This has to be one of John Williams’s bleakest scores. It is also one bereft of any overtly stated and memorable melodic theme. Its appeal is in the wonderfully crafted polytonal harmonic writing and imaginative orchestration. Here the old master shows younger less-skilled, less inventive writers for the more horrific sci-fi genre, just how it is done. Williams’ music is so creepy and so menacingly other-worldly as to make the hairs on the back-of-the neck stand on end. As I write I have yet to see the film but I can imagine the music’s effect in the theatre.
Not surprisingly the music is self-derivative, shards and fragments of Williams’s scores for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (e.g. - ‘The Ferry Scene’) and Star Wars (e.g. – The Return toBoston’) are recognisable but refined and developed to accommodate Spielberg’s darker, more pessimistic view of the alien visitation. In addition, there are nods towards (inevitably) Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ from his The Planets Suite, and there are allusions to Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring in ‘The Intersection Scene’; and the darker aspects of Bernard Herrmann are surely recalled in aspects of ‘The attack on the Car’ and ‘The Confrontation with Ogilvy’.
There are moments of repose of course. ‘The Separation of the Family’, and ‘The Reunion’ both having piano solos and partial thematic material that recalls Williams’s music for Presumed Innocent (I wonder what associations were going through the composer’s mind at this point in his work?). ‘Refugee Status’ is another quieter more introspective track with some nice writing for divided strings. This elegiac music, with its despondent last post bugle calls, speaks eloquently of pity and despair at man’s defeat by the Martians.
‘Nice to hear the oaken tones of Morgan Freeman narrating the famous opening lines (slightly adapted) of the original H.G .Wells novel.
One of Williams bleakest scores; dark and menacing; richly harmonised and inventively orchestrated.
Gary Dalkin adds:
As Ian notes, this is the darkest, least melodic score from John Williams for some considerable time. Like Williams’ work for Spielberg’s previous Tom Cruise starring SF movie, Minority Report, it is expertly crafted, atmospheric - and cold. Some of the playing in the action sequences is simply breathtaking, and could surely only have been accomplished with such clinical complexity in a studio with the aid of a click track. Played loud this album offers the requisite thrills and chills, but with little emotional engagement to leave anything really sticking in the memory and demanding repeat plays. That said, ‘The Ferry Scene’ is an action set-piece to rank with the best in Williams’ back catalogue, and the whole offers bold, muscular action-suspense writing which shows the newer composers on the block just how to do this sort of thing.
One thing I would disagree with Ian on, I find Morgan Freeman, distinguished as his cadences are, a poor substitute for the magisterial performance of Richard Burton on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds. [But see separate review of the Jeff Wayne version on this site this month – ed.] But then call me a curmudgeonly old British science fiction fan, I can’t help but find Spielberg’s nonsensical update of H.G. Wells’s definitive alien invasion novel anything other than a travesty. As with Minority Report, Williams’s score is the only thing to emerge with its credibility intact, yet well made as this music is, the absence of any compelling major themes - what emotive material there is often evokes the composer’s more recent Star Wars material - makes this a disc I doubt I will return to very often. A good album, but one for Williams devotees rather than casual fans.