Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Marco Beltrami)


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

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Marco Beltrami)


Based on novelist Chris Fuhrman’s only completed book, 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a coming-of-age tale of four friends going to Catholic school in the 1970s interspersed with a comic book that they are writing collaboratively. All the usual coming-of-age boxes are checked: bullies, first loves, nasty authority figures, and a friend that doesn’t make it to the end credits. The well-received novel helped attract a cast of up-and-comers like Emile Hirsch and veterans like Jodie Foster; veteran comic book artist Todd MacFarlane even stepped forward to turn the boys’ comic books into short animated segments. Ultimately, though, the film and its first-time director (music video veteran Peter Care) weren’t able to connect with audiences, and despite decent notices the film made back only a fraction of its indie budget.

In 2002, many of composer Marco Beltrami’s biggest hits were still ahead of him, meaning that the film composer was still affordable to indie productions like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. But Beltrami wouldn’t be tackling the film alone; guitarist Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age wrote a number of tracks as well and contributed instrumental pieces to the score. Years later, Beltrami would recall that he had no idea how he’d been hired for the project, but that the project had been a “tough ride” fraught with difficulty understanding what the director wanted. Until the intercession of star Jodie Foster (herself an occasional director), the film had seem a lot of different musical avenues tried with a lot of (as Beltrami put it) “strangeness” along the way.

The unsettled nature of its composition definitely shows in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys on album. It plays not so much as a cohesive score but as a series of disjointed musical moments, wildly varying in theme, instrumentation, and tone. It doesn’t have much of a thematic skeleton to hold it up, and Beltrami’s own distinctive musical voice is muted as well, leaving little to latch onto. The music is fun when it has to be (“Story of the Fish”), scary when it has to be (“Torn Apart”) and sad when it has to be (“Eulogy”) but, like the film itself, seems to be checking off boxes more than transcending them.

Homme’s music doesn’t fit in with Beltrami’s very much, but since Beltrami’s music is disjointed to begin with, it’s not as big of a problem as it might be. Homme’s contributions are exactly what you’d expect to hear from a rock guitarist: technically skillful electric six-string playing that seems to be backing for vocals that never arrive. It’s successful in capturing a hint of the youthful rebellion in the titular altar boys, but very little else. When Homme adds vocals to the mix (“All the Same” ), the result is somewhat better; the others simply feel like important parts have been snipped out. Period songs by Canned Heat and Stephen Stills round out the brief album.

Released by Milan the year after The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys limped out of theaters, the CD was enough of a curiosity to Homme fans that Amazon repressed the platter as an on-demand CD-R once Milan’s run ended. It’s difficult to see what either Homme fans or Beltrami fans will get out of the music, though; the hodgepodge on screen and on album very clearly reflects the composer’s memories of a tortured and uncertain scoring process. It’s hard to blame either man for the music’s lack of cohesion and lack of interest given the circumstances, though. Homme would continue to write popular music in the years afterward but never again dabble in film composition, while Beltrami was only a year out from his big break with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the one-two punch of Hellboy and I, Robot in 2004. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys would remain a footnote for both of them.

Rating: star