With Alien: Covenant just around the corner, Sean Wilson looks back at the illustrious musical heritage of one of cinema’s greatest franchises…
Just recently I was listening to the score for the imminent Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s return to the sci-fi horror franchise he inaugurated, and was struck by the plethora of material from Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score. Certainly Goldsmith’s work is a classic (although inconsistently treated by Scott in the final edit) but even so I had little reason to expect such a strong presence. Indeed, the application of the theme by Assassin’s Creed composer Jed Kurzel is wonderfully intelligent, bridging the gap between the events of Covenant and Alien via the power of music.
This got me thinking in a broader sense about the music from the wider Alien saga: truly, this is a rare franchise where there isn’t a dropped stitch among any of the scores. Three can be considered outright masterpieces from their respective composers. Here then is a musical jaunt through the terrifying musical world of the Alien movies. Don’t forget to look behind you…
Jerry Goldsmith’s collaboration with Ridley Scott was famously fraught, the composer seeing vast swathes of his music chucked out in favour of tracks from his other scores (including Freud) and, just as insultingly, classical pieces from other musicians (Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2). Nevertheless there’s no denying that the music as heard in the film is chillingly effective, the tone set immediately with the eerily sparse and atonal opening titles that Goldsmith himself dismissed as a piece of crap knocked off in an hour (his original intention was to present a lush statement of the main Alien theme).
A rarity in the Alien score, this grandiose statement of the main theme appeared in the movie largely intact, save for the final movement as the Nostromo lands on LV-426 (understandable, given the focus on sound effects in the sequence). It’s here that Goldsmith’s original intention is clearest, inverting our expectations with a lushly romantic, fully orchestral interpretation of space designed to beguile us prior to the Xenomorph’s eventual reveal. The heavenly interplay between brass and strings shows this greatest of film composers at his very best.
Goldsmith’s capacity for innovative orchestration and his love of specialty instruments was famous. During an awards presentation The Pink Panther composer Henry Mancini even admitted “[Jerry] scares the hell out of us.” Alien is one of the finest showcases of Goldsmith’s experimental side, utilising plucked strings filtered through an echoplex (giving that distinct ‘fading’ effect) and the skin-crawling, slithery sound of the ancient Serpent instrument to give horrifying life to the Alien itself. The musical reveal of the creature during Brett’s (Harry Dean Stanton) death is surely one of the finest distillations of pure terror in cinema history.
If Goldsmith had it rough working with Ridley Scott, it was no easier for the late James Horner when collaborating with the infamously tough-minded James Cameron on the latter’s all-guns-blazing, 1986 sequel. Pressurised to within an inch of his life thanks to a drastically compressed scoring schedule, Horner was also forced to contend with a filmmaker who continually chopped and changed the edit at the last-minute. Still there’s no denying the stresses of the experience resulted in a classic, Oscar-nominated Horner score, one whose militaristic snare drums, anvil and timpani not only nailed the tone of the film but all future action scores from the composer.
Going After Newt
By the time Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) decides to rescue young surrogate daughter Newt (Carrie Henn) from the clutches of the aliens on the soon-to-be-nuked LV-426, our nerves have already been ground down to grated cheese. Horner’s magnificent score further pushes our adrenaline levels over the edge, echoing horn and trumpet effects mixing with the ever-present timpani and shrill strings as Ripley descends into the bowels of the processing station. The layering of the percussion is a true marvel, simulating nothing less than the sound of our heartbeat.
Composed overnight by Horner after fierce arguments with both Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, it’s quite remarkable that the end result should be one of the greatest action tracks of all time. It demonstrates Horner’s superb dramatic intuition and rhythmic sense, establishing a clear dialogue between militaristic snare drums, panic-inducing strings and the doom-laden horns, before building to that climax used in so many movie trailers during the 1980s and 90s. Looking for the musical encapsulation of the Aliens experience? It’s right here.
Click below to continue on for Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus…