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Best Sci-Fi Movie Soundtracks

Music sets the atmosphere, enhances the drama of events, and highlights character traits in the best sci-fi movie soundtracks.

While music in cinema is new in comparison to the age-old practice of music composition, the process of composing movie soundtracks isn't much different than any other composition project. The clear predecessor of music as a soundtrack to acting is opera, with its fusion of the arts of music and acting. While the methods of transmitting visual information have changed since opera ruled the acting world (the set made of cardboard has become one of digital backdrops and green screens), and sound effects were added (synthesizers, samplers, and various ethnic instruments), there isn’t much difference, in regards to musical needs. The goal of a sci-fi movie soundtrack the same as the music behind an opera: set the atmosphere, enhance the drama of what’s happening on stage, and highlight the specific features of the characters.

The composers of the best sci-fi movie soundtracks have each solved for these aspects in their own way. Someone like Jerry Goldsmith focuses on the general atmosphere of his score, and John Williams gives each character a distinctive theme, but one thing is for sure: all of these sci-fi movie soundtracks have deservedly taken their place among the best.

Interstellar

When asking Hans Zimmer to write the soundtrack for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan didn't tell him it was going to be a space movie. He told him it was a story of a relationship between a father and a daughter. It's a very intimate story and at times the space travel here is actually as much of a background to this relationship as it is the main theme of the movie. Due to the fact that it's a look into the past and future at the same time, Zimmer chose to combine both electronic instruments and antique ones, such as a 14th century organ.

Tron: Legacy

The soundtrack for Tron: Legacy was created by Daft Punk. Relying mainly on music from the original Tron, the musicians nevertheless created something new: a fusion of electronic and symphonic music, very unusual even for Daft Punk. The computer atmosphere of the soundtrack set the parameters for creating the music, using such exotic elements as granular synthesis and glitch. Skillfully combining the sound of the orchestra with electronic sounds and effects, Daft Punk create their own world. As a result, the soundtrack is clear, almost mathematically verified, and very accurately conveys the technological atmosphere of the film.

Blade Runner

In Blade Runner's soundtrack, Vangelis uses a whole range of styles like synti, new age, and minimalism, skillfully combining these musical directions that can sometimes seem contradictory. Before the filming started, Vangelis already knew the basic idea behind the film, and was able to create a score based off clear concepts. The use of synthesizers brings a desired flavor of the future era into the atmosphere of the film, and lingering melodic compositions with the elements of ethno are a distinct feature of new age. Finally, the repeating elements are a tribute to minimalism, which at the time was becoming more and more popular among academic composers. The result is a unique combination and a feeling of total immersion in the story.

Star Wars Trilogy

The Star Wars soundtrack is perhaps the most famous sci-fi movie soundtrack in existence: John Williams created something truly extraordinary. Treating the film as a giant opera (parallels have been drawn to The Ring of the Nibelung), he carefully worked out the images of the characters. In Star Wars, as in opera, music is one of the main carriers of action, participating in everything happening on screen. Each character has its own theme, which sometimes manifests itself in combination with other character themes. Created according to the classical models of music, this soundtrack may rightly be called "the first space opera."

Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Holkenborg fully encompasses the expressive means of both a contemporary classical composer and a DJ in the soundtrack to Mad Max: Fury Road. Using classical instruments, (strings, brass) he paints a gloomy picture of a post-apocalyptic world where the remaining survivors do not know what to do with themselves, fighting for a place in this world without knowing exactly why. The use of modern electronic music devices adds technological elements to this absurd world (absurd in the musical sense too), showing the eternal cyclical nature of what is happening: technology as a means of destruction, rebirth, and destruction again.

Gravity

When Steven Price was invited to work on the music for Gravity, the film has already been in production for three years. Therefore, Price understood what the film is going to be like, and wanted his music to reflect to film and its "feeling of an open space." This concept influenced the music greatly. It was impossible to do anything too edgy: The action in the film runs very smoothly, and any abrupt musical actions would conflict with the film's atmosphere. And although cruel things happen in the film, they happen with a certain grace, and this influences the choice of instruments and style of the composition. In general, the lack of sound in space determined the music of the film. It dives into the "inner space" of the characters, feeling and empathizing with them, and does not distract itself with external factors.

Inception

Inception is considered one of the best Christopher Nolan’s films in all senses, music included. Diving into another world, the emotional torment of the main character, quick changes of scenery—all this requires strong musical support, without which everything happening would be less exciting. The soundtrack escalates, switches to a more rhythmic tempo, and finally results in an excellent track entitled "Time" that reflects the essence of the movie. Immersing himself further and further not only into the levels of a dream, but also his problems, was the main character able to achieve what he wanted so much? As the music subsides, the question remains open.

Oblivion

M83, led by Anthony Gonzalez, did a great deal of work on the soundtrack to Oblivion. It’s an ideal situation when music and film merge so beautifully. The music in Oblivion becomes almost a visual component of the film. There are clear allusions to Daft Punk. It should be noted that the previous soundtrack composed by Joseph Kosinski was Tron: Legacy, and the continuity of styles is quite obvious.

The Terminator

The level of recognition of this soundtrack is probably comparable only to Star Wars. At the early stage of his career, Brad Fiedel was doing a lot of things: composing film music, accompanying various music bands, etc. But he stood out from the crowd by using a synthesizer which, at that time was a rarity. That’s how James Cameron noticed him and he was invited to work on the music for The Terminator. The main theme sounds very convincing and comes inevitably, as does the Terminator. The famous metal strikes were performed by Brad Fiedel himself—on an ordinary frying pan—is it the same metal that will be melted to produce that same T-800?

Back to the Future

A cult film from a cult director, with the participation of an iconic composer. Although a lot of musicians, including Eric Clapton, worked on the soundtrack, most of the work was done by Alan Silvestri. The music perfectly reflects the spirit of an idealized future, where there are self-fastening sneakers, flying skateboards, and the engine which can make you time travel fits in an ordinary car. The use of synthesizers has brought that same sense of an impending future, and the sound of the orchestra brings a feeling of a confident present. 

The Dark Knight Rises

By the scale of their work, the Zimmer-Nolan duo can compete only with the aforementioned duo of Williams and Spielberg. When it comes to the music of The Dark Knight, it is difficult to split the trilogy apart, since the films are interrelated. Each part the film becomes more epic and the music becomes larger-scale. For example, in the final section Zimmer uses new elements that were not present in previous films—a choir and percussion. As a final touch, the music reused an element from Batman Begins—a theme gradually increasing in drama and reaching a great climax.

Planet of the Apes

The soundtrack from Planet of the Apes takes a different approach to writing film music. Written in the traditions of classical music, it conveys the general atmosphere rather than focusing on specific images. This approach was common in the film music of the mid-20th century, and Jerry Goldsmith, who learned from the renowned film composer Miklos Rozsa, picked up his approach. It’s interesting how the role of the strings in the soundtrack is minimized and the piano and various percussion instruments come to the forefront. Through various methods and non-standard sound production (e.g. knocking on instruments), the composer shows us the phantasmagoria of a world in which the apes rule, and people are just animals.

Avatar

This large scale soundtrack, created using many means of modern music technology, was written by James Horner. Before he composed the soundtracks to Cameron’s Aliens and Titanic. The composer collaborated with Wanda Bryant, musical ethnographer, to create the musical culture of the alien race. Horner worked on the soundtrack from 4:00 AM until 10:00 PM every day, admitting that Avatar was the most challenging film he had worked on and his greatest work up until that point. For example, Horner wrote the choir in the Na'vi language separately from the musical accompaniment, and then combined them into a single composition. The choral singing was recorded in March 2008, the music accompaniment in the spring of 2009. 

Sunshine

John Murphy is a self-taught musician, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, who began his career in the 1980s, has worked with many artists, and in the early 1990s began writing music for films. The name of his track for Sunshine—"Adagio in D minor"—displays his love of classical music (Bach, Puccini, etc.) as well as his approach to writing the soundtrack. This is a typical Adagio with large stringy melody and big bars and could well be the second movement of some modern symphony and in general even resembles the famous "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. Of course a modern movie needs a refreshed version of such classic slow movement, and for this purpose Murphy applied pulsating bits, which makes it sound fresh and original.

The Matrix

Although there is a lot of music used in the film (Rage Against the Machine, Propellerheads, Ministry, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, and many others), The Matrix first and foremost glorified its composer, Don Davis. Studying the film, Davis noticed that the reflection effect is used in the movie quite often: The reflections of red and blue pills in Morpheus’ glasses, Trinity watching the agents putting Neo in their car through the rear-view mirror on her motorcycle, and so on. Therefore, while writing the music, the composer focused on the theme of reflections, combining the orchestral themes with the contrapuntal ideas.

Escape from New York

John Carpenter’s films are often supplemented by distinctive music composed by the director himself and performed on a synthesizer. As a result, the director personally wrote the soundtracks to almost all of his films. Many of of Carpenter's compositions have been recognized as cult ones. His style varies within the pop-rock/new age. In this film the music goes quite smoothly, with a couple of memorable tracks and individual motives, giving the film a stunning atmosphere. 

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