Film Score Review: John Carter

Composed by Michael Giacchino.  Released by Walt Disney, 2012.

The media decided that Andrew Stanton’s massive-budgeted space opera, John Carter, was one of the cinema’s greatest commercial disasters before the film even premiered this weekend (more evidence, as if we needed any, that 24-hour entertainment journalism is severely distorting the way we look at movies).  I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it manages to prove the naysayers wrong for two reasons.  One, because Stanton, director of Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is a brilliant filmmaker, and it would be a shame to see his live-action filmmaking career cut short in its tracks because Disney didn’t know how to market John Carter.  Two, because the film has given composer Michael Giacchino the rare chance to write a bold, thematic, and epic orchestral score, the kind that studio heads are convinced that audiences don’t want anymore.  I want the movie to do well in part because I want the studios to realize that, hey, there actually is an audience for old-fashioned symphonic adventure music.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s productive to place too much stock in what the score stands for.  I miss the days when popcorn movies received shamelessly melodic orchestral scores as much as the next child of the ’80s, and I’d like to see them come back.  But I also recognize the danger in mindlessly lavishing praise on a new score just because it’s competently orchestrated and has a discernible theme.  I’m not particularly pleased with today’s film music climate, but I also think we should be cautious of getting so caught up in nostalgia that we blind ourselves to genuine innovation.  With that in mind, Michael Giacchino is a composer who’s balanced nostalgia and innovation as deftly as any I can think of in his generation.  With scores for The Incredibles, Star Trek, Up, Super 8, and the last two Missions: Impossible, he’s written music that fondly recalls the film music of bygone eras, but he’s also developed a contemporary voice that keeps him from seeming out-of-date to modern-day directors and producers.  I’m not always the hugest fan of his music, but I respect what he’s been able to do immensely.  In his 8 years writing feature film scores, he seems to have become the most sought-after contemporary composer after Hans Zimmer, and that he’s managed to do it without playing Zimmer’s game is pretty admirable.

John Carter is in many ways the cumulation of everything that he’s achieved so far.  I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say it’s his best (his work on Ratatouille and Lost sets a high bar), but it’s easily his biggest crowd-pleaser.  Here he’s written a score that’s nearly impossible for film music fans to dislike.  It has the grandeur and earnestness of old-fashioned Hollywood adventure, the contemporary Middle Eastern exotica of modern-day Hollywood epics, and its all rounded off with Giacchino’s own signature action/drama music that he’s been developing since Lost.  Moreover, he manages to tie all of this together in a very coherent and very entertaining package that seems to bring out the best in all of the above-mentioned worlds.  In many ways, it feels much more like a hybrid of Giacchino in Lost mode and James Horner at his fantasy peak in the early ’90s.  The theme, as others have pointed out, even has a vague hint of Horner’s Glory (not to mention every score in which Horner reuses that theme), and the score feels like it would fit right in with any of the big thematic fantasy scores that were all over the place two decades ago.

That said, I do think it’s worth pointing out that while it would fit in with the much-loved fantasy scores of decades past, it wouldn’t necessarily stand with the best of them.  Many members of the film music community have been bursting with superlatives for this score, even going so far as to compare it to Williams at his peak in the late 1970s.  While I’m happy that so many people have found new music to love, I also think a little perspective might be in order.  Midway through my 3rd listen to this album, I came to the following series of realizations:  A) a brief passage reminded me of Goldsmith’s 1999 score for The Mummy, B) I didn’t find this score anywhere near as memorable as Goldsmith’s The Mummy, C) The Mummy is actually pretty low on my list of favorite Goldsmith scores, D) I’m not even the world’s biggest Goldsmith fan, and finally, E) that this line of thinking is really depressing.  Now it’s ridiculous to knock John Carter down because it doesn’t quite hold its own with the best scores it’s recalling, particularly as Giacchino’s managed to keep the music resolutely in his own voice.  But while the score is very entertaining, coherent, and satisfying, I don’t know that it’s a lot more than that.  It doesn’t move or excite me the way the best adventure music moves and excites me, and while I imagine that in five year’s time I’ll still occasionally give the score a spin (erm…through my iPod…), I doubt there will be many occasions in which I choose John Carter over Star Wars, The RocketeerCutthroat Island, or, yes, The Mummy.

Now this is not a reasonable expectation to set for any new piece of music, and it probably seems churlish to complain about a score that’s this good, simply because it doesn’t quite stand with the best of the best.  But my reservations aren’t really for Giacchino’s music itself, which is very, very good.  My reservations are rather for the prevailing attitude that champions an entertaining diversion as the best of the best, simply because it represents something that we miss.  Regardless of how well the film performs, I hope that Michael Giacchino gets the chance to write more scores like John Carter.  I also, however, hope that he gets to expand his palate further, that he finds more chances to be innovative, that he finds more opportunities to experiment with music that isn’t immediately crowd pleasing, even if it’s more substantial.  And I hope that the people who have been so quick to herald John Carter as the return to film music’s glory days are just as receptive when Giacchino takes them to more meaningful places.

Rating: **** out of *****

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5 thoughts on “Film Score Review: John Carter

  1. Porter says:

    Let me get this straight, you listened to the film score before you saw the movie? Isn’t that like reading the last page of a thriller novel to find out who the killer is?

    • Yeah, it’s strange isn’t it? In some ways it does seem counter-intuitive to review a film score without seeing the film, and I probably will re-evaluate John Carter if I actually get the chance to see the film itself (and I do want to). But taking film score albums on their own merits is actually pretty common in film music criticism. When you follow film music, you end up listening to many many soundtracks for films that you’ll never have time to see. On the one hand, it seems unfair to review these albums without seeing the films, because you end up evaluating music that theoretically was never meant to stand on its own. But on the other hand, once a film score gets repackaged and sent out into the world in album form, I would argue that it is presenting itself of pure music. So when I review the album for John Carter, I’m thinking of the music less in the specific context of the film itself and more in the context of contemporary film music in general.

      You’re right though in that it can inadvertently produce spoilers, but I actually enjoy that aspect. There are times when I’ll go in knowing that something dark is going to happen at the end because I’ve heard the music, but that’s often all I know. Frequently, watching the pieces fall into place when I finally see the movie actually enhances the experience for me.

  2. Porter says:

    What do you think of the Gladiator sound track? That and Chariots of Fire have always been my favorites. (I was a big Dead Can Dance fan growing up.)

  3. I like Gladiator a lot, actually. I don’t like the precedent it set – that all films set in ancient times must feature power anthems and vaguely-middle-eastern new age music – but that’s not the score’s fault. In Gladiator, all of those elements were extremely original and put to excellent use. Gerrard’s contributions to the 10 minutes or so of the film (and album) are terrific, and Hans Zimmer’s heart-on-the-sleeves action music is at about its best. In some ways, the score represents the last moment when you could look at Hans Zimmer as normal (and often very good) film composer, as opposed to the industry-dominating enterprise that he’s become.

    I have a soft spot for Chariots of Fire too, though it’s been a long time since I’ve given it a spin. As far as Vangelis scores go though, Blade Runner is definitely my favorite (though I also really love 1492, even though it’s attached to a near-unwatchable movie).

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