August 10, 2022

Typically focusing on elaborate production design, realistic special effects, and ethereal sound design as the primary methods of immersive storytelling in Science-Fiction cinema, both audiences and critics often take for granted the ability for a musical score to contribute to world building. Except for John Williams’ iconic themes for films like Star Wars and E.T., the role of music often takes a secondary or tertiary position in addressing the intricacy of science-fiction cinema. Yet musical scores constantly set the tone of the universes and galaxies unfurling before a spectator’s eyes, driving both how audience’s see the world and feel the narrative beats. By focusing on the narrative and tonal impact of musical scores in crafting believable dystopian landscapes and kaleidoscopic visions of the future, the horizons of sci-fi soundscapes broaden to encompass symphonic musical flourishes that can be both deeply human and deeply alien.

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In an attempt to stretch beyond the elegiac and iconic musical work of John Williams within the science-fiction genre, the following list will elevate the work of composers of equal stature to Williams in terms of talent, even if they have not received similar acclaim. By celebrating the celestial soundscapes of science-fiction classics as well as underrated gems in the genre, audiences may gain a greater understanding of how fantastical futuristic world building works.

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Table of Contents

10. Gattaca (1997), Michael Nyman


Uma Thurman in Gattaca
Image via Sony

Foregoing the contemporary tendency toward a synth-centric score in favor of seemingly simple swells of strings, Michael Nyman initially locates the 1997 cult classic Gattaca within a space of progress-centric optimism that characterized early sci-fi favorites like Things to Come and Metropolis. However, as the revelations of corporate genetic favoritism and family tragedy imbue the central narrative with emotional and ethical nuances, the score lilts and fades into a flurry of minor keys. Even as the film’s final triumph is undercut with sacrificial loss, Nyman’s climactic theme “The Departure” never veers into Williams-like fanfare, opting for layers of minor keys to express Ethan Hawke’s protagonist’s inner conflict.


9. Annihilation (2018), Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow


Sci-fi movie Annihilation

In nearly complete opposition to Gattaca’s elegance, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s collaborative work on Alex Garland’s enigmatic epic Annihilation fuses atmospheric drone music with folk-style interruptions, juxtaposing unnerving synthesizer trills with arhythmic acoustic strumming. Perhaps the best sequence to encapsulate this intentional musical dissonance is the infamous “Bear” sequence, in which the ensemble of explorers encounters an alien bear-like creature in The Shimmer. In order to enhance the visceral imagery of the “bear” into the sphere of horror, Salisbury and Barrow build a crescendo of percussive noise that culminates in a shrill scream of violin strings and sounding alarms, effectively terrifying the audience in an audiovisual cacophony.


8. WALL-E (2008), Thomas Newman


wall-e
Image via Disney-Pixar

Pairing Pixar’s playful dystopian film with an equally delightful and complex score, Thomas Newman beautifully captures the tone of the titular character’s curiosity and cuteness without ever being cloying. From the propulsive percussion of “The Spaceship” to the lilting harp on “Bubble Wrap,” every track both stands alone as a unique texture to WALL-E’s adventures and builds upon the previous track to humanize the robot protagonist. Marveling equally in the mundane discoveries on earth and the grandiose escapades aboard The Axiom, Newman’s rendering of the science-fiction world through music is unmatched in the realm of family-friendly genre fare.

7. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Stomu Yamashta and John Phillips


david bowie the man who fell to earth image
Image via British Lion Films

While the music in Nicolas Roeg’s 1970s oddity The Man Who Fell to Earth does not exist strictly in the realm of instrumental scores, the collage of sounds from John Phillips’s vocals-driven folk tracks and Stomu Yamashta’s glam rock instrumentals captures the mystique and versatility of David Bowie without directly featuring a single song from his career, as Bowie was contractually barred from recording music for the film. Although rumors spread of a mythic Bowie version of the soundtrack, no recording exists. Instead, both Phillips and Yamashta were able to interpret the plight of Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton outside the trappings of Ziggy Stardust lore, resulting in a bizarre and haunting soundscape of the character’s blurred life between Earth and space.


6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Junkie XL


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Matching the diesel punk fury of the film’s desert dystopia, Junkie XL’s eclectic score functions as a creative collision of metal guitars, ambient synths, and orchestral swells. Although the individual pieces of the film’s soundscape would initially seem incompatible, the final product is a masterstroke of controlled chaos, much like the film itself. Pummeling out of the gate with dangerous drones on “Escape” and concluding with a transcendent traditional theme on “Let Them Up,” Mad Max: Fury Road never compromises in its action cinema grandeur and heavy metal glory.

5. Her (2013), Arcade Fire

In an inspired match between an established musical group and motion picture aesthetics, both Arcade Fire’s melancholic score and Spike Jonze’s bittersweet romance between a man and his AI partner encapsulates the indie feel of 2010s neo-folk and pre-A24 American art film. Every instrumental and vocal track helps enrapture the audience within Theodore Twombly’s headspace as he navigates love and loss in the not-so distant digital future.


4. TRON: Legacy (2010), Daft Punk


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A rightfully acclaimed work from a woefully underrated film, Daft Punk’s penultimate work as the elder statesmen of electronica propels TRON: Legacy beyond its 1984 predecessor through an all-encompassing soundscape. From the disco-tinged repetition of “Arena” to the screaming synths on “Fall,” the iconic duo transforms the stunning CGI landscapes into a pop opera critique of blind nostalgia and computer-age ethics.

3. Interstellar (2014), Hans Zimmer


Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie interstellar

Although Hans Zimmer rests comfortably alongside John Williams as one of the most acclaimed composers in the genre, his equally haunting and hopeful work on Interstellar manages to encompass both the inspired themes and dramatic stakes at the core of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. Folding time as freely and fluidly as Nolan’s narrative trajectory, Zimmer’s score elevates the earthbound wonder of cornfield driving to an equal level of majesty as the climactic blackhole sequence. By capturing the intricacies of storytelling within each shift in musical style, Zimmer emboldens Interstellar with an unparalleled emotional soundscape.

2. Solaris (2002), Cliff Martinez


solaris george clooney image
Image via 20th Century Fox

One of several ways that Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris improves upon the 1972 classic is the brilliantly subdued score by Cliff Martinez. Capturing the mournful memories of Dr. Chris Kelvin, played by George Clooney, as he investigates a strange psychological phenomenon on the titular planet, Martinez’s score avoids the emotional grandeur of Zimmer’s orchestrations on Interstellar in favor of swirling strings and xylophones that capture the dizzying brain space of the protagonist’s trajectory. Maximizing the space created through stereo sound to encapsulate the audience within the music, Martinez’s score contributes to the film’s overwhelming yet grounded vision of grief.

1. Blade Runner (1982), Vangelis


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Image via Warner Bros.

Perhaps an obvious but incredibly worthy first place choice, the iconic Vangelis score for the cyberpunk masterpiece Blade Runner towers above its peers for good reason. Effortlessly fusing many of the musical styles highlighted in the previous entries to enhance the film’s tactile, futuristic vision of Los Angeles, every theme defies easy classification. From the glistening chimes and booming synths over the opening titles to the noir-tinged crescendo of horns on the “Love Theme,” the score both transcends previous encapsulations of sci-fi music and revitalizes the genre’s soundscape through multi-instrumental inventiveness. In particular, Vangelis accompanies the iconic “tears in rain” scene at the film’s conclusion with a gently evocative expression of water droplets within the cascading piano and synth work, underscored by drum-like booms and bass-driven drones. In terms of capturing the sounds of a fictional world in all of its complicated glory, few have surpassed Vangelis’ monumental work on this science-fiction classic.


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