Transformers (2007)

Composed by Steve Jablonsky

Michael Bay entered Hollywood’s search for pre-existing material (comic books, old television shows, and action figures) to bring to the big screen. He was to direct the first live-action film based on the line of Transformers toys, good and evil robots that can into  vehicles, although animals and weapons are not out of the question. The film itself is inspired by the beloved animated series from the 80s, featuring Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, and the All-Spark, one of the many items of power battled over by the noble Autobots and the sinister Decepticons. The movie see Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) buy a new yellow car in hopes of impressing and wooing hot girl Mikaela (Megan Fox). It turns out to be Autobot Bumblebee, who is racing against the Decepticons to recover a map to the life-giving All-Spark. Gradually more Transformers, as well as a governmental organization, show up and set the stage for a final destructive battle.

Unfortunately, as the budget for the fascinating special effects did not allow for too much screen time for the Transformers, Michael Bay ended up focusing on a wide range of human characters, many of who could have been cut from the film with ease considering the final product runs two and a half hours long. Despite the typical overbearing action and special effects, as well as a generous helping of stupid and/or juvenile humor and characters, the film actually isn’t too bad, a decent fun adventure with its good moments (the sequels are another story). One recurring Michael Bay touch is the Media Ventures score with ostinato rhythms, heroic anthems, and choral chants to make everything feel more epic. Steve Jablonsky, who after a fairly original score for Steamboy has found his talents relegated to mimicking previous Media Ventures scores, got the job with predictable but not bad results. Continue reading

Dune (2021)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

The third, latest live-action adaptation of Dune (a great sci-fi novel written by Frank Herbert back in the 60s) has been eagerly expected amongst nerds. Reception of the various adaptations have been mixed, as the book is actually quite hard to translate to film. David Lynch’s 1984 film failed to adequately convey the complex workings of Frank Herbert’s fictional universe to casual audiences. A 2000 TV mini-series with more time to work with did a better job, but necessarily sported a smaller budget. Dennis Villeneuve seeks to strike the right balance by splitting the story over two big budget films. The first part is visually stunning and quite faithful though missing a couple pieces of worldbuilding from the novel (such as why everybody fights with swords instead of guns). The movie also ends rather abruptly, despite closing with an important development in the main protagonist’s character. For the most part, however, my criticisms are more small quibbles, save one element: Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer professed great enthusiasm for scoring Dune, to the point that he chose it over frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. He is also a big fan of the book, so this was a passion project for him. The end result is a score that is so focused on ambience and industrial noise that, if not for the film’s incredible visuals and strong performances, would have nearly stripped it of emotion.

It would be wise to attempt a basic summary of the story itself. While there are battles, the emphasis of the story is on politics, religion, and psychological conflict. The basic story is that the desert planet of Arrakis supplies a star-spanning human empire with spice. This spice has many purposes, enabling some humans to gain incredible abilities, and whoever controls the spice can control the course of the empire while making immense profits. As a result various powerful aristocratic houses strive to gain control over its collection and distribution. The Emperor hands the planet over to the House Atreides. The villainous House Harkonnen, however, makes a power play. Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica (a Bene Gesserit who can manipulate others through the use of her voice), find themselves seeking refuge with Arrakis’ desert-dwelling Fremen. Paul takes advantage of a prophecy to set himself up as a messiah figure and vie with other powerful figures for control of the empire. Continue reading

No Time to Die (2021)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond came to a close with No Time To Die. The film was supposed to come out two years ago, but thanks to the lockdowns and restrictions it has taken two years to finally see the light of day. Ironically the movie concerns a manufactured virus, albeit a much deadlier one that can be designed to target certain genetics. Was the wait worth it? Well, not really. Like its predecessor, Spectre, it starts off strong and gradually flounders under the weight of current movie franchise trends and clichés. Bond is caught up in weepy melodrama, most of the action is pedestrian, and we once again have to endure uncovered secret pasts about established characters. The movie also relies on audiences watching Craig’s entire run instead of just offering a self-contained thrill ride. Hopefully with Craig’s departure we can finally get more standalone Bond films. Hans Zimmer came on board for music and thanks to a heavily delayed release had two extra years to fine tune his score, so perhaps he would succeed on his front.

The song this time around is Billie Eilish’s “No Time to Die” (placed at the end of the album). It’s got the right tone and even hints of the James Bond theme, but Eilish sings like she’s drowsy so a lot of the lyrics are very hard to distinguish. It also lacks a particularly strong melody. After the last two films the composer finally has a chance to incorporate it into the score. However, thanks to the aforementioned lack of strong melody, Zimmer’s incorporation of it is piecemeal and often not very distinguishable despite adding further emotional punch to moments such as the end of “Matera,” the middle of “Lovely to See You Again,” and pieces of “Home” and “Final Ascent.” To be fair to the composer he had no hand in crafting the song and thus did not ensure that he had a more identifiable theme to work with. In terms of other new themes the only one I could really pick out was a motif for the new villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). It’s too simple to really make a strong impression and is more of an ambient soundscape as heard in the opening act of “What Have You Done” and “Lovely to See You Again.” Continue reading

Lost: The Last Episodes (2010)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

After releasing music from only the first three quarters of Lost’s final season, Varese Sarabande quickly followed up with the last album. The Last Episodes album also contains two discs. The first contains an hour of material from the three pre-finale episodes, while the second is a full disc that focuses on the series finale itself. This album is a wonderful capstone to ten discs of music. It gets all of the major themes and motifs together for a rousing finale while still introducing a couple new melodies. I’ve already discussed my general feelings on the last season in my last review but I will reiterate that the last episodes of Lost contain a lot of engrossing material, but also a few unfortunate issues that are common throughout the finales of serialized television shows, especially in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. Of course, regardless of any of the episodes’ quality, Giacchino delivers perhaps his best work.

Before getting into a fuller rundown, I’ll quickly review each section of the soundtrack. The first comes for “The Candidate,” one of my favorite episodes of the last season. It’s an action-packed episode full of gunfights and ticking time elements. As a result Giacchino really lets loose with this one, right out of the gate in “Cage Crashers.” There are a couple emotional pieces from the flash-sideways in “Shephard’s Why” and “Flew the Coop,” but the music from the episode is mostly concentrated into two lengthy action cues: “Sub-Primed” and SS Lost-Tanic.” Continue reading

Lost: The Final Season (2010)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Lost’s final season was entertaining and in some ways emotionally satisfying. However it failed to provide a cohesive explanation for all of the show’s mysteries. It was evident that the writers and producers did not a hundred percent know what they were building. The on-island stuff, despite some ridiculousness, is very engaging, but the new flash-sideways are a sore point for me (more on that in a couple paragraphs). Any flaws in the season were helped by Giacchino’s wonderful score. After focusing more of his creative energies on major motion pictures in 2009, he came back with a vengeance, capping off his television masterpiece with suitably amped up material. While the story was not resolved to viewers’ satisfaction, Giacchino successfully weaved all of his thematic material for an epic conclusion. Almost every theme of note appears across the four discs (the outlier is the Freighter theme from Season Four, which did have a brief iteration in the series finale but not on disc; same for the heartwarming Rose and Bernard theme).

The release of music for season six was both surprisingly extensive yet also confusing. The Season Six soundtrack itself only contains material from the first 13 episodes (12 if you count the first two as one like the album booklet). This was soon followed by a limited “Lost: The Last Episodes” release. However Varese Sarabande, the record label, neglected to clearly state that there would be two double-disc albums and many buyers were legitimately concerned that an abundance of great material would not be released. Not helping is the presence of two “bonus tracks” on the first set. These include “The Hole Shebang” and “Moving On,” the action and emotional climaxes of the series finale. Varese Sarabande likely intended these for those who would not buy the limited edition Last Episodes release. This is curious thinking as anybody who picks up the first album would likely be familiar with the show’s music and not be worried about shelling out more money for the epic conclusion. I will not be covering the two bonus cues until my review for the Last Episodes album. As always there will likely be spoilers. Continue reading

Lost Season Five (2009)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Season 5 of Lost might be the most over-the-top season of the show, thought it is still greatly entertaining. The plotlines go all over the place, for reasons I will explain once I get into spoilers. I find this to be the in the bottom third of my season rankings. It’s not bad, just not as great. Giacchino’s music also seemed to be affected for the fifth season. I think the issue was that 2009 was the year where he started taking on major film score assignments. While scoring Lost, he was also creating scores for the Star Trek reboot and Pixar’s beloved Up. His creative energies seem to have flowed more to these properties, and understandably so. While season 5 of Lost has some new concepts and a couple new characters, Giacchino could easily just insert his pre-established material.

Even on album, parts of Giacchino’s music are lifted whole or nearly wholesale from previous cues. This creates a lack of originality in places and makes avid listeners wonder why a few of the more unique pieces were not chosen for album space. The trade-off is that season 5’s album is the most thematically cohesive. The themes for Locke, Ben, and Jack are prominent throughout the disc and two of the main themes also recur fairly regularly. As for new themes and motifs, this season still has a good amount. The only one to have a lasting impact through the remainder of the show is the mystical theme for Jacob (“Tangled Web”). The new love theme in “La Fleur” also grabbed fans’ attention. Otherwise most of the themes and motifs were singularly suited for just this season. The most memorable of these is the bomb theme (introduced in “Sawyer Jones and the Temple of Boom” at 2:44), which appears to be built out of the second phrase of the main Lost theme. Continue reading

Lost Season Four (2008)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Season four of Lost was the shortest of the seasons at 14 episodes. The producers were actually already planning for shorter seasons, but it would have been 18 episodes. A writer’s strike had forced them to cut things down, unfortunately resulting in underdeveloped new characters. Still, it’s an engaging season where the pace really picks up. Also, the shorter runtime means that it was easier for the album producers to select highlights for a full single disc. The soundtrack for season four is where Michael Giacchino’s music reached true cinematic levels, even though the booklet shows that he still had the same number of musicians. Some of the lengthier tracks sport four or five themes in interplay with each other, and some of the action cues are able to sustain themselves beyond one or two minutes. The higher level of emotion and intensity make this the best single disc presentation of music from the series. It’s definitely the first that can safely be accessed by people who have never watched the show.

This season also introduced the Oceanic Six theme for its three-part finale. This theme appears around the album’s halfway point in “There’s No Place Like Home.” As with many of Giacchino’s theme introductions, it starts on piano and then repeats on more dramatic strings. The construction of this theme is epic, and noticeably utilizes the first six notes of the main Lost theme at the end. “Of Mice and Ben” reuses the theme with heavy percussive elements for a cliffhanger. “Can’t Kill Keamy” brings in the theme for a very stirring moment, this time with the full Lost theme as counterpoint (0:46). “Landing Party” provides a final grand iteration, this one with a heart-tingling flourish of cello at the end (2:44). This theme is so notably epic that Giacchino used it as the main emotional identity for the series finale two years later. Continue reading

Lost Season Three (2006-2007)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Season three of Lost was the last of the show to run for a full 20+ episodes. From what I recall it’s my favorite season, though it also sported the single worst episode in “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In this season the show digs deeper into the mysterious Others, the other inhabitants of the island. At the same time more aspects of the greater conflict start to appear, of course in mysterious tidbits. Giacchino’s music definitely went on an upswing this season. With the dramatic stakes escalating the emotional cues have more power. There’s also a lot more in the way of action scenes and a couple smoke monster attacks, so in contrast to season two there’s more excitement and intense rhythms to be had. In a welcome surprise, Varese Sarabande opted to release two jam-packed discs. There were so many musical highlights and thematic development that this was definitely a wise move. The first disc contains music from the first 20 episodes, while the second has the complete score for “Through the Looking Glass,” the season finale, and an abundance of material from the preceding episode.

The first disc is definitely superior, featuring selected highlights. By this time the music was much more lush and exciting and at certain points positively cinematic. The second disc is a different story. It is fascinating to get a complete score from one of the episodes, but the end result is a good amount of material that simply isn’t that engaging, from slow, underdeveloped emotional signatures to ambient suspense. There’s lots of slow string twanging and long pauses between notes. The sound quality on the second disc also seems to be hastily taken from the initial recording sessions. A better release would have had both discs be highlight-centric, with a few more cues from the first 20 episodes and a more rounded 40-50 minute presentation of music from the last 3. Still, it’s hard to complain when one considers how much great material would have been left off a single disc. Continue reading

Lost Season Two (2005-2006)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

The second season of Lost was a strong continuation of the show. Like the first season it focused much on the characters’ efforts to survive. But it also sees the character relationships start to cement, for better or worse. Also the island’s mysteries remain far out of reach, but elements of its past are slowly revealed through the discovery of the Hatch, an underground facility with a dark secret. Another major element is the discovery of another group of survivors from Oceanic 815, but thanks to circumstances involving the actors this didn’t amount to much in the long run. Michael Giacchino also continued his strong run, further developing his network of themes and motifs. The score as heard on album, however, is lacking in several areas.

One of the major issues is actually with the season itself. It’s not bad, but there are far less smoke monster and polar bear chases and the show hadn’t reached the point where shootouts became a common recurring feature. As a result the album moves rather slowly despite the quality of the compositions. The emotional character themes are almost exclusively broken up by dark suspense. Again the music is good, but the album flow suffers as a result. Ironically the second issue is related to the themes. The producers of the season 2 album seemed to prioritize establishing the various character themes. It catches up on ones that were introduced in season one, but absent from the first album, including those for one-hit musician and drug addict Charlie (“Charlie’s Temptation”), overweight comic relief Hurley (“World’s Worst Landscaping”), former Iraqi interrogator Sayid (“A New Trade”), and rich step-siblings Boone and Shannon (“Shannon’s Funeral”). There’s also a plethora of new character themes for Nigerian priest Eko (“All’s Forgiven…Except Charlie”), Korean couple Sun & Jin (“The Last to Know”), Scottish Desmond (“Bon Voyage, Traitor”), two more themes for Hurley (“Mess it All Up” and “Hurley’s Handouts”), and loveable old couple Rose and Bernard (in the track of the same name). In a 65 minute presentation the multitude of themes ensures that no theme or themes, such as the trio of strong identities on the first album, provide a cohesive framework. The album as a whole works better as part of a vast musical experience encompassing all ten discs rather than a stand-alone piece. Continue reading

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond (CD Edition) – HQCovers

Composed by Michael Giacchino

After Star Trek Into Darkness J.J. Abrams moved on to Star Wars. Justin Lin filled the director’s chair and actor Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, took a large role in writing the script. Star Trek Beyond sees the Enterprise go on a rescue mission from the space station Yorktown. It turns out to be a set-up and after a big space battle our heroes crash on the planet Altamid. Separated into small groups, the various characters unlock the mystery around the villains, led by Krall (Idris Elba). Since this is New Trek, Krall is motivated by revenge and plans to use a superweapon to attack the Federation. While by no means great, Star Trek Beyond was a big improvement over Abrams’ film. There’s still too much emphasis on laser battles and the antagonist is another generic vengeance-hungry villain. However, the film shines in the second act when the characters split into small groups and the actors play off of each other. There is even a sense of planetary exploration, albeit one in the confines of uncovering the mystery around Krall rather than any deeper themes or concepts. Michael Giacchino took his music in a slightly different direction that distinguishes his third contribution to the franchise.

Once again Giacchino’s music went through both a single-disc release and a complete Deluxe Edition. This time the first release was longer at an hour’s running time. What is immediately notable is that Giacchino puts more effort into imbuing some character outside space heroics and action. This is fitting as Star Trek Beyond actually has its characters exploring new environments as opposed to sitting in space battles (though there are a couple of those). There is a lot of glassy or primal percussion that, while never reaching the heavily alien sounds of Jerry Goldsmith’s work, adds a unique flavor to the scenes on Altamid. Giacchino makes more use of piano and woodwinds, somewhat evoking Goldsmith’s classical sensibilities for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There’s also a fair bit of patriotic trumpets and snare drums, fitting into the villain’s motivations and the ideals of the Federation. Continue reading