It’s well known that the musical score can make or break a movie or TV show, whether it’s a rom-com or something that freezes your very blood. And it’s no different in the sci-fi world. While the special effects are often the focus for many people, the soundtracks and themes that go with them can do just as much to set the tone and atmosphere.
So here are my picks for the top ten musical themes from the world of sci-fi.
The soundtrack of the 1984 hit movie was largely written by the famous and prodigious Elmer Bernstein. But the song that everyone associates with it is undoubtedly the Ghostbusters theme by Ray Parker Jr. The funky rhythm complements the zany humor in the movie perfectly. And let’s face it – who ya gonna call?.
9. Star Trek Deep Space Nine
I have mixed feelings about Star Trek themes. The original TV series music was good for its day, but from the Next Generation on the music seemed to get increasingly bland and dirge-like. The one exception to this was the DS9 theme(Seasons 1-3), which had a grandeur and gravitas suitable for a show that was often bittersweet. Sadly, the producers changed it in Season 4 and added some dubious and bizarre bonging. Who knows why?
8. Event Horizon
This movie was a scare-your-pants-off sci-fi extravaganza with the music to match, written by yet another prolific composer, Michael Kamen. The main theme played over the opening credits mixes tribal drums and electronic music, blended with classical instruments, and produces the perfect mix of the familiar and the unknown, which fits the style of the movie perfectly.
7. Forbidden Planet
This 1956 classic is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and is still chilling to watch after all this time. The soundtrack development is a story all on its own, filled with weird electronic music and made up of an assortment of whines, hums, and screeching noises. The writers, Bebe and Louis Barron, were experimenters in musical creation and built their own electronic circuits to produce the sounds they made. Even now, this soundtrack will alternately set your hair on end and frighten the bejayzus out of anyone who hears it.
6. The Thing
Another chilling sci-fi tale. The 1982 John Carpenter film was a remake of an earlier movie, based on a novella by John W. Campbell Jr. called Who Goes There? The opening themeuses a steady throbbing thudding, reminiscent of a heartbeat and immediately makes you ill at ease. And the eerie synthesizer melody over top of that doesn’t offer any respite. The soundtrack was written by Ennio Morricone, a slightly eccentric choice as Morricone was better known for the memorable Fistful Of Dollars and A Few Dollars More movie soundtracks that starred Clint Eastwood. Nevertheless, his music hit the spot here and undoubtedly earned him a few more fistfuls of dollars!
5. Iron Man
John Favreau’s 2008 movie was the first installment in what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and gave us Robert Downey Jr perfectly portraying the playboy character of Tony Stark. (And yes, I have to admit it’s my favorite superhero movie 🙂 ) It’s overflowing with some of the finest classic rock tracks, opening with AC/DC’s stomping Back In Black as the Humvees roll through the desert and closing with a rendition of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man (What else?). The main theme (used when Tony first gets full control over the Iron Man suit) is a similar thumping rock track, letting us know we’re in for a smart, sassy, and fast-paced movie blending action and light-heated moments. Not a bad start at all!
4. Wrath Of Khan
When it came time to find the music for Star Trek the Wrath of Khan, Paramount had cut the budget for the film due to the mixed success of the first movie, Star Trek – The Motion Picture. This meant Jerry Goldsmith, who’d created the first soundtrack was not an option because he was too expensive. After searching around, the newcomer James Horner, was chosen. And what a choice it was! The themehad a more modern feel, mixing classical music with a more bombastic sound that was a perfect match for the movie’s heavy accent on action and naval themes. From the opening bars, you know not only that it’s Star Trek but also that it’s going to be good! And as for Horner, he went on to compose numerous other soundtracks, including Aliens, Cocoon (1 and 2), Avatar, and who could forget Titanic (though we all try hard!).
3. Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie was a visual and aural masterpiece in every sense of the word. The score was composed by electronic, ambient, orchestral musical genius Vangelis. The movie is full of amazing soundscapes that effortlessly spirit you away to the dark and mysterious sci-fi noir world that sees Rick Deckard hunting down a rogue group of Replicants (robots) that have come to Earth illegally. The opening theme is full of pensive, haunting strings, punctuated with stabs of electronic drums reminiscent of the sound of distant thunder. Later the piece transitions into an eerie hiss like wind in the desert, before segueing into an electronic organ finish filled with equal parts hope and loneliness. Even after all these years it still sends shivers up my spine.
This will more than likely seem like a strange choice. UFO was a Gerry Anderson TV show from the 70s, and was his first all live action production. In some ways the show hasn’t aged very well–especially the 70s ideas on future fashion! Despite that, the show covers some interesting and often surprisingly dark themes. The opening music for me is absolutely fantastic. Written by Barry Gray, a long time collaborator with Anderson, the music is a bouncing, funky mix of jazz and 60s/70s pop brimming with Moog synths and percussive beats that makes you want to jump up and dance – a little odd for a show that was meant to be serious, but it certainly captures that retro-sci-fi vibe!
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 was a feast for both the eyes and ears in so many ways that it’s hard to imagine that the soundtrack had ever been planned any differently. Originally, the movie was meant to have a soundtrack written especially for it by Alex North, a notable composer known for fine movie scores such as Spartacus. During filming and early screenings of the takes, Kubrick used a test soundtrack made up of numerous classical pieces. When he finally heard North’s composition, he decided he preferred the test tracks and used them instead. In itself, this might not have been so bad, except he didn’t tell North, who only discovered none of his music had been used when he attended the movie premiere! The opening themeis the now instantly recognizable, “Sunrise” from Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss, and the movie also famously uses The Blue Danube for the balletic approach of the Orion shuttle to the wheeled space station orbiting Earth. The latter was composed by Johann Strauss II – no relation to Richard, despite the common surnames.
So those are my choices. Agree, disagree? What would your top picks be?