Science fiction films by their very nature have long pushed the boundaries of not only how a film can be made, but also how one can be scored. Tales of space travel, artificial intelligence and alien life have long inspired some of the world’s greatest composers to write iconic soundtracks such as Star Wars (John Williams), Terminator 2 (Brad Fiedel) and Alien (Jerry Goldsmith) that became staples of the science fiction genre.
Since it’s very inception cinema has been synonymous with music and used it to enhance dramatic intention and emotion. With so many instantly recognizable themes at their fingertips’ these days, soundtrack fans really are spoiled for choice. Branching across the ever-growing science fiction genre, these are films to watch with only the best quality sound systems or headphones.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The third installment in George Lucas’s Star Wars The prequel trilogy begins at the end of the Clone Wars, a galactic wide conflict that has pushed the Jedi away from their origins as peacekeepers for the Republic. Amidst this turmoil, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) struggles to balance his duties to the Jedi with those to his wife, Padme (Natalie Portman) and mentor Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).
While Revenge of the Sith is maestro John Williams sixth time recording music for the Star Wars franchise he does not rely solely on pre-established themes. Rather, Williams leans heavily into the darker tones of the film by exploring the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker whilst still staying true to the feel of Star Wars. This can be heard in the track ‘Anakin’s Dream’ where Williams quietly reintroduces the melody from ‘Across the Stars’ paired with the subtle use of harp, creating a sense of tragedy and heartbreak never heard in Star Wars before or since.
Prolific director Christopher Nolan’s (Inception) science fiction epic Interstellar tells the story of ex NASA pilot turned corn farmer Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as he travels to another galaxy in search of a way to save not only his family but all mankind from a quickly decaying Earth.
Recorded inside London’s Temple Church using an authentic 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ, legendary film composer Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar captures the musical sound of space perfectly. Living up to Nolan’s enormous sense of scale, tracks ‘Cornfield Chase ‘ and ‘Mountains’ have gone viral on TikTok and gathered over 100 million plays on Spotify.
Ex Machina (2014)
Screenwriter Alex Garland‘s (28 Days Later) chilling directorial debut, Ex Machina is a sci-fi thriller that questions the moral ethics of creating and imprisoning an artificially intelligent being. The film follows a young computer coder named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he performs a turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander) a female android. As the test unfolds Caleb begins to suspect that its focus could really be on him.
While the bulk of the synth heavy soundtrack is used to masterfully add to the sense of claustrophobia felt throughout the film, composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury achieved much more. Tracks such as the finales ‘Bunsen Burner’ and Ava’s self-titled theme can typically be found on sci-fi playlists and are a testament to their ability to create impactful and lasting compositions, that have clearly stayed with the audience long after viewing the film.
Director Steven Soderbergh‘s (Ocean’s Eleven) adaptation of the 1961 polish novel Solaris is a slow burning, mind-bending mystery set almost entirely aboard a space station. Orbiting the planet Solaris, a crew of scientists begin reporting experiences of an unusual phenomenon. Dispatched to learn the origins of this, Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) quickly discovers that not all is at it seems.
Instantly placing the audience into the dream like trance being experienced by Kelvin and the crew of the Solaris Station is composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) airy and textural soundtrack. Beginning with ‘Is that what everybody wants?’ the score slowly builds while using the melodies established at the start of the first track as a foundation. Later tracks such as ‘First Sleep’ continue to musically blur this line between dream and reality to excellent effect, never quite settling on one or the other.
After the arrival of twelve alien spacecraft, tensions rise as global powers each attempt to communicate with the mysterious vessels. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival is a masterclass in modern science fiction story telling and a sign of things to come from the future director of Blade Runner 2049 and Dune.
The atmospheric original score to Arrival comes from film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Setting the tone early, Jóhannsson’s music delivers an air of uncertainty while remaining convincingly otherworldly. Complementing the original score, the film begins and ends with Max Richter’s haunting piece ‘On the Nature of Daylight ‘. Expertly applied, the piece overlays some of the films more difficult scenes, tackling death, heartbreak and the human experience.
In his third feature film ChappieSouth African born director Neil Blomkamp (District 9) returns to tell the tale of a police droid who becomes sentient after being programmed with the worlds first AI chip. Fighting the clock to find a new body, Chappie must learn to survive in the streets of Johannesburg as his battery slowly fails.
With an original score composed by film legend Hans Zimmer, blended to a mixtape of the greatest hits by South African ‘Zef’ rap misfits Die Antwoord, Chappie is an unapologetically loud time. While Die Antwoords rap anthems and Zimmer’s signature use of loud string sections and distorted synth chords may not seem like an obvious pairing, the two gel well, and it certainly makes for an extremely fun time at the movies.
Her is a beautiful tale of modern love and loneliness, crafted by Spike Jones and set in a futuristic Los Angeles. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writer who has recently divorced and while struggling to cope with his loss, buys an artificial intelligence system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) to help him write. Yet as Theodore steadily begins to rely more and more on her company for comfort, he begins to fall in love with her.
Nominated for Best Original Score at the 2014 Oscars is Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett’s sensational original score for Her. Originally intending to write music that would connect to the science fiction elements of the story Arcade Fire were asked by Spike Jones to instead write music that would entangle more with the romantic elements of the film. A popular soundtrack amongst collectors, the vinyl release of Her topped the charts and continues to sell out today.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Prior to his work on The Batman director Matt Reeves made one of the greatest blockbuster trilogies in modern cinema, The Planet of the Apes. Set only three years after the dramatic events of the previous film, War for the Planet of the Apes once again follows Caesar (Andy Serkis) as he faces down against a merciless colonel (Woody Harrelson) in order to free his tribe from enslavement.
Having worked on the previous film’s, composer Michael Giacchino returned to familiar territory to cap off the ape’s trilogy. With the track ‘Exodus Wounds’ all tension from the film is suddenly released as four repeating notes cry out. Giacchino’s new theme for Caesar, while simple is incredibly emotional and captures the spirit of the characters struggle perfectly.
For a film that boasts not just one, but five compelling and incredibly intelligent female leads, its incredible that Annihilation is not discussed more in the sphere of pop culture. Directed by Alex Garland, Annihilation is an intellectual sci-fi horror that follows five scientists as they investigate ‘the Shimmer’ an area of swampland in Florida that has been effected by a phenomenon of alien origin.
Film composing duo Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow reunite with Alex Garland in their second sci-fi venture together, following their stellar work on Ex Machina. Rife with atmosphere, the soundtrack sounds truly of alien origin. Building steadily to the ultimate finale ‘The Alien’ in which Lena (Natalie Portman) encounters the terrifying origin of the Shimmer.
Under The Skin (2013)
An alien entity inhabits a young woman’s likeness and stalks the streets of Scotland, luring unsuspected men to a grizzly fate. Described as being less about what it is to be a human, and more about what it is to be a woman, director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a slow burning thriller supercharged with tension and atmosphere.
Countering the films minimalistic aesthetic, London born artist Mica Levi’s varied soundtrack morphs as events unfold. Jarringly creepy when needed, the striking sound of steel scraping and sharp string sections are used to unsettle the audience. Yet with the flick of a switch the soundtrack will suddenly morph and submerge the listener into a pool of wondrous synthesizing waves reminiscent of Trainspotting, such as in the track titled ‘Love’.
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