by Dan Goldwasser
When a new Steven Spielberg movie comes along, it rarely does so with a whimper. Large-scale advertising campaigns are unleashed. Expectations are raised. The excitement level goes up. If it's a film like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, or a romantic comedy like The Terminal, the public usually knows what it's going to get. Not so the case with War of the Worlds. The classic H.G. Wells novel about Earth being invaded by aliens was made classic by the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938. A feature film followed in 1953s, and even a television series in the late 1980s. But now, Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp has adapted the novel for the new millennium, and secrecy surrounding the film is exceptionally high.
At the Sony scoring stage in Los Angeles a few short months ago, John Williams took up his baton, and conducted a rather large ensemble of the Hollywood Studio Symphony. The design of the aliens was so top-secret that reportedly, the video shown on the scoring stage had black boxes obscuring the creatures. SoundtrackNet has not yet seen the film - and so what is about to follow is very similar to our previous "First Listen" articles for Lord of the Rings - except that with those, our writer had the benefit of having read the Tolkien books. Here we don't even know quite for sure what transpires in the film, except that it involves the story that Wells wrote, from a more intimate, human perspective. Tom Cruise represents the "everyman", and as the aliens invade, his world is torn asunder. How he and his family survive is the focus of the film - and like ants at a picnic, their sense of proportion and relativity will dictate how the audience sees this war.
Williams is writing a very modern score here, with plenty of dissonance and atonal material. In some cases, the music sounds almost dodecaphonic. He also has some emotional thematic music as well, but don't let that fool you - War of the Worlds is a cold unrelenting score that takes no prisoners, and will create dread deep inside of you. My opinion is just that - my opinion. And as I had indicated before, I haven't seen the film - and I'm sure that once I do, much of what I wrote will be modified or re-examined. But nonetheless, here are my initial thoughts as I listen to John Williams' War of the Worlds.
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1. Prologue (2:52)
Soft yet ominous strings and tones build, with an otherworldly synth playing against a piano as woodwinds flit upwards. Morgan Freeman provides narration, basically adapting the opening paragraph from the original H.G. Wells novel, modified to say "...the early years of the 21st Century..." As he continues setting the scenario, the score builds with dissonant levels and some brass pokes through, until climaxing with an echoing percussive crash.
2. The Ferry (5:49)
Low groaning in the woodwinds and strings swirl around until, with a punctuated hit, the action begins. Sounding much like the type of action Williams had written previously for Minority Report, it is frenetic and rhythmic, setting a bed for the brass to play their main motif on top. Pounding timpani plays off of brass hits, until tremolo strings hold the tension, and a melody emerges from below, building upwards. The strings take over in the melody, until the brass starts the action back up again. Williams is playing with the orchestra, as he is prone to do, with staccato woodwinds and strings bouncing off of the brass. Suddenly, a soft choir appears, building with menacing dissonance as the brass plays the main theme distantly in the background. They all build to a crescendo and, with a shriek in the strings, the main Alien Theme is heard full force - a powerful low brass statement that feels dodecaphonic in its execution. A sustained note high in the brass watches over the orchestra as the strings build tension with harsh accents and cymbal swishes. Timpani surrounds us and then the action kicks back in - a low menacing theme descends as the maelstrom breaks, leaving us with extremely low registered notes in the bassoons.
3. Reaching the Country (3:24)
Soft female choir sings a voiceless melody, which I will label the "Hope Theme". Then the strings join in, filling the cue with emotion. Much like the new sorrow theme from Episode III, this theme has elements of hope, but is overall tragic and downtrodden. Brass joins in providing chords, until they take over, to ominous effect. The cue ends with low strings, and the return of the hopeful female choir.
4. The Intersection Scene (4:13)
Rumbling percussion and sustained notes build with minor string elements, starting off a rhythmic - almost pulsing - ostinato deep at the bottom of the orchestra. It swells, and repeats a few times before suddenly stopping, and being replaced by an extremely low sound element and soft random pizzicato. The orchestra then starts to build once again, the strings now bolder in their ostinato - almost like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with timpani and a strong brass line that builds. Then the tempo increases - the choir comes in now, almost like Ligeti - as the tension rises. Waves of brass harmonies flow over us, until everything cuts out completely, leaving us alone with the timpani. Then low brass belt out an ominous motif, and then we're back into the pulsing ostinato, with a synth effect flowing over us at intervals. The strings come in, holding their high note, letting the ostinato pulse, before it all slowly fades out.
5. Ray and Rachel (2:41)
This track provides the emotional core of the score. A string-heavy melody - very modern in its partial-dodecaphonic execution - is somberly played, filled with rich chords, and elements of sadness. It has a taste of Williams' 1999 scores, Angela's Ashes and "Anakin's Theme" from Episode I, and ends with a harp.
6. Escape from the City (3:49)
A single note breaks off into full dissonance, then it all swirls upwards, and we're back to the pulsing action ostinato. Staccato brass flutters as the strings maintain their rhythm, much like "Zam the Assassin" from Episode II. The action steps up a beat as the rhythms gain intensity, brass battling the timpani as the strings flow overhead. A descending ostinato bounces between the different string instruments before slowing down, and ultimately ending.
7. Probing the Basement (4:12)
This is one of the more dissonant and tense cues on the album. Brass and string clusters rumble, low piano keys are hit, and everything is sparse. At least, at first. This is "Barry's Abduction" (from Close Encounters) territory. The bottom of the piano plays a pounding rhythm that the strings play against, as an other-worldly whistle is briefly heard. Suddenly the strings are playing a frantic ostinato with brass chords slowly rising - but then it all cuts out, leaving you with high strings holding a note, then we build back up into a crescendo of dissonant music, which cuts out - leaving strings that slide upwards in that ever-so-creepy way that you hear in horror films.<#GOOGLEAD#>
8. Refugee Status (3:50)
A new theme is heard here, played on woodwinds, before being mirrored by the strings. It builds with emotion, and the brass takes over the theme. Where "Reaching the Country" left us with an uneasy feeling, this one is certainly more hopeful, and we hear a variation of the "Ray and Rachel" theme. A French horn introduces us to a new theme, but then a solo trumpet takes over (in a modified version of the "Hope Theme"), leaving us with a somewhat hopeful feeling that perhaps everything will be alright.
9. The Attack on the Car (2:44)
Well, everything is not alright - and this cue starts with the action right away. Soon the tense rhythmic ostinato is back, with the strings playing against the brass as they seem prone to do in this score. Timpani joins in, and then the action goes up a notch, with more tense string rhythms, and a muted brass instrument softy punching at us in the background. A few orchestral punches, and then after some tense tremolo strings, a minor chord is built that uses a hint of the choir.
10. The Separation of the Family (2:36)
Soft and ominous music starts out the cue, but then after a flourish it turns into a solo piece with a reverberated piano playing a minor version of the theme heard in "Ray and Rachel" - orchestrationally, it's very similar to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It ends with the same harp ending from that track.
11. The Confrontation with Ogilvy (4:34)
Vibes and then strings start off this track, with the violins providing a taut ostinato that is joined by the other violins - then it turns dark. Tense tremolo and muted brass hits, with slowly rising choir and orchestra, until it suddenly cuts out. Swells similar to those heard in Jurassic Park dominate the track for the next minute, changing chords each time, until we're left with a low rumbling that slowly builds into a hard-hitting string ostinato with - you guessed it - pounding timpani and sharp brass. Lots more rising dissonance and percussive effects are followed by a spurt of action, before the brass gives us a bold statement and then everyone lets looks. The choir is there in the background, but the dominant focus are the strings and brass. The cue ends with bold orchestra hits as the strings slide upwards, ending on a beat.
12. The Return to Boston (4:29)
The "Hope Theme" is heard briefly in the strings before brass swells and harp lead us to a rather emotionally charged brass statement. I'm going to go out on a limb, and guess that Boston is probably in ruins here. But then a militaristic ostinato starts to build, providing hope that humans can indeed fight back. A harp gliss takes us into some happy strings, with sweeping and positive chords - but then the military ostinato takes over, with more force this time. The brass plays off the flutes and strings, and then whole things ends with a few Nixon-like chords before quickly calming down and leaving us with yet another ominous taste in our mouths.
13. Escape from the Basket (9:21)
And rightfully so. Low piano notes are joined by soft choir, and then strings as this lengthy cue gets underway. Background percussion is briefly heard under dissonant chords. A cello ostinato starts up, which slowly travels into the different stringed instruments. Slowly the rhythm starts to build, with soft percussion and dissonant chord swells. Then a soft choir gently comes in, and a violin - sounding very much like a fiddle - hits a few notes. Then a low cello (or bass) does the same. Soon a male choir softly makes an appearance amidst another low swell of dissonance. It all adds up to a slowly building piece that moves at a snails pace, presumably matching the on-screen action. A dissonant choir swells and suddenly leaves us with some very modern atonal freeform work. The big brass statement shows up again, and then we're back to the string ostinato and then the pulsing rhythm. It builds quickly, with more punctuated brass hits, and then suddenly we get a rather big moment with the full orchestra, before jumping back into the heavy string ostinato. It suddenly cuts out, leaving us with a synth choir chord that fades.
14. The Reunion (3:16)
A French horn solo plays a very Americana melody. It is then joined by a piano, and then the strings. The ominous tones return, as well does Morgan Freeman. Over slowly pulsing music, he reads a modified ending of the book - thus ruining the film to anyone who didn't know what was going to happen. The music ends on a peaceful and content note.
15. Epilogue (3:11)
Soft brass heralds in the strings, playing the "Reunion" theme, which builds until the strings are playing forcefully yet smoothly. It's a build-up of emotion that brings us to a minor brass fanfare that sounds almost Hermannesque in its execution. It leaves us with a slightly foreboding feeling as the album comes to a close.
Thinking about the score, a few words definitely come to mind. Most of which you've read above: rhythmic, ostinato, dissonant, atonal. It's not a friendly score by any means, with plenty of tension, action and ominous moments. But there is also that small shining glimmer of hope embedded throughout, and the emotional material, while not easy to follow initially, starts to clarify as you keep listening. The lush strings provide warmth against the cold unrelenting percussion and brass. Williams makes good use of percussion in the score, with the timpani player getting a real workout at times. The "Reunion" theme is quite lovely, and the action cues are tight. The dissonant work, undoubtedly heard during frightful scenes of high tension, is not really stuff you can come back and listen to all that much, but it's great to hear Williams doing the type of writing that he was doing almost 30 years ago with Close Encounters.
War of the Worlds will be released on Decca Records on June 28th. The film opens on June 29th, and you can bet that I'll be there!
Special thanks to Jodie Thomas at Decca Records for her assistance with this article.