Aliens, the long-delayed sequel to 1979’s Alien, had a tortuous preproduction history, something which extended to James Horner’s score. Horner had little time to write and record the music, and many of his cues wound up omitted from the film, used multiple times for wildly different scenes, or replaced with stock cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score. Despite this, Aliens was nominated for a “Best Score” Academy award, and has been a fan favorite since its release. In fact, many of its cues have become staples of trailer music.
The score incorporates two main themes, which are used opposite the cacophonous percussion and brass in most of the action cues. The first, found in the “Main Title,” is a bleak and low-key series of descending notes that represents the cold and sterile environment of deep space, while the second is a repeating set of brass notes that seems to represent the aliens themselves. Neither theme is used extensively, and both tend to be overwhelmed in the action cues and underwhelming in the mass of underscore.
The fact is, much of the album is so drab that at times you may need to glance at your stereo to make sure it’s on. The bleak underscore, which predominates in tracks 1, 3, 5, and 7, is effective at generating tension but loses much of its power divorced from the film, and many listeners may find themselves skipping over these tracks.
At the same time, Aliens contains some of James Horner’s most cacophonous work, a series of large-scale action cues replete with aggressive brass, driving percussion, and metal-on-metal hits. Despite being chaotic and largely devoid of melody, save for a few moments when the score’s themes are interpolated, tracks like “Ripley’s Rescue” and “Going After Newt” are rousing, overwhelming listeners with sheer orchestral power and volume. The highlight is the opening minute of “Resolution and Hyperspace,” which offsets the thunderous noise with a series of whirling string figures and soaring brass passages (ironically, this track was unused in the film, and was later appropriated for the final scene in Die Hard).
However, people familiar with Horner’s prior output will find that several musical ideas are similar to his work in Brainstorm, Krull and Star Trek. Devotees of classical music will likewise note similarities between certain passages and Khatchaturian’s “Gayne” ballet and Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.” The similarities are undeniable, but so is the fact that the music in Aliens is far more brutal and percussive than in Horner’s prior works.
Aliens is therefore a peculiar beast, mixing generous helpings of previous Horner and classical scores in a more aggressive and militaristic way, and combining them with underscore that is listless and dull. In the end, the importance placed on the borrowings is up to the individual listener, but the action music is effective despite these borrowings, and should remain rousing even to someone to whom they are apparent. Varése Sarabande later issued an expended version of the score, which adds the propulsive but unused “Combat Drop” alongside a number of less impressive ambient tracks. The ultimate question is if fifteen minutes of outstandingly brutal, rousing, and somewhat derivative action music is enough to make you sift through an otherwise drab score.