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War Of The Worlds - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany May 12, 2010

  • Movies review

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    War Of The Worlds - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

    Right, now the reason I have chosen to revisit this 2005 score from John Williams is because, hot off the back of enjoying the Blu-ray and CD score for Minority Report for my recent review, I find myself utterly craving War Of The Worlds making its BD debut. So, having re-watched the film (and Byron Haskin's flamboyant original to boot) in preparation for its no doubt dynamic AV appearance, and to spur on forum excitement for it, here's a look at what Steven Spielberg's illustrious musical muse and regular collaborator came up with for War Of The Worlds, post 9/11-style.

    Although Spielberg had investigated the trauma, the horror, and historical shock-waves of the Second World War in both Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, Williams' scores for the two films were still lyrical, lush and tonal. But once the pair reached the noughties and came together for Minority Report, it was clear that their outlook and attitudes had changed. Or rather, been changed for them by the unforgettable events that took place in New York in September 2001, but the shook the entire world. Suddenly, this mass atrocity caused them to rethink, to assess, to take stock and to try to interpret such evil in the context of their combined creativity. Spielberg's movies took on a darker, more cutting and cynical edge, his former comic-book approach and Peter Pan-esque sense of fun burned-away like the victims of a napalm strike. When the remake of War Of The Worlds came around, the world that would view it was a much different place than the one that was entertained (or bored) by the likes of Independence Day, so the excitement and wonder of an alien invasion was not going to be something that could be treated so trivially or with any convincing sense of jingoism. Spielberg had been struck numb by the sight of thousands of Americans fleeing from Manhattan and reduced to refugee status. He, along with everyone else, had become appalled by how helpless and vulnerable the once mighty United States really was in the face of such calamity. And not just terrorism. After his emotional SF allegory was released, Hurricane Katrina sank New Orleans and the human disaster happened all over again. And, here, mimicking elements from his own film, the worst enemy was not nature but the people that had been displaced by it. This was something that would form the core of his film, its lost soul, as it were.

    If the seventies was an era of movie nihilism right across all the genres - from Dirty Harry to Straw Dogs to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Death Race 2000 and from The French Connection to All The President's Men - then the lengthy spell of pop-culture whimsy and daft muscle-packed hokum that presided over the next two decades was when cosy complacency seemed to have set in. America was sitting arrogantly behind a celluloid wall of inane bravado - a wall that would, literally, come crashing down around its ears. But, in response to the events of 9/11, no-one was quicker than Spielberg, the once demigod of the popcorn movie, itself. Thrusting his man-of-the-moment, Tom Cruise, as the film's “everyman” Ray Farrier, into this wasteland of human detritus and alien red-weed, he set about re-evaluating the classic story from H.G. Wells and placing it in a contemporary setting - with allegory written all over it.

    There would be spectacle, all right. But this was also intended to hurt. Family and home come first, he was saying. And you'll be forced to do anything to protect them.

    When John Williams was given the task of scoring WOTW, he had just unleashed his Star Wars swansong for Revenge Of The Sith something like a month before, and the whole process must have seemed like just a little bit of history repeating itself. For back in 2002, when he composed the score for Minority Report, he had just done Attack Of The Clones. But whilst Minority and Clones had some areas of similarity - the chaotic chase through Coruscant and its ethnic percussion cropping up under a vague disguise as Cruise's Pre-crime cop goes on the run amongst other nods and hold-overs - there was only a fleeting resemblance between Sith and War. And that was only to be found in the overt sense of doom and fatality. Of hopelessness and death. Of the end of it all. In Sith, the Jedi are wiped out and Yoda's CG incarnation collapses as the Force shudders with galactic remorse. This fine and memorable element becomes the veritable musical backbone of War Of The Worlds. Doesn't sound like much fun, does it? And it isn't. But that's the whole point. The film is a remorselessly authentic depiction of Mankind on the brink of annihilation - pathetic, desperate and struggling with one another in the abstract fury of our own futility in the face of the invaders. This isn't a golly-gosh fantastical light-show - this is the collapse of civilisation as seen through the eyes of one man and the battered baggage of his estranged family. The music has to wallow in the depths of personal despair in order to give a voice to such calamity.

    This wasn't going to be an easy ride.

    John Williams doesn't like releasing “Complete” soundtrack albums. He is old school, and he has separate standards for the films, themselves, and the album presentations that derive from them. In the 60's and 70's both he and Jerry Goldsmith took great pains to prepare scores for public release that were “reflections” of what was heard in the movie, re-arranged into suites that both composers produced for the best musical listening experience. In those days, and for Williams even to this day, there was never an intention of making a full score available and in proper chronological order. Oh, the likes of the original Star Wars Trilogy have now seen the light of day, as well as Jaws, Close Encounters, Superman and most of the Indiana Jones scores. But these have been done only when Williams has bowed down to fan pressure. He still very much prefers to concoct something new and fresh with CD presentations. As such, you will find that Decca's War Of The Worlds, although very generous indeed at sixty-one minutes, is not only not the complete score (you'll have to look towards “unofficial” suppliers for that - and, although the several versions that I have heard haven't sounded all that good, they do include some very important elements that you won't find on this disc) but also that what is presented here doesn't play in the film's rational order. It is, however, one of the most original scores of the decade and certainly one of Williams' most heartfelt, exciting and haunting. And considering just who we are talking about here, that is saying one helluva lot!

    Marvellously starting out with the Prologue, which also features that soothing, yet ominous burr of Morgan Freeman delivering that iconic opening narration that Sir Richard Burton once emoted for Jeff Wayne. As strange as it may seem, Freeman's voice, no less distinctive than Burton's, actually sounds like an update given the tonal void that it issues across. Williams backs this provocative opening gambit with a weird sort of ethereal hybrid of floating dissonance and eerie tonalities that glisten and gleam with a hypnotic sound that gently undulates. Thus, the first part of the track is actually quite soothing, quite trance-like. Then, when Freeman's warning begins, the tones shift in mood, becoming something deeper, darker and less evocative of direction-less space, more indicative of something terrible drawing closer.

    Straight after this spectral opening, Williams plunges us headlong into the tense Ferry Scene which, in the film occurs quite some way in. But as an introduction to the frantic, chaotic and desperate struggles that the film encapsulates, positioning the track so early on is a sublime trick. This is, indeed, a phenomenal piece of music that moves like a roller-coaster and leaves you breathless. After a traumatic cross-country trek in which they have been attacked and lost their car and only weapon, Ray and his two kids, Robbie and Rachel (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning), arrive at the packed landing stage for the ferry. Troops try to keep order but when the ominous sirens of the alien Tripods sound out atop the ridge above the town, all hell breaks loose. Williams funnels all this panic and bedlam, as people fight to get aboard the vessel, into a series of dynamic charges. Brass and, particularly, his favoured horns rush about in staccato bursts. Cymbals clash and percussion reverberates at rapid intervals, injecting the pace with nitroglycerine. An underlying plateau of tensely agitated strings seeds this whirling maelstrom of barrelling action. Deep bass drums punctuate the mid-section, providing a firm foundation for the spiralling horns that signify the ferry finally breaking away from the landing-stage. But the wonderful accompaniment of wordless female vocals, from the Hollywood Film Chorale, mark a shiver-inducing new level in the music, and, as the string section twirls menacingly around and around, the film reveals a glowing whirlpool in the river right beside the vessel. Percussion hammers away in the background and then massed brass broadsides us as the ferry is capsized by a Tripod wrenching itself from the depths. Massively tense sections develop for densely banked strings and then the original driving rhythm returns in a relentless barrage of fury. The faint glimmer of a harp heralds the finale of the track, as Ray and his kids manage to haul themselves out of the river on the other side and watch, in futility, as people are plucked from the churning water by the paddling Tripods that have been waiting to catch them. This has been an epic track, folks.

    Following on from this is the music from an earlier scene, though this doesn't play out as we hear it in the film. Entitled Reaching The Country, this begins with the sound of wailing angels keening from the Chorale singers. Woodwinds and strings arrive to lend strength and horror at what is happening. This is a lament and it is as serious as anything you could contemplate. Private Ryan's Hym To The Fallen shorn of its noble respect and grandeur. Ray and his kids observe fleeing civilians being vaporised on a distant hillside and Williams' music eschews symbolism in favour of symphonic genocide.

    Then we get The Intersection Scene which, of course, is the first encounter that we have with the Tripods and the film's first wowing FX and action sequence, hailing from much earlier again than the last track. Investigating the crater in the road that is the result of multiple lightning strikes during the ferocious electrical storm, Ray and the circle of bewildered onlookers become victim to the first alien war-machine as it rises from beneath the ground and lays waste to the borough. With cars being flung through the air and panicking people getting vaporised all around him, Ray runs for his life as the town is demolished. Williams' music for the sequence commences only as the Tripod begins to rise to the surface, driving a solid, churning rhythm that rumbles with a fearsome, machine-like momentum. The motif is hard, heavy and unstoppable. Leaf-falls of violin-scrapes slide across this unforgiving drive. A brief lull takes place as people turn back to stop and stare as this metal leviathan assumes its full height. We know what is going to happen - and they certainly shouldn't have stopped running to gawp at it. Massive walls of brass and horns gather up strength, those spectral vocals rise and rise, finally assuming a caterwaul of unbearable suspense. Then the entire orchestra raises hell with energised vigour - percussion pounding, woodwinds heightening the steroid-packed brass and horns. Amazingly, Williams also depicts the actual wrath-spewing weapons of the war-machines with his own musical blaster-beams that sear and whoosh across the orchestra against thick spears jabbed out from tuba, oboes and bassoons. Bass thumps out the climax of the track.

    Ray And Rachel offers more melancholic, shell-shocked respite from the musical carnage. Gentle, morose violins and cellos sob together in what feels like a subverted pastoral. A heart-clutching crescendo is almost reached, Williams just teasing the emotions a little. The piece has a Vaughan Williams quality about it, although the end result is actually more icy than lyrical. But as sombre as it is, this represents a spell in which we can get our breath back.

    Which is just as well, as the next track is going to run for its life. With Spielberg's camera doing 360-degree tricks around the solenoid-replaced car as Ray and his kids blast out of town, Williams makes sure to keep that momentum super-charged and white-knuckled. Escape From The City, which chronicles this pell-mell mini-evacuation, is another tour de force in a score that can claim several. A pulsating rhythm kicks in with jagged trumpets and trombone, nudges from tuba and clarinet and scissoring strings. Percussion echoes in the background. The tempo alters, but the speed and energy of the piece never decelerates. A piano joins the fray, and the whole track comes together in one continuous sprint with the listener struggling to keep up in its slipstream. Catchy and memorable, this is another high-point of the score. Williams even allows this to fade out in a similar fashion to how he closed the shark's night-time assault on the Orca in Jaws - the pace never actually slackening, merely receding into the distance as we are left behind by Ray and his kids, stunned and breathless.

    Probing The Basement is a spine-tingling delight of pure unnerving dissonance, as our beleaguered survivors are forced into a reluctant game of hide and seek with an alien probe as they, together with Tim Robbins' unhinged Ogilvy, shelter in a dank and labyrinthine basement. Williams keeps us on our toes, our skin prickled and the hairs standing rigid on the back of our necks with tonal menace, angular, sliding wedges of sound from clarinets and horns. Flutes meddle and weird percussion glimmers with a metallic sheen. Slow bass begins to sound, a sustained cymbal clash peals out. There is no harmony, no rhythm. A sudden charging phrase bounds towards us as the snake-like, sinuous probe almost uncovers the cowering humans, but quick thinking from Ray, and a handy mirror, saves their bacon. Williams lets the track play out without lessening the threat, just having the music recede, as he did before, only this time it parallels the probe sliding back out of the basement, having found no-one.

    There is more pain and sorrow in Refugee Status, Williams not forgetting the bigger picture of a multitude of the dispossessed fill Spielberg's frame. Similar strains to this can be heard in Revenge Of The Sith. Ray, now injured and his senses reeling from a terrible mob attack, has retreated to a lonely diner with his kids to sit in shocked reverie at what has become of them. Of everyone. The music purposely arrests the persecuted forlornness of their predicament with anguished strings, dejected woodwinds and vague brass interjections. There is colour to this cue, but it is smothered with despair. As rain descends on a mass of weary refugees making their way to the ferry - or to anywhere - we see that Ray and his family have fallen in with them, now part of a vast wave of pitiful, ousted humanity. With Spielberg's personal project of Munich looming on the horizon, and Williams also scoring that, it is hard not to imagine that both director and composer were finding imagery and motivations from either story colliding within some of these more serious and tragic cues.

    Track 9's Attack On The Car covers the horrendous scene in which Ray's vehicle is besieged by a mob of desperate refugees who surround it, smash the windows and attempt with deadly force to commandeer it. Without a doubt, this is one of the film's most upsetting set-pieces. There's no aliens involved. No buildings being uprooted. No airplanes dropping out of the sky. Just people. In other words - this could happen. We are immediately as helpless and terrified as Ray, who must battle to protect his kids from the crowd. No rhyme or reason, John Williams faces down the mob and embraces the situation with terse strings and agitated horns and brass that race alongside one another, clarinets and oboes stumbling over flutes and percussion, the whole thing a frenzied stampede. This is not how it plays out in the film, and the track seems to take in other elements that may even relate to some of the excised footage, possibly even the oft-talked-about “Camelot” sequence.

    With this in mind, it is worth stating that some of these track titles can be a little misleading. Williams has put the album together with an ear for suites, so some slight rearrangement has taken place. The Separation Of The Family, Track 10, is a reflective piece for watery notes from a lone piano that echo against a low tone of numb fragility. Slight caresses from strings and a few final plucks from the harp fail to foster any hope or optimism. What is missing from this cue, though, is the momentous and haunting crescendo for when Ray is forced to relinquish his hold over his vengeful son, Robbie, as they face one-another for what could be the last time on a hill about to erupt into flames. Although this sort of chopping and changing happens throughout the album, I find the omission from this cue the most obvious. What we are left with is the dirge for after the separation has occurred, not for the hugely emotional event itself. This is a shame, but die-hard fans should take note that this cue does appear on several of the bootleg editions, and in the proper place.

    The Confrontation With Ogilvy, Track 11, is a montage of cues that take in several scenes from different places in the film. It actually contains the terrific cue for the much earlier scene when Rachel, answering the call of nature, foolishly strays too far across a soggy meadow and encounters a river choked with floating corpses. Wonderfully icy violins rake their way to a shimmering and uncomfortable Herrmann-esque crescendo of shrilly electrical suspense. A Close Encounters-style rising tone motif ignites terrors and then angular dissonance takes over as the track then segues into Ray's tussle with Ogilvy as the lunatic attempts to take on the alien probe. This cue, in turn, then opens out in the exciting action of the later discovery of Ray and Rachel hiding down in the basement and their useless attempts to get away from the Tripods that are outside. Again, there is a definite hint of Close Encounters about certain early elements of this, spiralling clusters for the keenest of strings just rising into the heavens. But the angelic quality that Williams infused his music with for those much friendlier ETs is not evident here. This is its darker, more demented cousin, a wild symphonic tornado that becomes giddy with its own vehemence. Bass thuds beneath those golden brass flourishes. A raucous taunt from the horns spars with tuba, trombone and bassoon. Tense, nerve-shredding thrusts from brass signify the moment when Ray, himself, is plucked from the ground by an metal alien tentacle and flung into a basket of fellow stricken prey. Williams once again proves himself brilliant at following both the on-screen action and the over-arcing story as threads develop and collide.

    In this album arrangement, the next cue skips towards the final act of the film. The Return To Boston marks the score's only action motif that contains any optimism. As Ray and Rachel arrive in the devastated city, it becomes clear that the Tripods aren't as effective as they once were. Spotting birds sitting their bulky heads, Ray informs the straggling military that the alien protective force-shields are down and, finally, some human payback ensues. After an opening third that is typically apprehensive and tinged with string-led dread, Williams now finds some martial drums and bangs a snare-like phrase of earnest gung-ho as rockets crash into an already-tottering war-machine and bring it to the ground. The music isn't exactly hopeful, but the swing-shift from all the gloom and doom is palpable with consistent percussion and more rousing brass. This section knocks on Sith's door, but provides a very welcome switch in tone for the score, discovering, as it does, new cadences for instruments that have long been concerned with death and atrocity.

    But the lengthiest cue, and one of the tensest, comes next.

    The album now hops back to when Ray is captured by the Tripod. A lot of this track for worried strings and creeping tonal clusters is either from elsewhere in the film or not actually in the theatrical cut that we are familiar with. Only after about three quarters of the way through, do we get some familiar strains for when Ray takes the fight to the aliens and shoves a little explosive surprise up their pipe. Bass thunders through a sustained pitch of agitation, allowing for a gateway-lull of realisation, and then strings, brass and horns mesh for a running battle. Listen out for a great sleazy snarl from the French Horn as the churning machine-like rhythm from The Intersection Scene is inverted and turned against itself, signifying the destruction of the Tripod.

    The Reunion, a sequence in the film which Spielberg handles with remarkable ambiguity as well as some ill-judged, but probably well-earned, sentimentality, commences with a fine solo horn and then develops with a beautiful and lilting piano refrain, before strings slide over the top, swooning with elegiac reflection. The first half of the track then culminates in a delightful final piece on the piano that seems slightly mischievous in its soothing lightness of touch. A more conventional brass serenade then ushers in Morgan Freeman's poetic epitaph, which is heard over a shorter and slightly altered version of the score's opening dissonance.

    Epilogue, the final track of the album, actually sounds reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's glacial strings and striated tones for The Thing. Horns, once again, gravitate towards the doom-laden and, perhaps cleverly, the score bows-out not with a swagger and not with a sigh of relief ... but with a faint trace of unease and trepidation. Williams' music seems to suggest that we won the day only by sheer luck and not at all out of our own resilience, and implies that we may not be so fortunate next time around. It is a sly and creepy finale that rounds-out an album that has been sinister, frightening, bombastic and tragic ... but always hugely evocative and atmospheric.

    There are many who dislike the film for a variety of reasons, and there are score-fans who have shunned its score. I have grown, over time, to love them both.

    Williams' orchestration is so finite, so precise that when he incorporates his gently see-sawing strings against sudden flurries of brass, horn and woodwind, the effect is identical to the ebb and flow of a child sobbing. You get that stuttering, gulping panic from the urgent, rising flurries and then the beautiful smoothing-over from the strings, calming the distress. If James Horner is possibly the most sentimental and emotional of composers working in films today, then John Williams is the most intricately symphonic in terms of anguish and charity. Both convey tragedy - intimate and large-scale - with searing accuracy, but each attacks such primal themes differently. Williams, I find, emphasises the broader aspects by virtue of an almost traditional sound that is buoyed by more colourful and diverse writing. WOTW, despite a coldness that is atypical for the composer, does not forget this element and there is a stature to tracks like Reaching The Country and Refugee Status and The Return To Boston that mimics the epically thick grief and pain of the music for the old TV series World At War - which, of course, is wholly appropriate. He doesn't employ a common theme and there is no recognisable melody that travels and evolves throughout the score, which is why it is interesting to muse on how someone like Horner would have responded to the project, given his predilection for a main recurring theme and an even grander, more sweeping grasp on the emotional plight of the characters.

    But be that as it may, Williams creates an atonal nightmare lit with bravura passages of intense action, the effect not unlike a musical version of watching, from a distance, a city under attack and in flames, weirdly reminiscent of night-vision footage of Baghdad being bombed, say. Tragic, wistful memories float through the barren, alien soundscape and a finale that does, ultimately, see the rays of hope and of humanity penetrate the darker clouds of tension and fear does not forget that the damage done will never entirely heal over. Detractors have said that the score is unmemorable and pointed accusingly at its lack of a hummable main theme, or any sections of wild harmonic colour, or any of the ebullient action that the composer is renowned for. Star Wars this wasn't, however. But then it was never meant to be. And as far as listening experiences beyond the movie are concerned, I think that this is a powerful and exciting album regardless of its atonal and anguished structure.

    This was certainly a “phase” that Spielberg, Cruise and Williams were going through. A considered response to 9/11, rather than a form of Hollywoodised retaliation. That would come next, with both Spielberg and Williams re-launching Indiana Jones in the disappointing, but effervescent Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, and the more overtly gung-ho mayhem of M-I:3 for Cruise. It is funny to note, though, that Williams fell back into lazy, lushly predictable writing for Indy's fourth adventure whilst Michael (Star Trek/The Incredibles) Giacchino produced a truly pulverising and blisteringly exciting score for Ethan Hunt's third impossible mission.

    This general release edition of the soundtrack features a note from Spielberg about the quality of his friend's score and their ongoing collaborations, as well as a virtual Pandora's Box of images and quotes from the film in a never-ending fold-out sleeve. Given the style and appreciably less-than rabid fascination that the score actually generated, it is hard to imagine that an “official” release of the complete score will surface any time soon. This, then, becomes a highly recommended selection.

    Full Track Listing

    1. Prologue* (2:52)

    2. The Ferry Scene (5:49)

    3. Reaching the Country (3:24)

    4. The Intersection Scene (4:13)

    5. Ray and Rachel (2:41)

    6. Escape from the City (3:49)

    7. Probing the Basement (4:12)

    8. Refugee Status (3:50)

    9. The Attack on the Car (2:44)

    10. The Separation of the Family (2:36)

    11. The Confrontation with Ogilvy (4:34)

    12. The Return to Boston (4:29)

    13. Escape from the Basket (9:21)

    14. The Reunion * (3:16)

    15. Epilogue (3:11)

    * includes narration by Morgan Freeman


    Verdict

    Still widely available in stores and online, John Williams' score for Spielberg's take the epic story, is a classic of foreboding, intensity, action and suspense. It taps into the collective shock that still haunts a nation and delivers a chilling and bleak experience that is, nevertheless, full of complex writing and dazzling orchestration. Very little of the maestro's trademarks are in evidence and you'll not hear any familiar brassy fanfares or lush sweeping strings. This is primal, alien and dark. As Freeman intones about the envious-eyed observers, this is “vast, and cool, and unsympathetic.” Yet it works splendidly as an album, just the same.

    Personally speaking, I went through a sort of epiphany regarding Spielberg's movie, swinging from aggressively critical to almost humbled devotee from practically the very moment after original review for the R1 DVD went online. I have watched the film too many times to count now and loved it more each time - and one of the crucial elements that went into this about-face was, of course, John Williams' score. So, with the film about to make its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray, it may be time for those score-fans who had been sitting on the fence regarding this marked departure in style for Williams to finally take the plunge.

    Highly recommended.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    8

    Overall

    8

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