I always joke – well, it’s kind of a joke – that it’s not a James Horner score unless it sounds remarkably like a previous James Horner score. It was easy to make that joke in the ’80s; after Battle Beyond The Stars, a rather good score which was shoehorned into the same stylistic box as Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Horner’s boss, producer Roger Corman. That music led Horner to work on Star Trek for real with Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and he then used much the same formula (and damn near the same music) for Star Trek III, Krull and his first gig with up-and-coming director James Cameron, Aliens. The similarity was strong enough that even people who, unlike your reviewer here, don’t listen to soundtrack music all day long noticed the similarities. To be fair, Horner has graced us with solid slices of musical Americana such as The Journey Of Natty Gann and Apollo 13 and perhaps the most popular soundtrack in history that doesn’t have the words “Star” and “Wars” anywhere on the cover, Titanic (also for Cameron).
Titanic also had the dubious distinction, at the time, of being the most expensive movie ever made (one which, luckily, also managed to make more of that money back than any more that came before it). When Cameron finally started production on Avatar – at $400,000,000, the new “most expensive movie ever” record-holder – it’s not surprising that Cameron called on the composer of his previous big-screen opus.
While there are a few rapid-fire brass blasts that immediately remind one of Horner’s works as far back as The Wrath Of Khan, generally the music from Avatar just about lives up to the hype of being something that Horner put a lot of time and thought into: it doesn’t actively sound like his previous works. In fact, it achieves something unexpected – at a time when world-music-inspired sounds are standing in for the otherworldly in nearly every other SF film/TV score out there (see: Battlestar Galactica, District 9, Lost, etc. etc. etc.), strong>Avatar manages to not sound like anything else out there. I think this revelation hit me about the time I heard percussion that seemed to be imitating hummingbird wings: that’s kinda neat.
Unusually for a major label soundtrack release, Avatar is filled to the brim, and not with tiny bite-sized cues either: one track, “War”, weighs in heavier than 11 minutes, and those 11 minutes are neither typical action music nor typical James Horner action music. The Avatar score interestingly treats mind-expanding, contemplative moments as little triumphs, but doesn’t bestow triumphant bombast on moments of conflict. Horner and Cameron were clearly on the same page thematically, and the music serves the movie well.
So I’ll admit it: James Horner has returned to science fiction, and aside from maybe all of twenty seconds, it doesn’t sound like any movie he’s scored in that genre before. What’s more, it fits the movie like a glove, and it stands up to a listen on its own. I may yet find a reason to drop my skepticism and become a James Horner fan after all.
- You Don’t Dream In Cryo (6:09)
- Jake Enters His Avatar World (5:23)
- Pure Spirits Of The Forest (8:50)
- The Bioluminescence Of The Night (3:36)
- Becoming One Of “The People” / Becoming One With Neytiri (7:41)
- Climbing Up Iknimaya / “The Path To Heaven” (3:14)
- Jake’s First Flight (4:48)
- Scorched Earth (3:30)
- Quaritch (5:00)
- The Destruction Of Hometree (6:44)
- Shutting Down Grace’s Lab (2:46)
- Gathering All The Na’Vi Clans For Battle (5:12)
- War (11:19)
- I See You (Theme From Avatar) (4:16)
Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 2009
Total running time: 78:28