL No hate mail from this end. I can only hope you “come around” at some point. ;)

  4. Jim, let me share a bit of my sci-fi film music lineage…

    My early film score interest was kindled back in the 60s by the jazzy sounding scores of Mancini and especially the fantasy film music of Herrmann, but it didn’t really kick into high gear until much later when STAR WARS and CE3K came out one after the other. I quickly became a voracious collector of all things Williams, while I also began to discover other composers as the resurgence of big symphonic film scores was in full force.

    The next big milestone for me came in when Goldsmith scored both ST:TMP and ALIEN in the same year. I had a few of his albums up until that time such as PATTON and LOGAN’S RUN, both of which I liked, but I had never really gotten into his music until these two scores blew me away. Still a big fan of Williams, I replaced him with Goldsmith as my new film music idol, a position he has held ever since. In any case, both Williams and Goldsmith made a huge impact on me by writing two very different types of sci-fi scores within a single year (’77 & ’79 respectively), three of which took place primarily in space.

    Suffice it to say that a trail of sci-fi movies can found that are directly responsible for much of my love of film music. Part of that surely has to do with being a big sci-fi fan, but mostly because sci-fi seems to provide a huge and seemingly unrestricted canvas for composers to display their imaginations on. It’s this quality that I’m very drawn to musically. So yeah, space is the place for me and my beloved soundtracks!

    Thanks for the memory lane-jogging article Jim!

    1. I think you’re right, Mark, that the “seemingly unrestricted canvas” has a lot to do with the plethora of great sci-fi music over the years. There’s something about sci-fi that obviously stirs people’s imaginations.

  5. Here’s some blasphemy: I find the the main theme to the Black Hole one of the most annoying things to listen to. When I hear it I feel like I am living in the Manchurian Candidate and that music is awakening me to zombie-Justin to go assassinate someone. The rest of Barry’s score is just fine, but man I feel sick after that theme. Maybe I’ll click that audio sample above and go home from work early. :)

    1. I just see it as sinking into the black hole. And I think you just want a reason to leave work early. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  6. btw kudos for the 2009 Star Trek score. Just listening to it makes me want to get up out of my seat and leave the office screaming about joining Starfleet and how I’ll graduate in three years from the academy.

  7. I will join Kate in not being a fan of John Williams. I suspect growing up with the symphonic scores of Korngold and others (on TV, not in the theater!) may have dampened the appeal of his work. I find his music does not improve with listening. Had I not loved the old masters, I might have felt differently as I was not too old to be captivated by the three films.

    More importantly, the great omission from your list in my view is Goldsmith’s First Contact! I also think Horner’s Aliens is pretty respectable.

  8. Let us go even further back to a time when the moon was mostly cheese:

    1. LAURIE JOHNSON: FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Terrifically atmospheric)
    2. LEITH STEVENS: DESTINATION MOON (Excellent space concert)
    3. LOUIS AND BEBE BARRON: FORBIDDEN PLANET (Plug it in!)
    4. ELMER BERNSTEIN: ROBOT MONSTER (We all have roots)
    5. ELMER BERNSTEIN: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (Sometimes deep)
    6. HERMAN STEIN: THIS ISLAND EARTH (Quite good)
    7. CHARLES FOX: BARBARELLA (Psychadella)
    8. VAN CLEAVE: ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (Spare but noticeable)
    and
    9. THE GREEN SLIME (Let us never forget that title song!)

    As for the Williams debate, I have to say I how surprised I was when Johnny changed to John and one of my favorite jazz artists went symphonic with equal greatness. There is no denying the magnitude of his versatility.

  9. While I agree with your last sentence for ’77 Star Wars (“film music arguably would have followed a very different path”), I think the soundtrack for 2001 was more seminal in setting the tone for SF films being set to classical music (the Blue Danube sequences in particular). Imagine how future SF films might have been scored had Pink Floyd done the soundtrack for 2001 (they had expressed interest in doing so at the time).

    1. Hi JDsg, thanks for commenting. While you’re probably right about 2001, that irritates me even more. I tried watching the movie again last night, and while it’s got some arresting visual images, geez, it’s dull, dull, dull. I thought perhaps my opinion had changed over the years. Nope. I stopped at the last 20 minutes because I couldn’t take it anymore. And now that I’ve heard what music could have been there (i.e., Alex North’s, which I hadn’t heard when I saw the film the one time years and years ago), it makes me even madder to hear classical pieces, though they work for the most part. If Pink Floyd’s music had been used, I doubt I would have ever seen the movie. LOL But that’s just me.

  10. i’m shocked to not see Stark Trek 2 Wrath of Kahn on this- its one of (few) James Horner scores that I find very very strong

    1. It was on the long list. But since I haven’t “lived” with it as long as some of these other scores, it just didn’t make the cut. Good score, even with the Prokofiev references. ;)

  11. I always found it fascinating that Broughton wrote the “Lost in Space” score in a matter of 2 weeks or something along those lines…there are incredible brass performances all over that score.

  12. Sci-Fi is my second favorite genre after Fantasy. Where’s volume 2 by the way? :)

    Here’s my top 9 “space” sci-fi scores:
    1. Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
    2. Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back
    3. Star Trek Generations
    4. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
    5. Star Trek The Motion Picture
    6. Avatar
    7. Star Trek The Undiscovered Country
    8. Star Trek Insurrection
    9. Star Trek The Search For Spock

    Ok that was boring…. Star Trek and Star Wars… Here’s my top 9 without them (I probably took out some scores that should have been there, but since I haven’t seen the 50s/60s sci-fi movies, I couldn’t be sure):
    1. Avatar
    2. Total Recall
    3. Outland
    4. Battle Beyond The Stars
    5. John Carter
    6. Alien
    7. Ender’s Game
    8. Oblivion
    9. Aliens
    10. Predators

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