ENDER’S GAME – Steve Jablonsky
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Ender’s Game is a science fiction drama based on the highly acclaimed, hugely influential 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card. In the years after a devastating attack on Earth by an alien race known as the Formics, the human race has devised a strategy to prevent future attacks: a battle school designed to discover and train massively talented children to control the Earth’s defenses – children apparently have the capacity to learn and adapt to new situations and technological advances better than adults. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one of these talented children, and the film follows him after he is chosen to take part in the elite military program by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), as the threat of a second attack by the Formics looms ever larger. The film, which is directed by Gavin Hood and also stars Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis and Abigail Breslin, has some important points to make about the nature of war, manipulation and propaganda, and is visually stunning, but prior to its release became embroiled in controversy following the revelation about some of Card’s political beliefs, and may have suffered slightly at the box office as a result, leaving the possibility of an ongoing franchise doubtful.
The score for Ender’s Game is by Steve Jablonsky, who came onto the film fairly late in the game as a replacement for the film’s original composer choice, James Horner. I’ve been highly critical of Jablonsky recently for being the least interesting of the graduates from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control organization; while I still think his scores for Your Highness and especially Steamboy range from pretty good to excellent, his work on more recent action or sci-fi films like Pain & Gain, Battleship and the last couple of Transformers movies has been pretty risible – uninspired, droning nightmares that annoyed me as much as they bored me. One of the main reasons they annoyed me is because Jablonsky is clearly a composer of considerable talent who, when given the opportunity, can write powerful, exciting, intelligent film music. However, for whatever reason, in the past several years he has not been given this opportunity, and has instead been asked to write music that is functional at best, but allows for no deeper development, no underlying emotion, and no intellectual comment on the film he is scoring. Predictable, obvious, wallpaper.
Thankfully, more than most of his recent scores, Ender’s Game shows us a little bit of Steve Jablonsky at his best. The opening cue, “Ender’s War”, sets the stall out for much of the rest of the score: it’s a familiar set of ingredients, comprising a large orchestra, a repeated string ostinato undercurrent, synth enhancements, and a large percussion section, that eventually emerges into a powerful brass theme, augmented by choir. There is a main theme, thankfully, a noble, haunting, slightly melancholy melody which gets a significant performance in the cue’s second half. However, unlike some of his and his contemporaries’ other scores which share a similar sound palette, Ender’s Game shows just the merest hint of something a little more substantial, building on the intelligence of Card’s original story, and allowing for something a little more thoughtful to emerge.
“The Battle Room”, for example, plays less like an action sequence, and more like a ballet, with Everton Nelson’s solo violin giving the piece a sense of elegance and movement; this foreshadows Ender’s idea that successfully existing in zero gravity is less about traditional points on a compass and more about your sense of yourself relative to others, and later comes to fruition during the satisfying “Dragon Army” and “Mazer Rackham”. The two “Mind Game” cues, which occur during Ender’s unusual CGI dream sequences, have an ethereal quality to them through the increased synth presence, and occasionally have some quite disturbing vocal sound effects and processed dissonances, but are diminished somewhat by the predictable inclusion of a patented Zimmer horn blast. Later, one of the few moments of downtime comes via “Ender Quits”, a smaller-scale, intimate piece that brings in some more soothing synth samples and electronic chimes to underscore Ender’s crisis of conscience, as well as his enduring relationship with his sister.
That’s not to say that Jablonsky doesn’t slip into old habits occasionally; cues such as “Stay Down”, “Move It Launchies”, the first part of “Salamander Battle”, and most of “Final Test” revisit the same old drum loops, endless ostinatos, grinding synth effects and chaotic orchestral hits that the likes of Battleship suffered so much from, while other cues like “Enemy Planet” combine the style with large sections of little more than eardrum-bursting noise. Producers surely must have realized by now that this style of music is becoming a cliché, especially in big budget action and science fiction films. When mainstream film critics are noticing them, and when Zimmer himself rolls his eyes when he hears his Inception sound ripped off in yet another score or trailer, clearly something has to change.
However, towards the end of the score, as the focus of the film shifts away from action and militaristic endeavor, and more into the realms of philosophy and morality, Jablonsky’s score shifts with it. He introduces a strong new theme towards the end of “Dragon Wins” – a dark and brooding brass motif – but it doesn’t come back for quite some time. It finally re-appears during latter part of “Command School”, when the Dragon team is reassembled for its final assault on the Formics, and during the finale of “Final Test”, which sees the Dragon team in its finest hour. “Game Over” revisits the ‘Ender in Crisis’ motif from earlier in the score to underpin the terrible revelation of the film’s finale. A Caroline Dale cello solo anchors the tragedy and torment of “The Way We Win Matters”, before returning to the more exotic ‘Mind Games’ material, which carries through into “Ender’s Promise” where it mixes with some emotional, ghostly choral writing which is very effective in context. The finale of “Ender’s Promise” and the conclusive “Commander” provide the most powerful performances of the main theme, bringing the score to a rousing close.
Don’t go into Ender’s Game expecting anything close to the quality of Steamboy, or even the first Transformers or The Island (which, in comparison to his more recent scores, sound more and more like masterpieces). This is still an RC-sounding score through and through, with all its hallmarks, downfalls and issues. If you have an aversion to that sound, that style of scoring, then move along. There’s nothing for you here. However, for me, Ender’s Game is the most satisfying music Steve Jablonsky has penned for several years, in terms of the design and structure of the score, the intelligent application of themes, and some straightforward contemporary action, and is worth giving a second look to for those who might have otherwise automatically dismissed it.
Buy the Ender’s Game soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Ender’s War (3:27)
- Stay Down (2:42)
- Battle School (1:55)
- Move It Launchies (0:56)
- The Battle Room (3:03)
- Mind Game Part 1 (2:24)
- Salamander Battle (3:34)
- Mind Game Part 2 (3:55)
- Dragon Army (2:04)
- Dragons Win (3:53)
- Bonzo (1:37)
- Ender Quits (6:22)
- Mazer Rackham (2:34)
- Enemy Planet (3:50)
- Command School (2:42)
- Graduation Day (1:28)
- Final Test (6:02)
- Game Over (2:36)
- The Way We Win Matters (6:14)
- Ender’s Promise (5:09)
- Commander (3:33)
Running Time 70 minutes 56 seconds
Varese Sarabande VSD-7227 (2013)
Music composed by Steve Jablonsky. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Penka Kouneva, Larry Rench, Philip Klein and Alain Mayrand. Featured musical soloists Everton Nelson and Caroline Dale. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Jeff Biggers. Album produced by Steve Jablonsky and Alex Gibson.