You want your science fiction film to stick around for years, maybe decades? Special effects age quickly. Even the greatest great scripts talk primarily to the head. The score, though — it’ll inspire, excite, scare, and even mask a bogus scientific storyline. You know, just in case.
Here are 11 of the best sci-fi scores ever, with suggestions from some of the experts in the field.
Star Wars. Arguably John Williams’s most recognizable score, this was a shoo-in. Keith M. Johnston , professor of film studies at the University of East Anglia and author of Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction, praises Williams’s score, telling me that “you only have to watch the trailers … to understand the power this music has had the last 40 years.” He also noted the “sweeping romanticism” of the score is the “perfect companion to [George] Lucas’ space Western visuals.”
Fonte, the founder and director of programming for Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival, used the words “regality” and “bombast,” and admires its seamlessness with the “epic scope of this sprawling story.”
Children of Men. John Tavener’s operatic score works in juxtaposition to a bleak world without children, a society tearing itself apart as it waits to disappear. A mixture of hope and despair, the swooning falsetto haunts the images. Bears Fonte points out this may not technically even be a score, as much of what is considered “score” in the film is “lifted from arias and hymns.” Regardless, Tavener’s work is captivating, moody, lovelorn.
The Terminator. Brad Fiedel’s synthesizers capture a certain mid-‘80s inertia, Johnston says, “yet the percussive power of that relentless drum and bass below the melody in the main theme is what I remember. Particularly as [the score] grows, as other percussion joins in, and then it begins to dominate.”
It is a burly mechanical score, at once threatening and melancholy. The music has grown to be practically synonymous with Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.
Back to The Future. Alan Silvestri’s score to one of the most beloved ‘80s films is widely overlooked and forgotten. Many claim Silvestri is simply aping John Williams here; Dr. Johnston’s first reaction was “is there a score to BTTF?” He notes the “regular, punctuated stings remain strong,” though he wouldn’t consider it a classic.
Silvestri’s score is sharp and adventurous, seeming to press the pace of the story. The movie’s Huey Lewis-heavy soundtrack helped to make this an overlooked and under-appreciated score.
Close Encounters of The Third Kind. Both Fonte and Johnston praised the serenity of John Williams’s work in this Spielberg classic, which is compelling in its simplicity. Fonte calls this score: “the definitive example… where the score actually becomes the plot of the film, allowing the aliens to make contact with us through musical phrases.” Dr. Johnston adds “[this is] possibly the strongest and most powerful five-note sequence in history.”
But it’s more than just a five-note wonder. “Elsewhere,” Johnston said, “the score is subtle and quiet, drawing you in before the gradual build up, slowly pushing towards that more traditional, romantic Williams style.”
Forbidden Planet. Johnston brought this to my attention. The score from Louis and Bebe Barron is described as an exercise in “electric tonalities.” The main titles hearken to an age in sci-fi cinema where uncertainty and dread, misdirected from impending nuclear war, were personified by the fear of the foreign invader. It is a detached score, but threatening all the same, full of clicks and quirks and buoyant notes, “as essential,” Johnston said, “to the mood and feeling of Forbidden Planet as any of the composers on this list.”
Stargate. The ‘90s were a decade of technological revolution, a time when some say special effects in filmmaking reached a zenith. Perhaps as a result, original and compelling scores took a backseat to bombastic visuals. Stargate is an exception to the less-than-inviting musical accompaniments of the decade. David Arnold’s score, much like the work of Williams, is steep in romanticism, a love for the genre and the action on the screen. It is part adventure, part wonder, and entirely fitting and incendiary throughout.
Interstellar. Hans Zimmer’s work has never been better than Interstellar. If the science of Christopher Nolan’s picture is foggy, Zimmer’s score is anything but. Its reliance on the organ, an ancient musical instrument, counterbalances the advanced nature of the plot, offering an almost primal connection to what could’ve been cold space sequences.
The docking scene in and of itself, featured below, is Zimmer’s absolute best. What begins as a prickly, subtle score soon brings in the sweep of the organ, intensifying the drama. No one has time to pick nits about the science when the music invests us so mightily in the mission’s success.
RoboCop. As Bears Fonte notes, this score from Basil Poledouris “is a very original score, which doesn’t get the credit it deserves.” The music accompanying this immortal sci-fi satire is workmanlike, persistent, as heavy-handed as a truck commercial. Fonte claims the “‘80s procedural chugging along with strings, brass, and xylophones just [gets] more and more dissonant.”
Aliens. The late James Horner was tireless, having scored hundreds of films, yet rarely was his scoring remembered on its own as more than a servant to the story. His work on James Cameron’s Aliens stands above his other work.
Cameron gave Horner just six days to complete this score, belying its sinister patience. The score creeps up on you, heavy on brass horns, until the action reaches a fever pitch. The addition of deep drums highlights the otherworldly adventure, and the thump and threat of the aliens mirrors Horner’s score in its finest moments.
Planet of The Apes. Without Jerry Goldsmith’s trippy work on Planet of The Apes, the picture would not have been able to put its stamp on the experimental sci-fi world of the late ‘60s. As Fonte notes, the bizarre score is “a combination of Spaghetti Western and Avant Garde jazz weirdness.” The weirdness is key, as the story unfolds in such a bewildering existence for the marooned astronauts. In a movie predicated on disorientation, the music keeps us ever pushing ahead, to an end that, as it turns out, blows up.