Music in the movies: the sci-fi themes of Jerry Goldsmith

From Planet Of The Apes to Alien, composer Jerry Goldsmith has been a veritable mine of classic sci-fi themes. Glen salutes some of his very best...

Jerry Goldsmith was a giant of film composing who was among the most prolific and well respected composers to have worked in cinema. At his peak, he was rumoured to have composed an average of six scores a year, which really is quite staggering. He seemed to be able to effortlessly adapt his talents to a number of genres and set, and later redefined standards in the process.

When planning this tribute, I had a hard time narrowing down the titles I wanted to cover, so have decided to split the pieces. This first will focus on what I consider to be his greatest sci-fi scores and I will take a look at some of his selected other works in a future article…

Planet Of The Apes

The 1968 original Planet Of The Apes remains my favourite of the series and, despite my enthusiasm being dampened somewhat by Tim Burton’s take on the franchise, I’m interested to see how the upcoming remake fares.

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Before Goldsmith would go on to set a standard that would still be followed today with sci-fi scores, with the use of orchestration sitting alongside electronic instrumentation, and effectively creating what many consider to be clichés, he composed perhaps his strongest and most evocative pieces that were equal parts compelling and unsettling.

His score for Planet Of The Apes starts incredibly strong with the Main Title creating an eerie atmosphere which would underpin much of what would come later. Tribal percussion is complimented with strings, brass and woodwinds that are echoed to create a real sense that you, along with the protagonists, are in a strange and hostile environment.

Logan‘s Run

Despite the fact that this score contains two very distinct sounds to depict different aspects of the world portrayed on screen, this is a startlingly coherent and well paced piece that stands the test of time, even if the film itself doesn’t.

The part of the score that depicts the sealed off community uses interesting percussion and electronic instrumentation to portray the cold and sterile environment. This is underpinned by a sense of dread of the inhabitants’ seemingly inevitable fate. In contrast to this is the warm and rich orchestral pieces that accompany the scenes in the wide open countryside that effectively gives a sense of hope and freedom.

The score is also more efficient at portraying aspects of the narrative that are perhaps not overly well served by the dialogue or direction. This is particularly noticeable when listened to in isolation, where the distinction between the two different aspects of the score are all the more apparent.

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Capricorn One

The film is perhaps not widely seen or cited nowadays, but it’s one I remember experiencing years ago and found it to be a tense piece of sci-fi. Whilst I haven’t tracked down the film in some time, the score is something that I own and regard as some of the finest music composed to accompany a film.

Brilliantly atmospheric, Goldsmith incorporates sound effects into his orchestration to add to the sense of tension and drama of the film.

The score is grander and more cinematic than the film it accompanies, elevating the film as a result.

It’s interesting to listen to see where many of those influenced by Goldsmith have taken aspects of this composition and applied it to their own works.

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Considering Goldsmith’s calibre and how great the score is, it’s strange that he wasn’t Ridley Scott’s first choice as composer. Scott originally wanted Japanese composer Isao Tomita to provide the score, but the studio wanted a more recognisable name.

It’s hard to argue with the end results, as Goldsmith’s score is quite astonishing. Having already established himself as a great composer of the genre, he further enhanced that reputation with a lyrical composition that carries and underlying sense of mystery along with the overriding sense of fear and tension.

Goldsmith’s original version wasn’t used in the film, but is available now in a deluxe edition. What’s heard in the film is an amalgamation of Goldsmith’s score combined with the temporary score they had come up with, but still it’s very effective.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The first of five scores that Goldsmith would compose for the cinematic outings of Star Trek, he would also compose themes for The Next Generation and Voyager.

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Goldsmith’s score doesn’t have a moment that seems out of place, and as much as I love Horner’s score for The Wrath Of Khan, I regard this as the most consistently brilliant score of the franchise.

Bookended with the iconic opening theme and an inspirational finale, what fills out the rest of the score is pitch perfect. A particular highlight would be Enterprise, which provides an interesting and dramatic twist on the main theme to stunning effect.

Total Recall

Another film on this list that’s rumoured to be the subject of a remake, Total Recall is quite rightly regarded as a sci-fi classic that, whilst isn’t overly faithful to the source material, is a compelling and fascinating piece of work in its own right.

Goldsmith’s score for the film is regarded as some of his finest work, and like many of his sci-fi scores, a landmark of composing for the genre.

It’s another score that utilises the effective blend of orchestration and electronic elements, but where it differs from his other scores is in the percussion department. The score features some startlingly original and inventive percussion that gives the film its heartbeat. This is complimented by an equally pulsating use of synthesisers.

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Interestingly, the percussion pattern heard in the opening theme is rumoured to have been heavily influenced by Basil Poledouris’ Anvil Of Crom from Conan The Barbarian.

This is a varied and highly accomplished piece of work that serves the film brilliantly. It can turn from dramatic and scary to tender and lush without seeming jarring, and provides a perfect showcase for Goldsmith’s versatility and sheer ability.

Chain Reaction

Whilst Chain Reaction isn’t a great film, I don’t think it was worthy of the level of derision directed at it. It’s a shame that, with the film being the subject of a Razzie nomination and poor reviews, a classic Goldsmith score is often overlooked.

It’s a piece of work that’s far better than the source deserves and heightens each scene in which it features, raising the levels of drama and excitement as required, an accomplished piece of work that stands up favourably against not only his sci-fi scores, but his back catalogue as a whole. Well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Goldsmith’s other work or sci-fi scores in general.

Add your Goldsmith highlights below, both sci-fi and non sci-fi. I have a shortlist for the follow-up piece, but let me know if you feel that there are any titles that should be considered.

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