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.