Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Marco Beltrami)

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If star Arnold Schwarzenegger was in something of a career doldrums in 1999 when he took on End of Days, he was even more so in 2003. His attempt to return to the thoughtful sci-fi of Total Recall with The 6th Day in 2000 had failed, and his attempt at a gritty contemporary geopolitical thriller with Collateral Damage had fallen victim to the post-9/11 film release shuffle with a poor showing on its eventual 2002 release. As so many other action stars have done, Schwarzenegger then returned to the role that had made him a star for 2003’s Terminator 3. Unable to lure back any of the cast or crew from the previous two films (aside from Earl Boen), the star engaged director Jonathan Mostow, fresh off of the white-knuckle sub thriller U-571 to direct. T3 turned out to be a success with audiences if not critics and it stands as the actor’s last summer blockbuster before his move to politics: four months after its premiere, Schwarzenegger was sworn in as governor of California.

James Cameron had worked with the innovative Brad Fiedel on the first two Terminator films, with the latter creating one of the most iconic motifs in cinema history in his five-note staggered Terminator theme. Fiedel had lost interest in film scoring and Hollywood after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, though, and Mostow made no effort to secure his services. Rather than securing Richard Marvin, who had scored U-571 and would later score Surrogates for Mostow, the director hired Jerry Goldsmith protege Marco Beltrami. Beltrami was on the rise at the time, having secured high-profile work after his first major scoring work with Mimic in 1997, and he had just come off an impressive action score for Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II the previous summer.

Beltrami’s approach seems to have been to attempt to beef up the overall sound of Fiedel’s Terminator work–harsh, driving, percussive–into a fully symphonic environment. While Fiedel’s scores had relegated his (mostly synthetic) orchestra to a supporting role while foregrounding the electronics, Beltrami promotes his orchestra to the lead with synths in a supporting position of musical color. The result is a sound that is dark and brutal, as Terminator 3‘s lengthy scenes of chases and violence required, though without the harsh, purely synth edge of the earlier works.

Thematically, Beltrami caused some controversy early in the film’s publicity cycle by noting that he wouldn’t attempt to adapt Fiedel’s themes in his score, and he sticks to that outside of an orchestral re-recording of the theme for the film’s credits. In its place, Beltrami offers his own “JC Theme” and a quieter, string-led piece for the film’s quieter scenes with its love interest. These hold up well enough, particularly in the penultimate “Radio” cue for the film’s shocking ending (Terminator 3’s only idea that wasn’t a regurgitation of something done better in Terminator 2) and Beltrami’s suite treatment of the two themes intertwined in “T3.” The themes are a bit on the mundane side, and certainly have none of the iconic catchiness of Fiedel’s admittedly simpler compositions, but they suffice.

The real problem that Beltrami comes up against is that he is unable to integrate the mass of action, shootout, and chase music with his themes. Cue after cue provides functional percussive music that is well-enhanced by electronics and well-performed by the orchestra, but without integrating his own themes or Fiedel’s outside of a few cues, ultimately Terminator 3 winds up being sound and fury signifying little. Many of the motifs and techniques, in retrospect, seem like prototypes for the action music Beltrami would write a year later for I, Robot and parts of Hellboy, both of which do a far more complete job of integrating thematic material with orchestral ruckus and making the less thematic parts of the work more engaging.

One gets the feeling that, if Beltrami had chosen to supplement Fiedel’s themes with his own, rather than replacing them, that the work could have been much fuller and more engaging. The refusal to use existing themes is a longstanding sore point for many film score fans: rights issues and re-use fees often preclude it, and too much reuse of thematic material can make a work seem like cheap pastiche rather than a genuine creative work in its own right–and no one can fault an artist for wanting to put their own stamp on something. But whatever the reason, T3 just doesn’t work well on its own, and it works even less well with only a single token performance of the original theme.

Varèse Sarabande put out Beltrami’s score to Terminator 3 a few weeks before the film’s release, with two songs (one of which was actually penned by Beltrami) tacked unsatisfyingly at the end. Despite the score’s failure, Beltrami would go on to have an extremely impressive 2004 and would round out the decade with a pair of Oscar nominations. The Terminator franchise would limp on, with the 2009 McG-helmed Terminator: Salvation receiving a Danny Elfman score that made many of the same mistakes as Beltrami’s, and Christophe Beck scheduled to take on Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys in 2015. Whatever the film and composer, though, it seems that future works are unlikely to capture the same zeitgeist as James Cameron and Brad Fiedel did with their original entries over two decades ago.

Rating: starstar

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End of Days (John Debney)

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Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Peter Hyams were fighting the notion that their best days were behind them by 1999. Schwarzenegger, the king of 80s action, was in the middle of a rut that had begun with Last Action Hero in 1993 and many of his subsequent films from Eraser to Batman and Robin had underperformed with audiences and critics. Hyams had a minor hit with 1997’s The Relic, but nothing to compare to his salad days of Capricorn One and Outland. End of Days was not the panacea either man was looking for; a millenarian horror/action film about Schwarzenegger’s burnt-out bodyguard attempting to keep the fated mother of Satan’s child away from Old Scratch, it was a financial disappointment (Schwarzenegger’s reported $25 million paycheck probably didn’t help) and was critically savaged.

Hyams had worked with a number of composers throughout his lengthy career, including Jerry Goldsmith, David Shire, and Mark Isham. For End of Days, though, he chose to extend his partnership with composer John Debney, who had scored his previous two films, Sudden Death and the aforementioned The Relic. Debney had found a steady stream of high-profile work since beginning his scoring career in earnest in the early 1990s, and 1999 saw him tackle no less than six movies, with End of Days sitting opposite The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland in his filmography for that year. In many ways, End of Days was a good for for Debney; a devout Christian himself, the composer tackled the film’s music for the sacred and the profane with an orchestra, choir, and array of synthesizers and voice samples.

The primary motifs that Debney works with are based around the human voice. One is an eerie child soprano intoning “Agnus Dei” (“lamb of God” in Latin) which drifts in and out of the film’s soundscape; another is the deep and unmistakable tones of Tuvan throat singers, whose unsettling performances underscore the film’s most disturbing moments. Debney complements both with samples from Spectrasonics’ “Symphony Of Voices” and other more industrial synths for the film’s lengthy suspense and pursuit cues, while leaving the full might of the orchestra and the expected bombast for heaven and hell for key moments.

Debney’s approach yields some impressive highlights, most notably in the starkly horrifying “Main Title” and the film’s action-adventure centerpiece, “Subway Attack and Escape.” The scoring for the film’s denouement, “Redemption” and “The Eternal Struggle,” is lovely as well, employing every tool in the composer’s chosen arsenal as the choral and tonal elements of the score battle it out with synths and industrial tones. For much of the album, though, the latter ambient elements, with the child soprano and Tuvan throat singers throughout, predominates. And while this more ambient material deftly reinforces the film’s sense of oppressive millenarian darkness, it can be a very difficult listen away from the film. A very poor remix of Debney’s music tacked on at the end certainly does the album no favors, either.

One certainly can’t deny Debney’s creativity, the highlights of his work, or the sincerety with which it was assembled, but End of Days winds up working somewhat better in the film, flawed as said film may be, than on its own. As was the case for most of the 1990s, a “music from and inspired by” compilation of unpleasant rock songs barely heard in the movie was given a wide release first, followed by Debney’s much rarer 40-minute score-only product from Varèse Sarabande a month later. It’s worth seeking out for a distinctly different take on movie spirituality than Debney would later use in The Passion of the Christ and The Stoning of Soraya M., but expect a challenging and mostly textual listen with occasional highlights.

Rating: starstarstar