In space no one can hear you scream, that’s because there is no sound. But when you think of your favourite science-fiction films and what makes them so special it’s rather ironic then that one of the things that stays with you forever is the music.
Sure, there’ll be other factors: favourite scenes or memorable dialogue, but the music is the life and soul of the movie. They say that you can’t make a great movie without a great script but equally the right piece of music can elevate a good movie, or scene, to greatness.
I spoke to movie soundtrack enthusiast, Mike Copping, a member of the John Barry Appreciation Society from its inception, who was first bitten by the movie soundtrack bug, aged ten, viewing the sci-fi tinged Bond-movie You Only Live Twice in 1967, scored by Barry, about what he considers the five greatest sci-fi movie scores of all time.
The following list is chronological and takes in several notable mentions along the way so lets (tap, tap, tap) strike up the orchestra for the greatest movie sci-fi soundtracks of all time.
Saying that purists will ‘wrap him in the mouth’ for not saying King Kong (1933), which saw composer Max Steiner arguably define the modern film score, Mike plumbs for fellow German composer, Franz Waxman.
He said: “Waxman holds equal claim to laying down the template to what we recognise as the modern film score as he was working at pretty much the same time on a wide range of films, so I’m going to have to say The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as my first entry.”
“I see the score for the James Whale directed movie as a far more accomplished piece that works better with the film, is melodic and for me is the first really truly memorable, influential science fiction/ horror score that I would hold in that esteem, over and above Kong.”
There is no question for Mike in his second choice, Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Hermann is mostly associated with his collaboration with Hitchcock and his fantasy scores for Jason and the Argonauts, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
Copping said: “A lot of people might pick Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet but if you listen to that away from the film, ‘Planet’ sounds like beeps and electronics noises, whereas ‘Still’ is a properly orchestrated score in the traditional sense, but what makes it groundbreaking is the melodic way it uses the Theremin, an electronic instrument, as an evocative, other worldly voice, which was the first time it had been used that way.”
Mike continued: “It’s a hugely influential score that is heavily imitated, fantastically constructed and is just wonderful, unlike the entirely forgettable remake, which doesn’t hold a candle to or honour the original in any way.”
Sticking with ‘Earth’ for his third choice is Jerry Goldsmith’s landmark score for Planet of the Apes (1968), which Mike lists as being groundbreaking.
He said: “Again it is a hugely influential score that has been copied ever since (elements cropping up in his later score for Alien) and features some wonderful experimentation and is outstanding as it works dramatically, sounds alien and other worldly and to this day people think he used electronics, but it was all done acoustically, and still sounds fresh 41 years later.”
Goldsmith was Oscar-nominated for his outstanding work but bagged his only golden statue for the creepy chorals of The Omen (1976), which Copping, along with many people see as a huge injustice and a failing of the Academy.
As an honourable mention Mike also suggests Goldsmith’s Alien (1979). He says: “It works so well in the film and contributes to that terrible unease that you get whilst you are watching it, which is just disturbing, although not as disturbing as Director Ridley Scott’s treatment of it, something he would do to Goldsmith several year’s later on the fantasy movie, Legend, which also deserves a mention.”
The US print of Legend saw Goldsmith’s score excised completely and featured totally new music by Tangerine Dream, whilst the longer European cut retained the superior Goldsmith score.
Fittingly, the fourth is with Mike on his penultimate choice. He said: “Star Wars arrived in 1977, roughly a decade after ‘Apes’ and during that period pop songs had wormed their way into films and become a marketing tool.”
“So when Star Wars came along it blew (rather like an operational deathstar) everyone away, it did more than underscore the film, it reastablished the traditional symphonic score, something virtually unheard of at the time, as a viable entity that could sell very well in its own right if it was the right film and Star Wars just happened to encompass all that.”
“It’s a beautifully orchestrated and complex score that is thematically structured; it’s just wonderful stuff and heralded the return of the composer as artist. For Williams, it was a triumph.”
The composer honed his craft on Irwin Allen sci-fi TV epics laying the groundwork for his development. Mike enthused: “If you listen to his TV scores for ‘Lost in Space’, ‘Land of the Giants’ or ‘Time Tunnel’ you can hear hints of the shape of things to come. He had a great training ground in writing the most outlandish things, so Star Wars was just so fitting, cementing his position, one that he hasn’t lost since.”
From 77 to 82 Williams had such a prolific period, encompassing Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, The Fury, Raiders, Empire and E.T. Encounters is something that Mike prefers listening to rather than Star Wars. He said: “It almost surpasses Star Wars. The idea that aliens were communicating via music, which is a pretty universal thing from an emotional level, I thought was just great. Williams took that idea and ran with that five note theme.”
Mike’s final choice takes us to the final frontier which sees us back with Jerry Goldsmith and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
He asserts: “This is one of the finest scores written for film, let alone for science-fiction. The early sequence where the Klingon ships are taken out by the approaching alien entity is fantastic scoring.”
“That kind of instrumentation and barbaric quality in the music instantly conveys Klingon culture and at the same time drives the sequence adding immeasurably, just what Goldsmith did best. The main theme is also one of the best ever, being so successful that Trek creator Roddenberry used it as the title music for The Next Generation.”
Goldsmith revisited the Trek movie franchise several times, but for Mike he never bettered that original score, which he said: “Is beautifully constructed, melodically driven, incredibly evocative and helps save the rather leaden pacing in the second part of the film.”
If there was one moment that stands out where vision and music work perfectly with one another, it would be the scene where Scotty first shows off the Enterprise to Kirk, and the audience, from a shuttle craft.
Mike concludes: “The cue, just called The Enterprise, sustains its entire length and is just a superb example of what Goldsmith did with his music, he’s sorely missed.”
Have your orchestral soundtrack hunting manoeuvres left you in the dark?
Unlikely to find much beyond ‘songs inspired by the movie’ albums in the high street try the following for limited editions and new releases.
Film Score Monthly
eBay is also worth a look, but be warned as there are plenty of bootleg copies out there as well as bargains so be sure to read the description.