Director McG's take on the Terminator franchise and particularly the future war that we have been so tantalisingly teased with images and impressions of throughout the first three films has already been notable for star Christian Bale's super on-set tirade, and now the next big Summer blockbuster to come along, after the fun, but really rather poor, Wolverine, and simply excellent Star Trek, faces a fan-boy backlash and major critical drubbing. The problems of its (lack of) screenplay, narrative illogic, cardboard performances and regrettable cast (Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter and Bryce Dallas Howard - hmmm, all the girls, then) have been written sensationally across the net ad-nauseaum and now is not the time to slavishly dissect the good from the bad from the downright ugly about what is undeniably an action-packed couple of post-apocalyptic hours. Instead, we are going to take a look at the score for the latest in one of SF's most popular franchises and see just how well that measures up against its forebears and as a standalone album.
With Christian Bale assuming the battle-fatigues of the war-dog saviour of mankind, John Connor, and Star Trek's Anton (Chekov) Yelchin taking on the portentous role of Kyle Reese, another new, but well-known, personality to the series is accomplished composer Danny Elfman. No stranger to big budget, high-profile blockbusters and certainly one of Hollywood's go-to guys for scoring iconic, larger-than-life characters such as Batman, Spider-Man and The Hulk, Elfman's famed passion for percussion seems to be heaven-sent for such heroic, bombastic material as this. However, the Terminator movies have a huge musical following, with original composer Brad Fiedel's immortal heavy-metal clanging title theme so indelible that even personal modern-day fave Marco Beltrami could do little to stamp his own identity on the series with his music for Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. In a weird sort of developing pattern, Elfman takes the reins to part 4 of the mankind-versus-mecha saga after having taken over scoring duties from Beltrami on Hellboy II as well. But while Elfman's score for Big Red's second outing wasn't quite as good as Beltrami's, his score for Terminator Salvation is a distinct improvement over Part III's insipid offering.
But, as troubling as the movie has proved to be for many people, so too is Elfman's music. On the one hand, this is supreme, by-the-numbers action scoring. No more, no less. But, on the other, it is forgettable, derivative and ultimately generic. Those hoping for some of that good old Elfman “etherealism” amidst the barrage of bump 'n' grind will be sorely disappointed.
Now, when Elfman is good, he is fantastic. Listen to his wonderful scores for Burton's first two Batman outings, Mars Attacks! and his Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands and, of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Listen, also, to his exquisite scores for Clive Barker's Nightbreed, Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies and Barry Sonnenfeld's Men In Black. But, for every classic score that he comes up with, there are also plenty that either just about get by with a soaring section or two deep within them, or those that just muddle along like so much generic filler. He is a composer that, to fans and score devotees alike, comes across as someone who doesn't mind at all just taking the cheque and churning out any old rehash unless there is a real spark to the project at-hand that can inspire him to conjure magic. His work for Tim Burton is almost always worthwhile and the pair have what could be described as a symbiotic relationship - what is good for one is certainly good for the other. Yet, even here, Elfman can descend, perhaps inevitably given the sheer number of collaborations that they have had together, into run-of-the-mill easy money. His score for Burton's lamentable and unwanted Planet Of The Apes re-imagining (God, how I hate that phrase) was suitably primitive and exotically percussive, but it just didn't move, excite or captivate in the way that it should have done. Of course, Burton's heart wasn't in the film either - as is painfully obvious - and this could explain the lack of long-lasting appeal of the music. And, sadly, if his score for Terminator Salvation has a precedent, it is Planet Of The Apes.
Where the Apes had wildly drawn percussive exploitation - tribal rhythms twisted around yawning fantastical effects and choral work - Terminator features very similar pounds, beats and the same roaring insistence, albeit with more of a metallic, industrial edge this time around. The sound of machinery is everywhere, the music dominated by the prevailing cadence of humongous hardware, hyper-alloy combat chassis running amok, explosives going off left, right and centre, and full metal jackets laying waste to everything in sight. Elfman doesn't just rely on this punishing tone, though. He injects a forlorn littering of desolate whimsy and gritty pathos via acoustic guitar and allows some of the old Brad Fiedel themes from the first two movies to resurface - and this is only right, of course. But they are more like vague reminiscences than full-on renditions of what has gone before, Elfman paying homage only for the sake of thematic continuity. Faint echoes of the old main theme ripple through Elfman's own new one, like a distant, far-removed cousin. Truth be told, Fiedel's full scores actually weren't all that accessible on their own. They offered a grand cyborg-clashing signature theme that is still the definitive Terminator sound, of that there can be no doubt. That thumping five-note anvil-bash is now so blissfully iconic that it is beyond criticism. But the music elsewhere in those first two T800 time-travelling tours of duty is hugely unemotional, cold and lacking in development.
If you get a chance to hear Fiedel's expanded scores for the first two films, you are sure to discover that they are often intensely hypnotic and distinctly unnerving. Just listen to the music for Sarah's escape and for the T1000's pursuit of our heroes from the asylum to hear exactly what I mean. Divorced from the visuals, his music is deeply disturbing (but great in its own unceasingly intimidating way!) and violently inhuman. Apt for the story, naturally, but a “hard” listen on their own. Marco Beltrami distilled some of this implacable coldness, attempting to fashion something more organic out of the heavy, grinding motifs of Fiedel and he did, indeed, come up with something new and fresh, but the overall transition from industrial to semi-orchestral was much less memorable, or hummable.
Considering Beltrami's apparent wimping-out as a stark warning, Elfman goes tactical by actually embracing the aggressive and unforgiving discord of Fiedel's metal/synth dominance and running with it instead of away from it - but making sure to deliver some distinct tunes, progressive build-ups and detailed chaos within such a harsh pattern, and allowing for conventional strings, brass and woodwinds to enter into the fray. Percussion isn't solely volatile in his hands, unlike Fiedel's, who just wants to pummel you with clangorous enormity whilst his other instruments beyond the synthesiser only skirt around the periphery to soften out those relentless edges. Elfman finds space for his beats to breathe, pumping them with plentiful humanistic touches amidst the locomotive thunder. McG claimed that he wanted some of the old Terminator material kept in, at least partially, to ensure that the same "foundry-feel" was continued, but he also wanted new themes and a more diverse approach that would take the industrial sound of Fiedel and bolt it seamlessly onto Elfman's exuberant symphonics. Plus, an essential factor would be to establish new character themes and some barnstorming action. And Elfman certainly delivers some quality aural violence, even if the individual themes for John Connor, Sam Worthington's heroic cyborg, Marcus Wright, and Kyle Reese end up just becoming an enmeshed “Resistance” theme that encompasses one and all.
The high-points of the score, as heard on the album, are impressive, though. His main theme, heard in Track 1 Opening, and then interspersed in various guises throughout, mingles the indulgent deep bass swirls of Planet Of The Apes with the rising heroic semi-fanfare of Spider-Man. Strings glide over the top of churning brass and the bass, liberally accented with synths, literally throbs. Fiedel's Sarah Connor theme is certainly recalled here, but it is hesitant and quickly whisked away into its own new incarnation before you can blink an eye. It is recognisable, but pleasantly tangential enough to lumber across the blighted landscape with its own identity. Burning with desperation and egged-on by a kind of blacksmith-hammered beat, the backing of violins and cello and the lament of trumpet and horn add a richly vital degree of emotion. This six-note motif then becomes the main theme for Salvation. Like an overture, the first cue slows down after the midway point to bring in the softer, more melancholic refrain from guitar and strings, until a final stab from weighty bass and synth reminds us just who the enemy is. Track 2, entitled All Is Lost, hurls us into the unyielding fray of rubble and hate-totin' machines. The pace is upped and an intense wall of sound very reminiscent of Tyler Bates' 300 score surges at us. Another mid-section lull prefaces a dark and morose second half, that is capped-off with a solo trumpet call that purposefully brings in a militaristic stance, evocative of doomed duty and honourable last stands.
Elfman's lilting, wind-blown guitar serenades annihilation along with French horn in Track 3, Broadcast, and then we get the first major set-piece in The Harvester Returns, Track 4, in which he unleashes a frenetic, pulse-pounding cue of ferocious power and pace that is surely dedicated to destruction. Giddily exciting, this is the sort of cue that many modern composers thrust into their scores, though very few manage to make sound even remotely interesting beyond meaningless cacophony. Elfman's writing is dynamic, fast and relentless - the perfect accompaniment to a Terminator or, in this case, the human-grabbing monstrosity of the 50-foot Harvester - and full of complex orchestration. Hints of the Headless Horseman's unstoppable nature glimmer through the musical onslaught. A stark contrast, Track 5, Fireside, is Elfman in ambient, peaceful mode as his Latin guitar is plucked atmospherically away against the plight of a dwindling Mankind. It is quite possible that moments such as this are where he comes unstuck. And, hardly coincidentally, these are the same elements that tipped Fiedel's oppressive, brooding style over into lacklustre sentiment - a slight and gentle guitar twang endorsing the California/Mexico setting of the war-zone and tying-in with the desert sequences of T2, the quieter, and more reflective moments, if you will. Elfman incorporates the same idea and it definitely works better in the movie than here on the album, where it can disrupt the adrenal flow a little too easily.
Harsh clanging and deep-set synth-warbles undulate through the next track, No Plan, a slow, remorseless dirge of discord and dread. Again, the reference point is Planet Of The Apes, albeit reinforced with titanium. But another terrific couple of cues come next in Track 7, Reveal/The Escape. Beginning with an ominous march that resonates somewhere in the distance, there is a sense of heroism that finds its feet with a great and earnest power that soon reaches a glorious sweeping grandeur of bash-and-crash valour. Elfman slows things down for a spell that, truth be told, meanders a little, frustrating us as we can tell that something pretty major is about to go down. Edgy, suspense-laden strings slide through the metallic sludge and when the track reaches The Escape portion, speed, power and a taut, testosterone-fuelled fury takes the lead. Shivering timpani, raucous brass - flurries of wild trumpet competing with squalls from the trombone - and stony impacts enforced by synthesiser buffet the cue from side to side until the set-piece drags itself, bleeding, to a half-hearted crescendo. A good track, folks, and one that tells its own little story.
More robust action follows in Hydrobot Attack, although the track is only quite brief. Shrieking strings mimic metal claws and Elfman's soul-ripping brass makes repeated eviscerations. That great anvil/bell combination clocks-in with an inhuman heartbeat and then the track, sadly, peters-out. The main theme returns in Farewell, and those Mexican strings come along with it. But Elfman's next specialised set-piece comes in Track 10, Marcus Enters Skynet. The main theme takes a change of tack and segues into a cool mission-in-progress section that gradually raises the stakes, assimilating a martial drumbeat before submerging itself in a moody passage that even brings in the harp for some gentle, enveloping mystery. This tone is continued in A Solution, although there is a deeper sense of pathos contained here as some of Skynet's secrets are revealed. Serena, Track 12, is a signature theme for Helena Bonham Carter's nefarious instigator/overlord - a slow, guilt-trip of long-drawn-out notes and subdued metallic breathing. Elfman employs the musical equivalent of a wet finger sliding around the rim of a wine-glass for repeated skin-pricking effect, and his strings keen across the lid of a treacherous atmosphere, sealing the impression of deep betrayal and of a seething, incomprehensible anger.
Wisely, Track 13 Final Confrontation, brings us back into the fight with a vengeance. Nowhere near as dark as the previous action cues, there is a heraldic tone to the industrial swagger now as Elfman unleashes a torrential rush of rapid bow-thrusts for violins, an energetic beat equipped with strong, single hammer-strikes and ripe brass flourishes. Cymbals clash, and the jangle of chimes add detail to the metal mash-up. Horns and strings call out above the sweaty hullabaloo and the whole thing hurries towards a climax that, once again, just dissipates before that expected moment of high exultation. Elfman does this a lot - teasing us with a bounding orchestra that you think will rake the clouds with a soaring finale ... yet flirtatiously refuses to fully satisfy.
The score, as it appears on this album, then ends with Salvation, an ode to heroism and sacrifice, both human and machine. Elfman commences with heavy, forgiving chords on the piano, and then he lets the ivories take up a gentle rendition of the main theme. Woodwinds come in, the clarinet assuming the theme, and then strings over brass complete the transformation. A darker motif descends as a secondary theme - for the war, itself - amply providing us with the knowledge that things aren't over yet. This burgeoning last track is another good one that effectively closes this chapter with gravitas, respite and, indeed, salvation.
He may not get the individual themes quite as established as he could have done, but Elfman maintains a mood and a style that is consistent and driven with infernal power. Harboured in a neo-nether region between techno and orchestral, this is ripe with martial embellishments and moves with programmed deliberation. It isn't a smooth ride, however, as this is still unflinching, pulverising stuff no matter how calculated and supremely well orchestrated the whole thing sounds. The shadow of Graeme Revell looms over the dense and complex sound-design, and John Powell-esque electronica bubbles about from time to time and, beyond this, I was even reminded on more than one occasion of Michael Kamen's score for the first X-Men movie, but this is still a perfectly enjoyable piece of work from Danny Elfman. However, I do struggle to find a connection with Elfman's moments of softer writing to the Love Theme from Alex North's classic score for Spartacus, as several commentators have observed. Yes, I can hear the notes that they are referring to, but without their claims for this supposed similarity, I would never have made the connection, myself. The film may drown out a few moments underneath a welter of high-incendiary but, as an album, this works surprisingly well up to a point. Somehow, Danny Elfman has succeeded in making a Terminator score that unites the humanity and the techno-savagery into one highly charged and bombastic whole. Thematically, the better stuff revolves around aggrieved proto-cyborg Marcus Wright, which is a strange switch on conventional character-motif. Those who thought that John Connor would have the prime signature - and indeed hog the screen - had better think again. The machines have always been the stars of this universe, and not the humans. And, with this in mind, perhaps, we should be more forgiving of what McG tried to achieve. Well ... perhaps. You want war, chaos and a terrific roster of mechanical menace - you've got it.
And Danny Elfman obligingly smudges his customary glitter with oil, grease and blood to find the voice of human extinction.
You want heart and soul? Ahhh, you'd best be looking elsewhere.
For me, the best original score that this year has so far delivered has been Marco Beltrami's - yep, him again - work for the entertaining, but silly Nic Cage thriller Knowing, with the likes of Debbie Wiseman's wildly gothic and large-scale vamp-fest for Lesbian Vampire Killers running a close second and, of course, Michael Giacchino's newly invigorated Star Trek beaming itself right into the top three. But Elfman's score for Terminator Salvation isn't too far off. Don't get me wrong, though, he is not re-inventing the wheel. He is not delivering anything that is unique or new, even for him. But he is supplying a gung-ho, action-packed score that plays with hyper-heroics, toys with the familiar Terminator rhythms and satisfies on an instinctive and grungy level of raw “physicality” that captures the mood of McG's down 'n' dirty instalment. Franchise scoring is never an easy task. Unless you are John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones), Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen Trilogy, Rambo and five Star Trek movies), Hans Zimmer (Pirates Of The Caribbean 1-3, Nolen's Batmen) or Bond's iconic John Barry, all of whom are composers who routinely develop and consolidate their themes over an episodic saga, there will always be those who decry the very idea of a new composer coming on-board a cherished movie franchise, especially after a previous attempt has failed to inject fresh life into it. Likewise, there will always be those who positively adore new blood pouring into the mix. Personally, I like to keep an open mind, and I am certainly not too arrogant to dismiss fresh faces, new ideas and the thematic evolution of films and their scores.
If I'm honest, I wasn't at all sure about this score at first, folks, but it definitely grows on you. The inclusion of a rock song in the line-up - in this case Alice In Chains' “Rooster” - as the final track is only to be expected from a big summer movie such as this. The grungy, dirge-like anthem is sure to appeal to some people, but it doesn't fit with Elfman's music at all and just feels like so much tacked-on commercial marketing. Of course, it can be programmed out - which I would recommend.
To sum up, I have listened to this quite a lot now and I have no hesitation in recommending it to action score lovers. Elfman is slumming it but, possibly against all the odds, he has still come up with a satisfying blend of SF-tinged carnage, suspense and moody mayhem. It is certainly no classic and the samey-samey, ten-a-penny techno-grunge theme is bound to deflate at least as many as it will inspire. Yet, even though this falls far short of what Elfman is undoubtedly capable of, it lays the foundations of what he, and McG, certainly hope will be the start of a series.
A good updating of the saga's musical heritage, then, combining the typical genre prerequisites with the composer's own unique gift for exotic and flamboyantly primal percussion.
Full Track Listing -
1. Opening 05:59
2. All Is Lost 02:44
3. Broadcast 03:15
4. The Harvester Returns 02:43
5. Fireside 01:30
6. No Plan 01:42
7. Reveal/The Escape 07:42
8. Hydrobot Attack 01:48
9. Farewell 01:39
10. Marcus Enters Skynet 03:21
11. A Solution 01:43
12. Serena 02:26
13. Final Confrontation 04:13
14. Salvation 03:04
15. Alice In Chains - Rooster 06:14
Elfman's death-metal score for Terminator Salvation is a difficult thing to dislike, yet it is hardly something to write home about either. There is nothing here that you haven't heard before. The composer's trademark percussive overkill is brought to bear with vigour and its marriage to Fiedel's customary Skynet metallic bombast is appropriately fitting. Yet it can often feel like so much assembly-line, generic metal-man mayhem. However, I enjoy the score a little more each time I hear it, and it certainly helps to swing the franchise into a more emotional and enjoyable direction.
Brad Fiedel worked strenuously to avoid the human element, but where Marco Beltrami tried unsuccessfully to incorporate it, Elfman pulls off the difficult trick of marrying the harshness of tech-terror with the warmth of human spirit. Having said this, though, there will always be those who cannot take to the industrial “noise” of such a score, no matter how well integrated with compassion it may be. So this is a tough call, really. Elfman on form is absolutely top-notch, but Elfman performing only “just right” is a disappointment, however you cut it. But even if he is breaking no new ground for himself with Terminator Salvation, he, nevertheless, delivers broad and pulsating action and a mean mood of apocalyptic absolution.
This is definitely worth a listen ... although it is impossible to say, at this stage, whether or not “he'll be back” for another pop at the Terminator series.
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