Six of the best sci-fi movie soundtracks
To the moon and beyond: we choose the best cinematic scores for science fiction films
On 13 September 1959 the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 spacecraft crash-landed on the Moon. Almost ten years later, on 20 July 1969, Apollo 11 successfully landed with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who became the first humans to step onto the Moon’s surface.
To commemorate those two extraordinary events, here are six outstanding scores which reflect how – even before and since these events - the popular imagination has been haunted by outer space and what distant worlds might be discovered there.
Things to Come (1936: Arthur Bliss)
With a script by HG Wells, the father of much of today’s science fiction, this is in theory an intriguing landmark in British cinema history. In practice it is a frightfully stilted, mannered and – at least by today’s standard – slow moving drama, which takes its time to reach the technological wonders of the future, including the first manned flight around the moon.
The most vibrant feature of the film is in fact Arthur Bliss’s splendid score, its grimly triumphal ‘March’ being its most famous cue. Bliss himself made an excellent recording of the Things to Come suite with the London Symphony Orchestra (Heritage HTGCD220), and there is a modern recording of the complete score by Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 9896).
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951: Bernard Herrmann)
Here, by contrast, is a film which has stood the test of time, not least due to its still eerie-sounding score by Bernard Herrmann (and helped by some fine acting, plus special effects which have not dated as badly as one might expect). Already established through scoring several Orson Welles pictures, including Citizen Kane, Herrmann was yet to form his legendary partnership with Hitchcock.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was his first Hollywood score after he had moved from New York, and he was clearly keen to make an impression. His unusual line of instruments included electric violin, cello and bass; two theremins; two Hammond organs; an array of percussion; and 11 brass instruments (one horn, three each of trumpets and trombones, and four tubas). The theremins in particular dominate the music’s soundworld, most memorably the scenes involving the alien spacecraft.
Solaris (1972: music by Eduard Artemyev)
This Soviet film, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is said to have been produced in response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Kubrick, who famously ditched the commissioned score in favour of his eclectic temp track which successfully mixed Richard Strauss, Ligeti et al, Tarkovsky used a remarkable new score almost entirely (but for a Bach chorale prelude) composed by Eduard Artemyev.
Though subsequently more widely known and loved for his late-Romantic style scores for such international hits as Burnt by the Sun, Artemyev was in fact a relatively early pioneer of electronic music within the Soviet Union, and had composed music in the Experimental Studio of Electronic Music which opened in Scriabin’s former Moscow apartment in 1966. It is Artemyev’s strange and unearthly music, above all, which makes one believe the disconcerting ‘alien’ quality of the scientific research station Solaris.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977: John Williams)
The five note pentatonic theme with which the scientists of Earth communicate with the visiting UFO from space was, of course, created by Spielberg’s legendary ‘in-house’ composer John Williams. Simple as it sounds, it was just one of over three hundred possible permutations of a five note theme that Williams composed, from which Spielberg selected the one which became for a long time a instantly recognisable motif, used in endless spoofs about extraterrestrial visitations. But just when we were on the point of being seduced with the idea of friendly aliens…
Alien (1979: Jerry Goldsmith)
The soft screeches, eerie moanings and echoey knocks with which Alien opens sets the tone of disquiet and fear that became so much part of the film’s identity. Remarkably, that title sequence was created in some haste by Jerry Goldsmith when the director, Ridley Scott, objected to his original all-too-conventional neo-Romantic title sequence. Other parts of Goldsmith’s score were also jettisoned in preference to temp tracks, which to his annoyance included music he had written for an entirely different film, and the music for the film’s final sequence is taken from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (Romantic).
Yet it has to be said that the film became all the more effective for those changes, and – as Scott admitted – a good deal of the film’s success still came down to Goldsmith’s music. Not least, Goldsmith had the inspired idea to add to his large orchestra an ensemble of the antique wind instrument, the serpent, to evoke the alien’s menace: though much of its music was excised from the film, the instrument’s blood-curdling rasp can be heard in the final twist when the heroine discovers the alien creature aboard the shuttle in which she intended to escape from the mothership.
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Under the Skin (2013: Mica Levi)
Finally, another fine example of an original film score which unapologetically uses modernist sounds and so creates a disconcerting and nerve wracking atmosphere. Mica Levi – also known by her stage name Micachu, in which guise she performs with her group Micachu and the Shapes – was trained at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. While a student, she had the experience of writing a work performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; she subsequently became an artist-in-residence at the Southbank in 2010.
She was just 26 when she was approached by film director Jonathan Glazer to write her first film score for his film Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial who in human guise entices various men. Using a small ensemble of strings, flute and percussion combined with electronic music, Levi’s score creates its effect through a minimal number of musical themes embedded in a ‘beehive’ like sound, using scratchy string playing and microtonal tuning.
Listen to our playlist of the best sci-fi movie soundtracks here:
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.