Label: Fox Music/Atlantic
Total Playing Time: 78:57
Listen to One: 07 Climbing Up “Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven”
Hollywood always works in a very narrow set of ways, the same scenarios recurring at regular intervals and seemingly nobody growing any the wiser. Take this classic one for example: James Cameron makes a film that pushes technology to new levels (albeit with a very old-fashioned storyline), is absolutely enormous in scale, costing so much to give the studio execs sleepless nights. Before its release the project is thrown amongst the critics and the bloodthirsty to see how much they can take it apart (in “Avatar’s” case it was a dissatisfaction with the first teaser trailer) and when it finally does hit cinema screens everyone suddenly loves it and Cameron walks away with a wad of cash and probably with a few award gongs as well. They never learn do they? In many ways, these sentiments of predictability could be applied to Cameron’s composing regular James Horner, a man so often criticised for plagiarism and self plagiarism yet his scores are still beloved by so many fans. So when the announcement was made that Horner was going to score “Avatar” we had our bets firmly placed on what it was going to sound like, right?
And a good bet it was too because the score certainly delivers in this regard: Large scale orchestration mixed with synths and some speciality instruments (Gamelan bells and so forth) as well as a choir and vocal soloists chanting in native Na’Vi. And just for good measure Horner throws in his (in)famous “danger” motif. However by no means does this render the score redundant or as a simple rerun of everything Horner has written over the past two decades. While it does check the boxes in terms of predictability to a certain degree, “Avatar” is written with such gusto and style that it grows into something that can only be described as epic. Horner spent over a year working on the project and the end result is over three hours of music. With a few exceptions the album presents all the score’s highlights,the music only slightly loosing it’s power when divorced from the film.
The CD opens with a very strong cue – “You don’t Dream in Cryo…” which sets up the following material nicely. It will remind listeners of passages from the likes of “Willow” and “Braveheart” but is an excellent ‘suspense’ track nonetheless. Like the film, the music begins firmly with the human side of the tale, easing us gradually into the world of Pandora and its inhabitants. This is achieved in the following tracks as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) enters his alien body for the first time. The real emotional power of this transformation lies in Jake regaining the ability to walk and the music really soars with wonder in the second half of “Jake Enters his Avatar World.” There follows an extended period of interaction between Jake and his new surroundings, until he is lead by Neytiri into Hometree itself. The sense of wonder that has gone before is replaced by the first subtle statements of the “I See You” theme that will serve as the basis of the film’s love story, as well as a harsher theme played on French Horns that seems to serve a function as a theme for the Na’Vi in general. It’s appearance in “Pure Spirits of the Forest” is harsh, almost intimidating and contrasts with the later statements of the theme in a more heroic context (although sadly many of these statements were left out of the commercial album).
But where the score really soars is in its middle section beginning with a full performance of the “I See You” theme opening track number five, on the album with a beautiful boy’s vocal and then an expansion of that to full choir that really puts the score on the map as something special for the first time. In the film Horner exchanged the boy for a flute which works as well but is nowhere near as powerful. As the film’s imagery becomes ever more grand – in particular with those floating mountains – so the music swells, a series of excellent tracks from “Climbing up to “Ilknimaya – the Path to Heaven” to “Jake’s First Flight.” Together they perfectly capture Jake’s integration into the Na’Vi way of life and when heard played alongside the film creates several spine tingling moments!
The third and final section of the score is an exploration of the humans’ takeover of Pandora and in particular our antagonist, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Horner talks of “the feeling of sharp metal of rotorblades” in relation to the character’s musical conception. Harsh brass statements and heavy percussion underline this over four cues, namely “Scorched Earth”, “Quaritch”, “The Destruction of Hometree” and the final ten minute cue “War”. Put simply, this is Horner action material at its finest, melding full orchestra with electronic rhythms and a choir chanting. The highlight of all these efforts comes just two minutes into “Scorched Earth”. Certain Shostakovich sensibilities (a favourite of Horner’s) are to be heard here as well as the danger motif but this is some fantastic writing for brass.
As an interlude comes the wonderfully restrained “Shutting Down Grace’s Lab” with violin solos that could give “Iris” a run for her money. This cue leads into “Gathering the Na’Vi Clans for Battle” which is probably the most heroic track on show here, providing another one of those shiver-down-spine moments in the cinema. The only real disappointment on the album is the dreadful Leona Lewis track stuck on the front of the end credits. While it is, to a certain extent in keeping with the synth style of earlier tracks and is one of the only performances of a neglected theme (on the album at least) but it just feels out of place and it certainly isn’t another “My Heart Will Go On”. Shame. Instead it would have been nice to include some extra score material instead.
Which brings me ultimately to discuss the presentation of the music on the album as a representation of the music in the film: As previously stated the album is a very good collection of the score’s highlights. As is usually the case with fanboy films like these complete score bootlegs were quick to surface. In particular a three CD promo which sold for several hundred dollars on E-Bay soon appeared as a download and certainly contains so much more excellent music. Hopefully some day in the future this score will get a full treatment by the likes of LaLaLand or similar. To coincide with the DVD release of the films an album with five bonus tracks was offered for download.
Criticise both Cameron and Horner if you want, for recycling “Pocahontas” and “Dances With Wolves” for one or an endless rerun for the other. However that would not be entirely fair and this could indeed see Horner return to the high period he celebrated in the 90s. “Avatar” truly is an awesome achievement for Horner, a modern score that brims with both style and substance, a masterpiece. *****
Wow, long review! If you have any thoughts at all, feedback or comments please do leave a comment or subscribe to the RSS feed or e-mail sub. Until next time all the best!