Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Marco Beltrami)

Cover

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

Advertisements

The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)

Cover

2007’s Spider-Man 3 was an overstuffed disappointment of a feature, cramming 2-3 movies’ worth of material into a single film. Faced with creative burnout on all levels, director Sam Raimi (who had been doing nothing but Spider-Man for seven years) and his crew were unable to come to terms with Columbia for a Spider-Man 4. So, following the “remake, reboot, reimagine” formula, Columbia opted to start an entirely new series of Spider-Man films less than 5 years after the last Raimi picture. While the studio lavished cash on new director Marc Webb and a cast of young stars, it was difficult to overlook the feeling that pervaded what became The Amazing Spider-Man: that it was a soulless and unnecessary corporate product designed solely to keep a merchandising engine chugging, a toxic stew of Raimi leftovers and nearly shot-for-shot remakes of the 2002 Spider-Man with greedy corporate fingerprints all over everything down to Andrew Garfield’s Edward Cullen hairdo. Domestic audiences greeted the film with a bemused shrug and the lowest grosses of the entire franchise in summer 2012, but robust overseas box-office numbers and the ever-present, overriding need for franchise maintenance made 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a foregone conclusion.

To Marc Webb’s credit, he did attempt to assemble the best cast and crew he could under the shadow of the product’s utter crassness. As The Amazing Spider-Man was only his sophomore effort after the delightfully engaging 500 Days of Summer, there was some speculation that 500 composer Mychael Danna might finally get a crack at a superhero film after being rejected from 2003’s Hulk. Instead of Danna, and instead of attempting to lure back Danny Elfman (who was as tired as Raimi of the web-slinger), Webb made the surprising choice of James Horner to score his remake/reboot. Horner needs no introduction to fans of resounding orchestral sci-fi/fantasy pictures, with a proven record of genre success from 1982’s Star Trek II to 2009’s Avatar. He had dabbled in superhero scoring of a sort with 1991’s The Rocketeer, which had produced one of the composer’s most popular scores, but he had never been called upon for a full superhero score before, and certainly not one with a desperate desire to be contemporary and hip. Webb reportedly needed to persuade Horner to accept the assignment, but the veteran composer eventually acquiesced.

Horner essentially adopts a fusion of his typical style and the contemporary electronic approach that Danny Elfman took with the original Spider-Man which the film essentially remakes. He debuts his main theme in “Main Title – Young Peter” and it’s a classic Horner melody that’s both soaring and innocent and often (as in “Main Title”) enhanced by surprisingly Elfman-like flourishes and occasional choral flourishes. You’d never confuse the two, though: while Elfman’s theme was designed to be easily deconstructed and referenced, Horner’s music is long-lined and almost always at the forefront when it appears rather than being quickly alluded to. In its most triumphant outings, as in “Saving New York” and “Spider-Man End Titles,” Horner’s new theme stands alongside the best of his fantasy-adventure work from the 1980s that won him much of his current fanbase. The composer also exhibits an uncharacteristic playfulness with the theme in “Playing Basketball” and “Becoming Spider-Man,” adapting it in a style not unlike “Foraging for Food” in The Land Before Time.

Again like Elfman, Horner also created a tender love theme, though Horner’s is primarily piano-diven and often performed with the composer himself at the keyboard. From its first appearance in “Rooftop Kiss” to its lengthy airing in “I Can’t See You Anymore,” and “Promises,” the theme is vintage romantic Horner. It’s neither more or less effective than Elfman’s more fully orchestral construct, but very soft and moving in its support of the romance angle (which reviewers agreed was the film’s strongest aspect). Its airtime is limited in comparison to Horner’s main Spider-Man theme, but it was effective enough for Hans Zimmer to adopt a similar piano-centric approach (albeit with added electric guitars) in the sequel. With the combination of his love theme and his rousing main theme, the best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man are like modernized and updated versions of Horner’s lush sci-fi/fantasy sound of the 1980s.

The score is not perfect, though. There is a complete lack of a thematic identity for the villainous Lizard, or at least one that is so subtle as to be almost beneath notice. This is a major omission; while Horner creates some attractive stand-alone Lizard material in “Metamorphosis” and the action-packed “Lizard at School!” the lack of a consistent theme for the villain prevents the kind of thrilling thematic duels present in the best parts of Elfman’s scores. The inclusion of vocalist Dhafer Youssef in some cues, who worked on Black Gold with Horner earlier in 2012, is mystifying. His wailing doesn’t seem to serve any purpose for the film or its setting, save to serve as an example of a film scoring trend from the 2000s best forgotten today. And, of course, as with any James Horner score, the issue of self-referencing and musical recycling rears its head: parts of “Becoming Spider-Man” strongly resemble Horner’s magnum opus Star Trek II, and influences from the aforementioned The Land Before Time and particularly The Rocketeer are there for keen listeners. The music is less guilty of this than much of Horner’s recent output, though, and his distinctive but derided four-note danger motif thankfully makes no appearance.

The middling domestic success of The Amazing Spider-Man sent the producers scrambling to up the ante for the sequel they had already greenlit, and in addition to packing the subsequent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills with big names on the marquee, they dumped Horner in favor of the superhero flavor du jour of the 2010s, Hans Zimmer. The Amazing Spider-Man would also be the beginning of a particularly dark period for Horner: in addition to his replacement by Zimmer, his music was rejected from Romeo and Juliet and Ender’s Game in 2013. Increasingly frustrated with the current Hollywood scoring climate, and the domination of Zimmer’s methodology within it, Horner was left without any scoring assignments of any sort during 2013 and 2014. Even so, The Amazing Spider-Man score is the one part of an otherwise wretched film to emerge unscathed, and as James Horner’s first true superhero score and last major blockbuster assignment before his tragic 2015 death, it has a wealth of beautiful music to offer in the spirit of his scoring achievements in the 1980s. As long as one is prepared for the Hornerisms which inevitably accompany the composer’s work and strong echoes of Danny Elfman’s approach to the web-slinger, listeners will find much to enjoy.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Sanctum (David Hirschfelder)

Cover

A survival film about cave divers trapped in a flooded New Guinea cavern, Sanctum was an Australian 3D production executive produced by James Cameron, himself an enthusiast for underwater activity. Inspired by the real-life struggles of divers in similar situations–including parts of the film’s technical crew, some of whom later perished in situations eerily similar to those in the film–Sanctum was a modest success on its release. It earned a healthy return on the filmmakers’ investment, but with only middling reviews and no major stars aboard, it quickly sank into the cave of obscurity after its 2011 release.

As an Australian production, it stood to reason that Sanctum would retain an Australian composer, and Victorian David Hirschfelder was tapped for the assignment. For many American listeners, Hirschfelder was probably most notable for his twin Oscar-nominated scores in the 1990s, 1996’s Shine and 1998’s Elizabeth. With that track record, few would have thought him capable of large-scale action/fantasy scoring, but with the back-to-back pairing of Legend of the Guardians and Sanctum, he thoroughly proved his credentials in that area with vivid and complex writing for a full orchestra and choir.

Sanctum‘s greatest asset is its sweeping thematic richness. The two main building blocks are introduced early: a throaty, mournful native New Guinean singer in “A Sacred Place” and a bold, adventurous march for the cave explorers which debuts in “Espiritu Esa Ala.” Both are deeply integrated into the following tracks, with the “Sacred Place” vocals often accompanying moments of despair and death while parts of “Espiritu Esa Ala” crop up in moments of hope and beauty. Smaller motifs are present throughout, such as the grinding electric guitars representing peril (the score’s only real departure from acoustic instruments and the human voice).

If the album has a flaw, it’s that the boldest thematic highlights are at the beginning and end of Varese Sarabande’s generous 70-minute album, with a rather lengthy middle section that only uses fragments of the “Sacred Place” and “Espiritu” themes as accents. As the film moved on to darker territory of death, hopelessness, and betrayal, the “Espiritu” theme largely disappears, replaced with guitar-led suspense/action material, until returning triumphantly for the finale and end credits suite. This causes the listening experience to sag somewhat in the middle, and listeners may be tempted to fashion their own album cut which focuses more on the score’s thematic strengths.

Still, as a whole Hirschfelder’s Sanctum is very pleasing, especially in an age of cookie-cutter action/adventure scores; its overachieving score earns a solid recommendation as a soon-to-be hidden gem of 2011 in film music. Sadly, Hirschfelder’s involvement with Sanctum and Legend of the Guardians did not lead to further assignments along similar lines; his scores throughout the 2010s have been for relatively minor films, and indeed none of them would even see a CD release until 2014’s The Railway Man.

Rating: starstarstarstar