Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Composed by Jerry Goldsmith

With Leonard Nimoy having directed two successful Star Trek films, William Shatner felt that he deserved to have his own shot, creating a film inspired by 80s televangelism. The Final Frontier sees Sybok, a Vulcan who rejects the traditional philosophy of logic in favor of spiritual emotionalism, lure the Enterprise so that he can use it to find the fabled world of Sha Ka Ree. Along the way he brainwashes many to his cause with his variation of the Vulcan mind meld, turning most of Kirk’s crew against him. Also, a Klingon warrior pursues the Enterprise in hopes of defeating Kirk and gaining gory. The Final Frontier proved to be the worst of the original cast films. It had many interesting ideas, the best the concept of the antagonist trying to destroy get at Kirk by destroying his iconic three-way relationship with Spock and Dr. McCoy. However a litany of production troubles (ongoing writer’s strike, budget cuts, etc.) as well as Shatner’s ego created a messy film with astonishingly sub-par special effects, inappropriate comedy, and inconsistent storytelling. To be fair, it is at least fun to watch unlike the other bad Trek films. One of the genuine positives is the return of Jerry Goldsmith to scoring duties.

At the time Star Trek: The Next Generation was just into its second season. The producers used Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme for the show’s opening and closing credits. Now Goldsmith would ensure some continuity between films and television. His score for Final Frontier is very different from his previous offering. This time he did not have long dialogue-lite scenes to work with (save one that produces an excellent piece). The end result is a more conventionally structured score, with shorter cues as opposed to lengthy classical pieces and dueling hero and villain themes. The composer is still experimental, though, relying heavily on electronics to create an alien atmosphere. Since the plot concerns such things as spiritual enlightenment and God, there is an abundance of unique synthesizer-laden cues. While The Motion Picture had Craig Huxley’s growling laser beam, Final Frontier has the synclavier, used most noticeably to create disturbing ethereal sounds for Sybok’s mind meld scenes. The synclavier is a digital system through which one can produce a wide range of sounds via a piano-like keyboard. Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme itself is of course back. With more action scenes and moments of heroism, the theme has more of a recurring presence, though as with its previous foray it’s largely absent for a large chunk of the film as the characters get lost in an alien environment. Continue reading

The Untouchables (1987)

Composed by Ennio Morricone

Brian De Palma’s Untouchables is an account of how Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and the FBI took down Chicago crime lord Al Capone (Robert De Niro). It’s a heavily fictionalized film, with Ness’ crew and the gangsters getting into several major shootouts and the gangsters participating in some heinous actions that would have been considered psychotically bad business. Despite its heavy inaccuracies, it’s a fun period action piece made better by the presence of Sean Connery as a street wise Irish Chicago cop. Ennio Morricone provided the score. In the gangster genre Morricone had already scored Once Upon a Time in America with a sad, ironically elegiac style. For Untouchables he had to present a more energetic, good vs. evil narrative.

The album is very out of order, with the end title as the first track, the main title placed over halfway through, and a major suspense/action piece with no firm resolution closing things out. The main title cue, “Strength of the Righteous,” is not as heroic as it sounds. It has more of a caper feel with an electronic beat, harmonica notes, mischievous rhythms, and a simple motif to tie it all together. This theme works well for the urban action of a crime-ridden Chicago, as in “On the Rooftops.” “The Man With the Matches” puts it through a slower, more sinister pace for a shadowy scene while the motif discordantly interjects into the tense final minutes of “Machine Gun Lullaby.” Continue reading

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Composed by Leonard Rosenman

With his success directing Search for Spock, Leonard Nimoy was allowed to direct yet another Star Trek film. While Wrath of Khan might objectively be the best of the series, The Voyage Home is my personal favorite. Kirk and friends are in trouble after disregarding Starfleet commands to rescue Spock. They are on their way to earth to face justice when a cigar-shaped probe gets there ahead of them and starts to mess with the environment. The probe is using unusual signals in an effort to communicate with something. That something turns out to be humpback whales, which were hunted to extinction at the end of the 20th Century. Kirk and his crew, remembering time travel methods from the original TV series, go back to 1980s San Francisco to find and bring back a  pair of whales and save earth. The film is very fun and unique. It has a conservationist message without being heavy-handed, has no space battles, and wonderful fish-out-of-water humor with the future Earthlings trying to get around modern society. One further awesome piece of trivia is that this film raised a lot of awareness about the over-hunting of whales and may have saved the humpbacks from actual extinction! James Horner and his acclaimed themes unfortunately did not return. Using his clout from his previous success, Nimoy was able to bring on his friend Leonard Rosenman for the score. The result is a soundtrack that has stirred some debate and strong negativity among Star Trek and film music fans.

The main argument against Rosenman’s work is that it is too light-hearted and out of place. Is this the case? The film is, after all, very light-hearted for most of its running time. One thing to note is that the film did not call for a whole lot of music thanks to all the time spent on contemporary earth. There is about 40 minutes of score, 35 when one considers that a five-minute piece is really an 80s-style track performed by the Yellowjackets (but still composed by Rosenman). Surprisingly the original album did not feature the complete score though it was within possibility. The expanded album is certainly better, with its chronological track ordering making for a better listening experience. Many of the tracks are really a bunch of tiny cues merged together, so as to avoid a long tracklisting of sub-minute pieces.  Continue reading

John Carter (2012)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

For years, even decades, a movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars novels was trapped in development hell. Pixar director and screenwriter Alan Stanton finally brought the first novel, Princess of Mars, to screen. This expensive Disney film was supposed to jumpstart a film franchise, but bombed terribly. The movie itself is actually not too bad. I even quite like it. It was undone by several factors, but the most prominent was the horrendous marketing. The trailers and TV spots were vague, leaving moviegoers with no clear incentive to pay to see it. Some Einsteins also concluded that since movies about Mars had been bombing, then the title had to be shortened from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter, piling on the vagueness. The movie isn’t incredible, but it’s a solid fun flick. The music by Michael Giacchino is definitely one of its strongest points.

Another issue more with the film itself is that many of the ideas and concepts of John Carter seeped into years of sci-fi and fantasy cinema. Therefore much of the story elements, even some of the major character ideas (the strong-willed alien princess, for example), were already familiar to those who had watched or read the likes of Dune and Star Wars. I should try to explain the general plot so the odd names attached to the themes make more sense. Confederate veteran John Carter is transported to Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants). There is a war between two factions of Red Martians, villainous warlord Sab Than and his walking city of Zodanga against the more noble city of Helium. One of the mysterious White Martian Therns turns Sab Than into his muscle into a bid to gain ultimate control over the planet. His plan involves Than marrying Helium Princess Dejah Thoris. Thoris runs from the arranged marriage and pairs up with Carter to unlock the secrets of Sab Than’s new superweapon. Along the way they encounter the savage Tharks, six-limbed Green Martians. Continue reading

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

 

Composed by James Horner

The third installment of the Star Trek films and the second of the Khan trilogy is a direct sequel to Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy, who planned to exit (spoiler) the franchise with his death in that film ironically found himself inspired to continue on after seeing how great said film was. However, he only returned on the condition that he would get to direct. Search for Spock deals with the fallout of Wrath of Khan. Spock planted some of his thoughts and identity into Dr. McCoy before dying. At the same time the Genesis device has recreated Spock’s body, starting him over as a child. Kirk and friends disobey orders to go to the Genesis planet and restore their friend. However the Klingons are also interested in the effects of the device, leading to some action sequences. For some reason fans listed (some still list) this film as one of the bad Trek films. I find it to actually be a very underrated movie and think it suffers from being sandwiched by Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home, the two most highly regarded entries in the series.

Leonard Nimoy wanted his friend Leonard Rosenman to provide the score. Paramount did not allow this, insisting that James Horner return. This resulted in a score that had strong continuity with the previous entry, perhaps too much continuity. Horner doesn’t really create much in the way of new themes. The freshness of the score comes more from new orchestrations of his constructions from Wrath of Khan. Horner always had the uncanny ability to lift his themes and motifs from previous movies but somehow make them stand out in a new setting (he did something similar with the Zorro films). That being said there are portions of the Search for Spock that retread familiar ground. The biggest sinner in this regard is the end credits suite, which is an exact copy of Wrath of Khan’s. Continue reading

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Composed by Danny Elfman, Christopher Young, and John Debney

Spider-Man 2 has been regarded by many as one of the best superhero movies, or at least was until the explosion of the genre with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’d say it’s still up there as one of the greatest of all time. The film incorporates the famous “Spider-Man No More” storyline. Peter Parker’s personal life is turning into a shambles because of his duties as Spider-Man. Feeling the pressure, he gives up his superheroics, only to learn that this was the wrong decision. While this is going on Dr. Octopus, surprisingly portrayed as a sympathetic character by Alfred Molina, is trying to conduct an experiment which would tear New York apart. Unfortunately this movie destroyed director Sam Raimi and composer Danny Elfman’s long friendship. Raimi grew obsessed with the temp track and kept pressing Elfman to change some of his cues to sound like the work of another composer, Christopher Young. Elfman told him to just hire Young. Raimi actually did so, bringing in Young and also John Debney to rescore a few scenes. Elfman was so upset that he broke things off with his longtime friend.

This resulted in a unique album situation. As with the first film there was a lengthy “music from and inspired by” album with a 45-minute score album following a month later by an original score release. The first album had two edited together suites of Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus’ themes. The score album itself actually has music not from the film. These include most of “Dock Ock is Born,” “Aunt May Packs,” and “Train.” Continue reading

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

James Horner - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Newly Expanded Edition) -  Amazon.com Music

Composed by James Horner

Though it made money, Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned off many audiences and critics with its glacial pacing. Paramount Pictures was also not enthused by its high production costs. As a result the sequel would have a significantly lower budget. In spite of a severely scaled back production (they couldn’t even get the main hero and villain actors, William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban, onscreen together because of tight scheduling issues) the end result was a far more critically successful and audience-pleasing film that ensured Star Trek’s survival. The film sounds like it has a generic plot. Khan, a superhuman antagonist from the original show, has escaped from his penal planet (turned into a wasteland by a cosmic explosion) and wants revenge on James Kirk. In the meantime one of Kirk’s old flames, Dr. Carol Marcus, is developing a device that can turn a dead planet into a rich paradise. The movie was elevated by director Nicholas Meyer, who wonderfully weaved in themes of old age, ramification of past actions, obsessive vengeance, and life in general. There are even strong allusions to literary classics such as Moby Dick and the Bible. The film also notably started a trilogy within the film series that showed Kirk dealing with the fact that he cannot always win. In fact William Shatner’s character goes through an extraordinary amount of character development in these films, not possible in the confines of a weekly pre-recording television show.

Jerry Goldsmith did not return for the sequel, deemed too expensive to hire, and Paramount turned to the young up-and-comer James Horner. Horner did not carry over any of Goldsmith’s themes, yet his own creations would be as iconic. Also, many of the sounds of his music would be inspired by Goldsmith’s work. The alien percussion for the Klingons, for example, would be carried over into the motifs for Khan. Craig Huxley, who devised the blaster beam in The Motion Picture, also returns with “Genesis,” a diagetic synthesizer piece that is somewhat mismatched against Horner’s material but does add some variety. Elements of this cue are present at the conclusion of “Genesis Countdown.” Now let’s look at James Horner’s actual music. Continue reading