Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aliens: Copy-Paste Saves the Day!

I've been there. It's down to the wire on an important project. I have to produce something for the client, since the contract clearly says the report is due tomorrow. But there's precious little to use as the basis for said report. Survey results are anemic, the client hasn't provided any support for our research, and nobody's answered our phone calls for interviews. We've got publicly available statistics, a few analytical tricks up our sleeve, and not a lot to write that will be particularly insightful or even interesting about the client's situation. I know that we've had other clients in similar situations that have produced more successful reports. So, what do I do?

Yep. Copy-paste.

It's not a crime. If you have a backlog of usable material that's worked before, and your back is against the wall, why reinvent the wheel? Chuck in the pieces you can use, adapt as necessary to fit the information at hand, rinse, repeat until you have something resembling a respectable document.

James Horner is a composer known, and notorious, for repeating himself. I think there's fair cause to criticize him in many circumstances for recycling material. He seems to coast on the same ideas for a few years until he hits upon a new, intriguing innovation - like building the sound of the score around a particular ethnic instrument (or set of them), as he began doing with the terrific score to Braveheart, and then continued doing with Titanic, The Mask of Zorro, etc. I was prepared to take him to task for a particularly egregious instance of score-by-collage in Aliens, until I did a little more digging to figure out the circumstances of that score. As it turns out, Horner was thrown into a situation of unbelievable pressure with no time:

. . . So I feel the need to cut him a little slack here. (If rumors are true, he was literally up against a wall at least once, courtesy of an enraged James Cameron.) With just days to put something together, it's not surprising that Horner ended up with a patchwork score that features scraps of material from half a dozen other sources. It is surprising to hear those pieces if you're familiar with their sources, though, because he does very little to disguise them. Several action cues use his belligerent "Klingon" theme from Star Trek III without alteration, and there's at least one nearly verbatim quote of a fanfare from Star Trek II in the cue "Going after Newt." Plenty of the score consists of atmospherics that echo - literally and figuratively - the themes and techniques Jerry Goldsmith used in the original Alien: Trumpet sounds and clacking low strings bounce around the sonic environment, and solitary horns cut through the desolation in ways that somehow evoke both Goldsmith and Horner's own prior work.

The score obviously owes a debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey as well. (Hooray, I've reached a point where I can link back to my own previous blog entries. Let the self-reference begin.) Horner opens the film with a quoted phrase of the "Adagio" from the Gayane ballet suite by Aram Khachaturian, the very same piece with which Kubrick opened the "Jupiter Mission" segment of 2001, as Frank and Dave go about their mundane business. It's clearly an homage, as the spacecraft bearing the frozen Ripley slides into view -- but what Horner does with this theme throughout the film is more interesting.

Most of Aliens is decidedly lacking in thematic consistency, but the one thread that seems continuous throughout is the use of the borrowed Gayane Adagio theme as an unofficial theme for Ellen Ripley and later, her protection of Newt. It appears several times in its gentler incarnation, reminiscent of the original -- but then it reappears later in the relentless action of the film's second half, blasting forth in a stressed-out and strident form on horns and strings in the cue "Futile Escape." (I'm not including specific track listings for the album here because there are so many different versions of the Aliens album. I don't actually have the deluxe edition pictured above; I've not felt a compelling need to acquire more of this music.) It's perhaps the most interesting and inventive thing Horner does with the music for Aliens - and one of the most controversial, since Horner apparently didn't bother to provide attribution for his stolen theme.

Ultimately, the measure of a score is how well it serves the film, and Aliens gets a pass there, undoubtedly. From a functional standpoint, this score needs to set up the scary atmosphere, then keep its foot on the gas for the whole third act, stopping a few times to act as accomplice to the inevitable Cameron multiple fake-out ending sequence. It serves its purpose admirably in all respects, and the frenzied second half of the score is even pretty fun to listen to on its own.

As a footnote, it is especially ironic that this score, pasted together, artistically inconsistent, and messy as it is, produced Horner's first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, though they had passed up several worthier candidates by that point. Copy-paste is a pretty handy trick - especially when you get away with it!

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