Usually focusing on elaborate production design, realistic special effects, and ethereal sound design as primary methods of immersive storytelling in sci-fi cinema, audiences and critics alike often take for granted a musical score’s ability to contribute to the construction of the world. With the exception of John Williams‘ iconic themes for movies like star wars and HEY, the role of music often takes a secondary or tertiary position in addressing the complexity of science fiction cinema. Yet the musical scores constantly set the tone for the universes and galaxies that unfold before the viewer’s eyes, determining both how the audience sees the world and feels the narrative rhythms. By focusing on the narrative and tonal impact of musical scores in creating believable dystopian landscapes and kaleidoscopic visions of the future, the horizons of sci-fi soundscapes widen to encompass symphonic musical flourishes that can be both deeply human and deeply foreign.
In an attempt to go beyond the elegiac and iconic musical oeuvre of John Williams in the genre of science fiction, the following list will elevate the work of composers of equal stature to Williams in terms of talent, even if they did not receive similar recognition. By celebrating the celestial soundscapes of sci-fi classics as well as underrated gems of the genre, audiences can better understand how futuristic fantasy world-building works.
10. Gattaca (1997), Michael Nyman
Abandoning the contemporary trend toward a synth-centric score in favor of waves of seemingly straightforward strings, Michael Nyman initially locates the 1997 cult classic Gattaca in a space of progress-centric optimism that characterized early sci-fi favorites as things to come and Metropolis. However, as revelations of genetic corporate favoritism and family tragedy imbue the central narrative with emotional and ethical undertones, the score sings and melts away in a flurry of minor keys. Even if the film’s final triumph is undermined by sacrificial loss, Nyman’s climactic theme “The Departure” never veers to Williams’ fanfare, opting for layers of minor keys to express Ethan Hawkethe inner conflict of the protagonist.
9. Annihilation (2018), Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow
In almost complete contrast to Gattacaits elegance, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrowcollaborative work on Alex Garlandthe enigmatic epic Annihilation fuses atmospheric drone music with folk-style interruptions, juxtaposing unnerving synthesizer trills with arrhythmic acoustic scratches. Perhaps the best sequence to encapsulate this intentional musical dissonance is the infamous “Bear” sequence, in which the set of explorers encounter a bear-like alien creature in The Shimmer. In order to enhance the visceral imagery of “the bear” in the sphere of horror, Salisbury and Barrow construct a crescendo of percussive noise that culminates in a shrill scream of violin strings and sonic alarms, effectively terrifying audiences. in an audiovisual cacophony.
8. WALL-E (2008), Thomas Newman
Pairing Pixar’s playful dystopian film with an equally delightful and intricate score, Thomas Newman Beautifully captures the tone of the titular character’s curiosity and kindness without ever being overpowering. From the propelling percussion of “The Spaceship” to the singing harp of “Bubble Wrap”, each track is both a unique texture for WALL-E’s adventures and builds on the previous track to humanize the robot protagonist. Marveling at both the mundane discoveries on earth and the awe-inspiring escapades aboard The Axiom, Newman’s rendering of the world of science fiction through music is unmatched in the realm of family-friendly genre fare.
7. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Stomu Yamashta and John Phillips
While the music in Nicolas Roeg1970s oddity The man who fell to earth does not exist strictly speaking in the field of instrumental scores, the collage of sounds John Phillipsthe vocal folk pieces of and Stomu YamashtaGlam rock instrumentals capture the mystique and versatility of david bowie without directly featuring a single song from his career, as Bowie was contractually prohibited from recording music for the film. Although rumors have spread of a mythical Bowie version of the soundtrack, no recording exists. Instead, Phillips and Yamashta were able to interpret Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton fate outside of the trappings of Ziggy Stardust lore, resulting in a bizarre and haunting soundscape of the character’s hazy life between Earth and space.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Junkie XL
Matching the diesel punk fury of the film’s desert dystopia, Junkie XL’s eclectic score functions as a creative collision of metallic guitars, ambient synths and orchestral swells. Although the individual elements of the film’s soundscape initially seem incompatible, the final product is a masterpiece of controlled chaos, much like the film itself. Walk out the door with dangerous drones on “Escape” and wrap up with a transcendent traditional theme on “Let Them Up,” Mad Max: Fury Road never compromises in action movie greatness and heavy metal glory.
5. She (2013), Arcade Fire
In an inspired match between an established musical group and cinematic aesthetics, the two Arcade Firethe melancholy score and Spike JonzeThe bittersweet romance between a man and his AI partner encapsulates the indie feel of 2010s neo-folk and pre-A24 American art film. Each instrumental and vocal track helps delight audiences into Theodore Twombly’s headspace as he navigates love and loss in the not-so-distant digital future.
4. TRON: Legacy (2010), Daft Punk
A rightly acclaimed work of a terribly underrated film, daft-punkthe penultimate work of the former head of state of electronica propels tron the legacy beyond its 1984 predecessor through an all-encompassing soundscape. From the disco-tinged repeat of “Arena” to the screaming synths of “Fall,” the iconic duo transform stunning CGI landscapes into a pop opera critique of blind nostalgia and computer-age ethics.
3. Interstellar (2014), Hans Zimmer
Although Hans Zimmer rests comfortably alongside John Williams as one of the genre’s most acclaimed composers, his equally haunting and hopeful work on Interstellar manages to encompass both the inspired themes and the dramatic stakes at the heart of Christopher Nolanthe masterpiece. Time-bending as freely and fluidly as Nolan’s narrative trajectory, Zimmer’s score elevates the earthly wonderment of driving a cornfield to a level of majesty equal to that of the climactic black hole sequence. By capturing the intricacies of storytelling in every change of musical style, Zimmer emboldens Interstellar with an unparalleled emotional soundscape.
2. Solaris (2002), Cliff Martinez
One of the many ways in which Steven Soderberghis the remake of Solaris improves the 1972 classic is the brilliantly mastered score of Cliff Martinez. Capturing the sad memories of Dr. Chris Kelvin, played by George Clooneyas he investigates a strange psychological phenomenon on the titular planet, Martinez’s score avoids the emotional grandeur of Zimmer’s orchestrations on Interstellar in favor of swirling strings and xylophones that capture the dizzying cerebral space of the protagonist’s trajectory. Maximizing the space created by stereo sound to encapsulate the audience in the music, Martinez’s score contributes to the film’s overwhelming yet grounded view of grief.
1. Blade Runner (1982), Vangelis
Perhaps an obvious but incredibly worthy first-place pick, the iconic Vangelis score for the cyberpunk masterpiece blade runner dominates its peers for good reason. Effortlessly merging many of the musical styles highlighted in previous entries to enhance the film’s tactile and futuristic take on LA, each theme defies easy classification. From shimmering chimes and booming synths on the opening tracks to the black-tinged crescendo of horns on the “Love Theme”, the score both transcends previous encapsulations of sci-fi music and revitalizes the soundscape. genre through multi-instrumental inventiveness. In particular, Vangelis accompanies the iconic “tears in the rain” scene at the end of the film with a gently evocative expression of water droplets in the cascading piano and synthesizer, underlined by drum-like booms and drones. driven by bass. In terms of capturing the sounds of a fictional world in all its complicated glory, few have surpassed Vangelis’ monumental work on this sci-fi classic.
These composers made bold decisions that changed the game.
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