Dances with smurfs. Old SF novels. Plagiarism. None of this matters now. Avatar is Jim Cameron’s Phantom Menace, and it’s finally here, and unlike the bearded one he seems to have pulled it off. However, equally as important to us soundtrack nerds was whether or not much-maligned composer James Horner could supply Cameron with an epic score to help cement Avatar in its role as Hollywood gamechanger. So has he?
Having not actually seen the film, I can only speculate. But as far as the album goes, it’s not necessarily as traditional as some would like. Don’t expect an instantly gratifying pulse-pounding blockbuster score, because Avatar is something else entirely. While it certainly has the hallmarks of a Horner work (and blessedly less Enya moments than Titanic), you shouldn’t expect Aliens, or Glory, or even the aforementioned Titanic. Avatar is something more sublime, even subliminal, allowing you to calmly immerse yourself in its beauty before kicking you in the face with the kind of stirring action writing Horner became famous for.
Probably the best compliment I can give Avatar is that it sounds like something Jerry Goldsmith might have written, were he still with us. That alone may sound like I’m damning Horner with faint praise (or even indicting him given his early career similarities to the pony-tailed maestro), but it’s not at all. Goldsmith always had the knack of providing incredible scores to many a SF and fantasy movie that were the more mature counterpoint to John Williams’ air of childlike wonder (not a criticism by any means), and much of Avatar shares a kinship with that work, down to the exploration of ethnic material (even if it’s fake ethnicity) that Goldsmith used in scores like Under Fire and The Ghost and the Darkness.
In terms of the ethnic material, Horner apparently worked a lot on making a musical culture for the Na’vi race in the film, and it gives Avatar the surreal and otherworldly feel I guess Cameron was aiming for, with a lot of ethereal chanting to boot. It’d be easy for me to lump this in with Hans Zimmer’s moaning woman scores and such, but it’s much more than that, more pure in a way, or at least more integral to the score, and in line with the source material. The closest thing I can really think of is Bear McCreary’s music for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, or even the track ‘Padme’s Ruminations’ from Star Wars: Episode III, which I remember got some criticism on its release, so if you don’t like either or those, you might want to stay away.
Speaking of Zimmer, Horner does occasionally come very close to crossing the line into Media Ventures-esque power anthems when he needs the music to get going, but thankfully he never goes that far. One thing I can say about the score is that it’s emotional and incredibly evocative. Horner’s musical illustration of the world of Pandora and the Na’vi is beautiful and suitably humble, evoking the likes of the lush Ba’ku theme from Star Trek: Insurrection and the aforementioned Ghost and the Darkness (cementing the Goldsmith connection), rather than Pan Pipe Moods 4. Perhaps because of the approach Horner takes, it’s not the easiest score to get into, and it took a while for me to completely appreciate it. I mean, it’s not avant-garde by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a power-anthem filled turgid blockbuster score we’re generally used to hearing these days. Which is a good thing.
Only knowing the basic plot from the trailers and what I’ve read, the album seems to mirror this pretty well, and to elaborate on a point I made earlier, starts slowly to get you in the mood, building itself up carefully, as we explore Pandora and its beauty through Jake, before it all goes tits up when the military invades and the danger motif lets itself be known. I suppose that this really allows us to mirror Jake’s storyline; we get so caught up in the majesty and the wonder of nature that it’s a huge shock when the world is threatened and the evil of man attempts to take over with force, with what was a bucolic dream in danger of being usurped by the albeit-thrilling steamroller that is Horner’s action music.
Going into specifics, it’s hard to really say which are the best tracks because it takes such a steady narrative-building approach, and it’ll probably come down to whether you prefer your music with an unearthly tribal flavour, or you just like loud battle music. For the former, ‘Jake’s First Flight’ is probably a good bet, which leads some heavy but uplifting chanting into a crescendo followed by a lovely string section, presumably while Jake flies about on one of those pterodactyl thingies, before going back to the Na’vi language at the end with a beautiful solo voice that evokes some of the great soprano work in Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings.
‘Scorched Earth’ follows immediately, and it’s a good track to illustrate a mix of the two styles for what seems to be the beginning of the end, as the main theme representing Jake and the side of all that is good and natural is presented in a tragic tone as I imagine something goes awry on Pandora. That’s before letting the horn section and more frantic and serious Na’vi chants take over as I can only think that this is their ‘this is bad, what are we going to do about it?’ moment. This is furthered by some serious choral work in ‘The Destruction of Hometree’, which really drives the tragic sound to epic levels.
Then there’s ‘War’. All eleven minutes and twenty-one seconds of it. The best way I can sum this up is to say “”War”, how I love thee.” This is true heroic do-or-die stuff, combining the now-Wagnerian choir with some pounding string work as I can only assume the Na’vi and the military go at it. Not in that way though. It’s definitely here though that Horner starts to go a little to the dark side of orchestral power chords, although thankfully it works quite well. The track ends with a return to the Na’vi music, with a suitably triumphant and emotional denouement that ends on more of a quiet note than you might expect, but no less appropriate for the film’s theme.
Of course, this is James Horner. Already, I’ve heard people saying it sounds like Glory or Braveheart, and also invoking his past musical crimes. And yeah, it does occasionally evoke those scores as well as one or two others, and yes the danger motif is alive and well here, along with what sounds like Khan’s Theme. However, any re-emergence of previous ideas are a bit less obvious than in his previous work, as they’re pretty well embedded in the soup that is Avatar. And what a long bowl of soup it is, at just under eighty minutes, which is heaven for score collectors today (by comparison, Star Trek‘s soundtrack ran around forty minutes). The last four minutes of the running time are taken up by the inevitable song, which in this case is ‘I See You (Theme From Avatar)’ as sung by the enormously popular yet somewhat bland Leona Lewis. It’s thankfully not as cloying as ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and benefits hugely from the lack of giraffe-necked harpy Celine Dion, but it’s not something I’ll be listening to on a regular basis.
So is James Horner back with a vengeance? Indeed he is. Avatar is very, very good and with 2009 not exactly being a stellar year for great new film scores, it’s nice to see the year end with what is probably its best. It’s perhaps not as flashy as some of the more popular soundtracks, but there’s certainly more under the surface that’s rewarded with multiple listens. It’s already got a Golden Globe nomination, so we’ll see if it makes a splash at the award ceremonies next year. It certainly deserves to.
Avatar Music From The Motion Picture Music Composed And Conducted By James Horner is out now.