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

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

The Pirates trilogy concluded with At World’s End. While still not as good as the first film, it was a big step over Dead Man’s Chest and a real thrill ride. Lord Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company, with Davy Jones and his haunted ship now under their control, are clamping down on piracy around the globe. With a broad definition of “pirate” and “conspiring with pirates,” this means they are executing thousands of small-time criminals and innocents as well. The heroes need to get all the pirate lords together to defeat Beckett and Jones, but first they need to go to Davy Jones’ Locker and rescue Jack Sparrow (and his ship the Black Pearl) from the afterlife. The film contains a dizzying array of double-crosses and shifting allegiances. My dad had the odd misfortune to fall asleep for about 10 minutes and woke up absolutely confused by why all the character alignments were suddenly different. My one main quibble is that the audience is told to root for what essentially are violent criminals. Things do make more sense when you consider that the movie intentionally presented a large corporation vs. small business scenario, represented by the East India Company’s attempts to create a monopoly on all sea trade. This message is actually quite timely, though hypocritical coming from Disney. As for the music itself, Zimmer finally created a worthy score.

Zimmer’s score for At World’s End is much more pleasing than Dead Man’s Chest. For one thing it’s got a lot more energy and enthusiasm, and even breaks out classical piratey woodwinds at a couple points. While the previous entry had a prolonged, downbeat last act, this score boasts a thrilling series of climaxes, full of action, romance, and adventure. Even if one finds the Media Ventures anthems inappropriate, the music is undeniably engaging from start to finish. Also delightful is Zimmer’s tribute to Ennio Morricone, who had received an honorary Oscar the same year. There’s no real in-film reason to reference the famed composer, but the tributes are appreciated nonetheless. Both are derived from Once Upon a Time in the West. First is the new take on Jack Sparrow’s theme in “Multiple Jacks” that brings in the humorous and quirky instrumentation of Cheyenne’s theme down to the harpsichords. This mode of Jack’s theme represents the further madness created by the character’s time in Davy Jones’ Locker. Second is the throwback to “The Man with the Harmonica” in “Parlay.” The scene involved has a standoff between six characters so the Spaghetti Western showdown music is not wholly inappropriate. The rhythm in “Parlay” is actually the East India Company’s theme which was introduced in Dead Man’s Chest. Zimmer must have recognized its similarities to the rhythm from Harmonica’s theme and used it accordingly. Also present in this track is the Love theme (which covered several paragraphs down) on guitar. Continue reading

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

Naturally, after the surprising smashing success of Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney went head  with a sequel. Actually they went for a full trilogy, with the second and third installments to be released in close proximity in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Dead Man’s Chest sees Will and Elizabeth’s marriage ruined by the arrival of Thomas Beckett and the East India Trading Company. Beckett has them arrested for conspiring with pirates, but offers freedom if Will can get Jack Sparrow’s magic compass. Sparrow himself is targeted by the monstrous Davy Jones (played by British national treasure Bill Nighy), the ferryman of souls lost at sea. If Sparrow does not hand himself and his soul over at the right time, Jones’ pet Kraken will hunt him down. To save himself, Sparrow determines to find the heart of Davy Jones, locked in a chest, and use it to gain the upper hand. What ensues is a series of shifting alliances and double crosses. Dead Man’s Chest is a fun film, but doesn’t stand too well on its own as it’s almost all build-up for an epic third entry. This time Hans Zimmer officially took over scoring duties and would have a much more amenable schedule to work with.

Zimmer created his score with the help of the Media Ventures gang and once again he came under fire from critics from failing to utilize a period-appropriate sound. Another hurdle was on the thematic front. Zimmer wanted to develop more original themes, but the first score was so popular that he had to reference that one as well. Zimmer largely is able to develop a cohesive thematic framework, though there are perhaps too many themes and motifs for certain aspects. The album starts with three thematic suites, covering most of the new themes and motifs. These make for a mostly engaging album-opener, turning several cues from the film into expanded album editions. Continue reading

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Composed by Klaus Badelt and the Media Ventures gang

Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the wonderful ride at Disneyworld, is one of the best adventure films I have ever seen, with a lot of wit and good action, not to mention Johnny Depp’s awesome performance as Captain Jack Sparrow (which would unfortunately pigeonhole him into playing off-kilter characters for years). The plot sees Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of a governor in the Caribbean, come in possession of a medallion found on castaway boy Will Turner (who grows up to be played by Orlando Bloom). Will Turner grows up to be a blacksmith with a secret love for the upper-class Elizabeth. The pirates, of the ship Black Pearl attack their island town and abscond with the girl and the medallion. Will Turner finds himself partnering with the strange pirate Jack Sparrow and his colorful cast of associates to rescue Elizabeth. It also turns out that the pirates, led by Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, are cursed by Aztec gold. The film was a massive success and its soundtrack was certainly popular. When I had just started getting into film music I adored this soundtrack, but with more knowledge it’s proven to be a technically troubling, though still entertaining, product.

Originally director Gore Verbinski was going to have his pal Alan Silvestri write the score. But just a couple of weeks before the film was to be wrapped up, producer Jerry Bruckheimer threw in a monkey wrench by throwing out Silvestri’s music and hiring Hans Zimmer and his Media Ventures to once again produce a loud summer action blockbuster soundtrack. With barely any time, Hans Zimmer created a set of main themes overnight and had Klaus Badelt head the scoring duties, so basically Zimmer is really the mastermind of the whole soundtrack. Badelt would not do most of the work, as he would have over ten other composers help score the film. The result is a fun yet vastly overrated score that has unjustly been lodged in the public mind as an equal to John Williams’ Star Wars and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Composed by: Hans Zimmer

The third installment of what became known as the Dark Knight trilogy took a little longer to hit theaters, allowing Christopher Nolan to make and release Inception first. The conclusion of his bat-trilogy, Dark Knight Rises, was met with divided reactions, thought it still made plenty of money. I agree that a few plot points are awkward, but I quite like it. Tom Hardy’s intelligent and intimidating Bane was what fans needed after the character’s bastardization in Batman and Robin. There was also a good lesson about fighting to live instead of embracing a martyr complex, a real maturation for the Batman character in light of how his comic book counterpart is still stuck in his brooding and untrusting rut.

This time James Newton Howard has disappeared completely, leaving Hans Zimmer and Media Ventures in sole control. The one noticeable result of this is the absence of any strikingly heartfelt emotional cues such as the love theme or “Harvey Two-Face”. This isn’t to say that Zimmer’s work is bereft of emotion, it just doesn’t hit you the way Howard’s material does. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: The Dark Knight

Composed by: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight is still considered by many to be not just the greatest Batman movie but the greatest superhero movie of all time. For me the film does live up to the hype, and was certainly better than Batman Begins with stronger villains (especially the deceased Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker), clearer action scenes, a heavily intense story, and great performances by Gary Oldman as James Gordon and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent.

One area that did not  necessarily improve from Batman Begins is the music. Once again collaborating with James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer and Media Ventures was now in even more control, with Howard only rarely showing his style. When deciding who would get what of the two new main character themes (Joker and Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Zimmer got the big main villain. Continue reading

Soundtrack Review: Batman Begins

Composed by: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Eight years after the disastrous Batman and Robin, Warner Brothers released the Christopher Nolan-directed reboot of the Batman franchise: Batman Begins. Batman Begins successfully returned the character to his darker roots. The new film universe was also much more gritty and realistic, with no neon lights or wacky over-acting villains. The best thing the reboot did was make Commissioner Gordon (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman) an important character. The movie does have its flaws, such as a weak third act and a couple moments of pretentious dialogue, but I think it captures the Batman of the last thirty years perfectly. Continue reading