CD Review: Avatar

James Horner is not a hack. You don’t work your way up to the top level of film composers without talent. And Horner has immense talent. Perhaps that is why he is often the target of vehement attacks by film score fans. Perhaps it is his notorious practice of self-borrowing. Whatever the reason(s), film score fans love to bash Horner.

I have great affection for many of Horner’s scores–in particular APOLLO 13, FIELD OF DREAMS, and SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER. But no score in recent memory has been so eagerly anticipated as Horner’s efforts on AVATAR, his latest collaboration with director James Cameron. The two had previously collaborated on ALIENS and TITANIC. AVATAR occupied a year and a half of Horner’s life, no doubt due to Cameron’s notorious editing and re-editing of his film. With all the attention surrounding Cameron’s revolutionary filmmaking techniques (and they are something to behold), it’s a shame that Horner’s accompanying score is so pedestrian.

Horner has said in interviews that he didn’t want the music to “put something in front of [audiences] that’s light years ahead and expect them to accept it…mainstream audiences [are] not ready for an avant garde experience — they don’t listen to avant garde music and Avatar is not an art film. The score needed to be grounded; that’s where the world’s ear is.” I accept that and appreciate that. What I don’t accept or appreciate is a score that sounds like a mashup of nearly every major Horner score that came before it.

The first few notes and harmonies of the love theme are reminiscent of the main love theme from TITANIC. The long, flowing melody veers off into its own territory, but once those notes are cemented in your ear, it’s difficult to remove the earlier association. We first hear the theme as paraplegic Jake (Sam Worthington) inhabits his avatar body and goes running through the native grasses of Pandora. The running accompaniment sounds an awful lot like figures from earlier scores such as A BEAUTIFUL MIND and SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER.

Avatar soundtrack
“Jake Enters His Avatar World”
“Climbing Up Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven”

Fans of Horner’s work will recognize the beginning of the second main theme as a major theme from his 1989 score for GLORY. But even that was not original. That theme was borrowed from Prokofiev’s 1948 score for IVAN THE TERRIBLE. Again, the earlier associations are hard to ignore, especially when it is continually used in the chorus. Though this theme also veers off into its own territory, I expected something more novel for this alien world from both of these themes.

Horner also talks about the “tremendous amount of colour” used in the score, “colours that we haven’t heard before.” Really? Recorder? Heard it in BRAVEHEART. Chanting natives and wailing women? Heard them in APOCALYPTO. The snare drum motif? ALIENS. That three-note “danger motif” that only film score geeks will recognize? That goes all the way back to STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Even the two main themes aren’t entirely original.

You could argue that all of these elements add up to the culminating score of Horner’s career so far. For me, the similarities and outright borrowing from earlier scores is a major distraction, while the rest of the score is ultimately much ado about nothing.

The jungle rhythms and percussion often sound electronically enhanced and synthesized. That may create a steady beat for the orchestra to play to, but it also robs those segments of any semblance of acoustic life.

The brass, vocals, and percussion finally get a chance to show their mettle in militaristic cues like “Quaritch” and “War.” Every musician–vocal and instrumental–works overtime to generate excitement. But  the music rambles on–at least on CD–with no semblance of direction.

Horner’s score within the film is not a hindrance, but it’s seldom an asset either. Not once did the music convey any emotion or give me any additional insight into the characters or the situations. Instead, I kept hearing TITANIC and GLORY every single time those two main themes played onscreen. To his credit, Cameron allows the music to shine in spots. But if the score works in the film at all, as it does in Jake’s first flight and a couple of other scenes, it speaks more to Cameron’s visuals and Worthington and Zoe Saldana’s performances than Horner’s music.

By the end of the film, I stopped expecting anything spectacular from the aural landscape that Horner had “created.” Horner had spent the better part of 2 hours and 40 minutes creating a sonic world, for better or worse, for Cameron’s enticing visuals and the music was what it was. But that slender musical spell is shattered immediately with the film’s final blackout and the end credits roll accompanied by the execrable pop song, “I See You,” sung by Leona Lewis. Based on the love theme, the song follows the same formulaic structure as TITANIC’s “My Heart Will Go On,” but without the pathos and poignancy that the original song had. This pure pop drivel is nothing more than a shameless plug for Oscar attention and possible marketing value on YouTube. But it’s late-90’s sound ruins whatever precarious sonic world Horner had flimsily accomplished.

As to be expected, the orchestral and vocal elements give an excellent performance of the score. And Horner and his engineers certainly know what they’re doing in the sound booth. But the tracks on the CD do nothing to enhance the listening experience and one track sounds much the same as the next.

Most audiences wouldn’t be able to identify, much less care about, Horner’s self-plagiarism even if you told them, nor should they. But that doesn’t mean it should be swept under the rug. In a film that prides itself on new technology and a brand new world, it is not unreasonable to expect that the score supports that world. I understand that Horner didn’t want to necessarily rock the musical boat harmonically and instrumentally. But it’s a shame that the result of 18 month’s of work has resulted in something so completely unmemorable, unremarkable, and largely unoriginal. There is no denying the compositional craft on display, but Cameron’s visuals deserved better.

The disappointment generated by the AVATAR score is out of this world.

    1. Hey Steve. I wondered who’d be the first person to comment. I figured it would be you or Jorn. :)

      Yes, I heard a lot of ALIENS in the military sequences as well. But by that point, to paraphrase a quote of Monica’s from “Friends”: “I’d lost the will to scold.”

  1. I haven’t seen AVATAR yet. Hopefully will in a week or two.

    Horner has written some truly memorable scores including BRAVEHEART, LEGENDS OF THE FALL and yes GLORY.

    I don’t necessary have a problem with his using phrases from his earlier, albeit sometimes as in GLORY, borrowed work – Goldsmith used a motif from THE WIND AND THE LION (Risuli’s theme) in at least a dozen other films most famously for the Klingon theme from STAR TREK .

    What bothers me as you is the lack of passion and daring in his work for probably the last ten years. These samples really leave me cold and I recently had the unfortunate experience of hearing Leona Lewis sing “I See You” which made the TITANIC/Celine Dion end credit song sound like a masterwork.

    It sure seems like Horner’s work here is as you describe – pedestrian.

  2. I can’t agree more. I just saw the movie yesterday night and I can’t agree more with you. A plain boring score which sounds like any other score. Very disappointing.

    1. Hi Vincent, thanks for commenting. I must say, I expected to be bashed for the review, but it seems like I’m not the only one who is disappointed. Believe me, I wish it was the other way around.

  3. Great review!

    I think we can blame a lot of the originality in scores nowadays to the lack of originality in films. I can’t think of many films that inspire ME with great musical ideas…but of course originality is important in any self-respecting artist, and I expected a much better score from James Horner.
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..M.E.T. =-.

    1. I expected better too. Well, let me rephrase that, I had “hoped” for better. The thing I don’t understand is how you have so much time and the result is so uninspired. Was it too much time? Did Cameron have something to do with it? Or should everything be laid squarely on Horner’s lap? Disappointing.

      1. Well if Horner wasn’t happy whilst working on a film, we usually end up hearing about it. Maybe the DVD extras will shed some light on the matter?

        I think I expected something better from the score BECAUSE it was a Cameron film!

        There’s a whole host of upcoming film composers who are approaching scoring in different ways.

        “…the score needed to be grounded…” in other words he couldn’t be bothered.

        Side note: Loved the score to Apollo 13! :)
        .-= Wendell´s last blog ..M.E.T. =-.

        1. “…the score needed to be ground…” I don’t if it’s because he couldn’t be bothered or he didn’t trust his audience to follow him on the journey. Either way, a big mistake.

          Looking forward to hearing what the up-and-coming film composers have to offer.

          Side note: Good taste. :)

  4. Agreed completely. I think the only Horner score I’ve liked since Apollo 13 was House of Sand and Fog, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the great underrated scores of the decade.

    1. Hi, thanks for commenting. I found HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG to be fairly unremarkable as a separate listen. But it sure added to the mood of that creepy film. Perhaps I should give it another shot.

  5. I think I may be the only one to disagree lol. I loved the score, like every magnificient film score, it grows on you. Personally, yes I can notice almost every other film score Horner has done mixed into it, but is that really a problem? James Horner is well known for his emotional depth and ability to change musical direction within a second and make it sound like it’s flowing.

    I read a comment from someone who was responding to another site that was disappointed with his Avatar Score, and it convinced me. I think it went something like this: ‘Why does everyone say its uninspiring and boring because it sounds like his old work, so his old work was uninspiring and boring then? If you like something, why change it? if you eat in a restaurant you always have your favourite meal, and when you do change and try something different, you almost always get something bad.’ I believe that is a perfect description of Horner’s work on Avatar. It shows us that, seeing as every motif, lyrical work, theme, transition and rythm has already been used somewhere, why not do what you’re good at and bring the magic of Titanic, the danger of Aliens, the serenity of A Beautiful Mind, the exoticness of Troy, and the emotion of Braveheart and combine them to create sheer beauty, which I believe Avatar acheives.

    1. Well, Lee, we’re definitely going to disagree on this one. :)

      While I can understand the comment from the other site, I think mixing from earlier scores in this particular score especially is, yes, “really a problem.” Mainly because Horner had 18 months to come up with something new and fresh. Even more importantly, this was a chance to create something “out of this world” (so to speak) for this brand new world. Instead he chose to keep the score “grounded” for the audience, rather than trusting us to go along with what he created. That’s a cop out, and puts the blame for shoddy work on us, rather than on the composer where it belongs. Write to fulfill the demands of the story. If you succeed at that, we’ll follow you. I don’t think audiences had a problem adjusting to Jerry Goldsmith’s avant garde (for lack of a better term) score for PLANET OF THE APES, and that was 40 years ago. Just because we’re not accustomed to listening to something doesn’t mean our ears can’t experience something new and adapt for two and a half hours.

      And if we’re going to have scores that are now patchworks of earlier themes, motifs, etc., then we really don’t need composers anymore. We can just revert back to the early 1930’s and piece everything together from music libraries or slap on a temp track. (shudder!)

      While I’m glad the score works for you, as it should, Horner is an A-list composer (or he used to be) who has turned in C-level work IMO. And since I’m someone who always eats out at favorite restaurants and orders the same thing over and over, that’s called fear. Fear of the new. Change is good. It shakes up our world and opens new opportunities. It takes us out of our comfort zone and allows us to learn and grow, and experience “new worlds”. AVATAR, for me, feels as dry, stale and hard to swallow as a day old bagel.

      1. Yes I believe we are exactly 2 ends of the string. I don’t understand why you say it’s fear that is the reason why you don’t change meals and why Horner didnt try something new because he was safe with what he had. The reason people don’t choose other food (music) is because it is comfortable and why change perfection. I think you know as I and everyone who has heard it, his score to Titanic was perfection. It strikes emotion so deep that you may as well be on the bottom of the ocean with the ship itself. I believe that if you rewatch Avatar many times and listen to the score many times to the scenes of the film, you will notice the subtle undertones that I have noticed. He influences emotion like no other composers out there, he can make you feel how he wants you to feel. Many big blockbuster films, like transformers perhaps, do not make you feel anything for anyone and you just end up not caring, But Horner, especially in Avatar made me really feel for the characters he was creating music for.

        I know you say that we may as well have no composer and have someone just mash up his old compositions, that’s not what happened on Avatar at all! If you listen more and understand the tones and motif’s you will understand that if any other composer were to be given Horner’s compositions and told to create something out of them all, they would not be able. Even though at some points Avatar’s score sounds to the untrained ear, unoriginal, it is one of the most unique scores for any film created, you just have to feel it, not just hear it.

        1. My question is why play it safe? Safe doesn’t allow a person to stretch and grow. And safe in the arts is particularly deadly.

          As for perfection, I don’t believe art is perfection. The best of art seems to change and morph as we pass through our lives, meaning something different to us.

          I also don’t believe TITANIC was perfection. For me, the emotion you are talking about came from the historical resonance of the story, though I thought Horner’s score did add a level of loss and excitement as well.

          As for AVATAR, I won’t be watching the film again and the CD has already been put in a box for storage. If the score had no effect on me after a dozen or so painful listens, then I doubt the situation will get any better. I’ll agree that the music is better than that of TRANSFORMERS. But what little emotion and wonder I felt while watching AVATAR came from the performances of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana and from Cameron’s awe-inspiring visuals. The score left me flat.

          Let me clarify my mashup comment from earlier. I think Horner as a composer sets a dangerous precedent with his scores. If he can get away with recycling old scores, playing it “safe” if you will, then what is to stop other composers from doing so? How will that further the art of film scoring? And then what is to stop directors and studio execs, always on the lookout to slash their music budgets even further, from just going to a music library and matching cues from different scores to create a “new” score for their film. Quentin Tarantino already does this. In interviews he has said he doesn’t trust composers to do it the way he wants it done. Look at the “score” to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. All recycled Morricone.

          I’d also argue that the AVATAR score sounds original to the UNTRAINED ear. As I said in my review, most audience members probably won’t hear the earlier Horner references and probably wouldn’t care even if they did. But my trained ear heard them and was angered and disappointed by them. And as long as I have breath in my body and a keyboard to type on, I’ll keep fighting for higher standards in film scoring for this art form I love so deeply. (Ok, so that’s a bit overdramatic, but you get the point.)

          I’m not sure how you can label AVATAR as “unique” when there are so many references to earlier scores. In all the many listens and even in the film, the music generated no emotion for me. And I don’t plan on listening to it ever again.

          I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Lee. :)

          1. well to be honest with you manner of description a little arogant, as if you believe you know more than others and more than me about film scores. Everyone has their own opinions and therefore I expressed mine in response to your original review of the Score, in the COMMENT section, not the answering back section lol. Personally I find your view of the score a little over dramatic, ‘painful listens’ is extremely insulting. I also have a TRAINED ear, not untrained, I can hear subtle undertones and fell in love with the score because of that reason. I have been listening to orchestral compositions my whole life, which is a long long time and have followed composers over the years and can tell you from where I’m sitting, Avatar was beautifully and epically composed to the epic story told by Cameron.

            I’m afraid you fail to see the genius of his Score because you obviously haven’t noticed that EVERY SINGLE COMPOSER ON THE PLANET, from James Newton Howard to Howard Shore. From Hans Zimmer to Alexandre Desplat. From Dario Marianelli to of course John Williams. ALL OF THEM! recylce their old scores, there is never an original score these days. Listen to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Home Alone, they are all almost identicle lol and yet he is renowned to be the greatest composer of all time?

            I can even hear bits of The Lord of the Rings in the score to A History of Violence for god sake lol.

            Trust me when I say, The Award given for Best Original Score, should be renamed to Best Recylced Score, because that’s all we get these days. No Score is original I’m afraid which is why I am defending the fact that James Horner needed to combine his past genius to create this Tribal Score that is more magical than any other that attempts so.

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  7. Lee, we’re just not going to see eye to eye on this score. And that’s okay. There’s plenty of film music for both of us. LOL I think this the score brings up emotions for both of us. And I personally would rather have music that generates passionate debate, even if we’re not in agreement, than music that brooks no discussion at all. :)

    1. I concure and would like to say, thank you for debating with me on the score and I’m glad we both got to express our opinions in a none aggressive way.

      This is how life should be, debating and learning others views on things, even if it is the opposite of your personal opinion, we are all unique human beings :)

  8. Dammit Jim!!! I am NOT a real composer, just a hack and I just been found out that I lift, steal, and rehash all my music. Sincerely yours James Horner!!! LOL>

    James Horner get the most NEGATIVE feed than any other composer. ANY.

    Why? Because he actually cannot compose any thing original. NOTHING. IT is all rehash to me.

    Glory, Titanic, Searching for Bobby Fisher, THE DANGER MOTIFF, and MORE DANGER MOTIFF, and Sneakers, and Aliens, is all in AVATAR.

    NOTHING new to hear here. MOVE ON. James Horner is the Master of REHASH. I NEVER BUY his music. Not after Star Trek 2 ended up in Cocoon, NOTE FOR NOTE.

    Dear Academy MEMBERS!!! WAKE UP and hear the REHASH.

    1. Horner certainly gets a lot of feedback, not always deserved. And he ranks right up there with Zimmer and Santaolalla, who also don’t always deserve their backlash. As for the Academy members, I wish I felt confident in their selections this year, but the movie is a juggernaut that is going to be hard to ignore in any category. We’ll see, but I’m not hopeful. I expect it to land in the five come the morning of February 2.

  9. I didnt mind James Horner- I admit, I am very late to film music. I knew he did the music to Aliens and I always thought it was great. I noticed he did the music to A Beautiful Mind and I loved the cue “A kaleidoscope of Mathematics”… and then i heard it again in Bicentennial Man and I realized that he liked to rip off his own rip offs… Then Avatar came out- I honestly cant say how upset I was listening to this score- I has pissed me off since. I agree with ever single facet of your review except I add venom to it.

  10. I have a feeling that Bear McCreary (BSG, Dark Void) would have been a much better choice. He incorporates exotic sounding percussion and vocals into his music more skillfully than Horner does. Horner’s gotten too comfortable recycling his own material IMO.

    1. Hi Athenys, thanks for commenting. I’m not as familiar as McCreary’s work as I should be. But I think almost anything would have been an improvement over the tired material that Horner provided.

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