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RED PLANET – Graeme Revell

November 10, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

redplanetOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Of late, there seems to be an increasing amount of pressure on film music composers to score science fiction films in daring new ways. While this kind of innovation in film music is, and always should be, welcomed, it has to be said that these experiments are not always entirely successful. The critical backlash against Ennio Morricone’s Mission to Mars was palpable; similarly, Graeme Revell’s techno score for the animated summer movie Titan A.E. did little to stir the minds and hearts of soundtrack fans. Revell continues to break down barriers with his score for Red Planet, the latest in a line of Martian movies to hit screens in the wake of NASA’s Pathfinder exploration of our closest celestial neighbor. Unfortunately, and while credit is certainly due to the New Zealander for his efforts, the score for Red Planet is likely to be as equally derided as its predecessors.

Red Planet is the directorial debut of Anthony Hoffman, and stars Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss and Terrence Stamp as three members of a team of astronauts attempting to establish a colony on Mars, following an ecological disaster on Earth that could result in the demise of humanity. Crash landing on the planet after a technical failure, and losing all communications with home, the surviving members of the crew find they must but aside their personal differences and work together to survive on the hostile surface of the totally alien planet.

The Red Planet soundtrack, released by the Pangaea subsidiary of Ark-21 Records, is an eclectic mix of house music, souped-up classic rock, Italian opera and modern underscore -often combining within the same cue. Revell’s work consists of seven tracks – three of pure score, three vocal tracks featuring performances by Parisian opera star Emma Shapplin, and a song entitled ‘Dante’s Eternal Flame’ performed in an intriguing sub-continental style by vocalist Melissa Kaplan. A mixed bag, to be sure, and although the sequencing is a little peculiar, the final album is an intriguing concept.

By far the most interesting cues are the three which contain the magnificent vocal work of Emma Shapplin. Shapplin, whose voice is so clear and sharp it could cut glass, sings in a graceful, romantic 14th Century Italian dialect, while Revell’s modernistic synth loops, effervescent pop beats and vivid acoustic guitar solos build a mesmerizing wall of sound behind her beautiful tones. The net result is a series of absolutely fascinating, wonderfully listenable tracks which stand as some of the most exciting music Revell has composed for a good few years. Think of the rhythms of The Negotiator, or The Saint, and add in a healthy dose of Giuseppe Verdi, and you’ll be close.

The tracks that contain the joint work of Shapplin and Revell, ‘The Inferno’, ‘The Fifth Heaven’ and ‘Canto XXX’ are, stylistically, unlike anything I have ever heard Revell write. He is not generally appreciated as a “beauty” composer, but there is a power and spirit in these cues that is unmistakable. Any of these tracks – especially ‘The Fifth Heaven’ – could easily take the crossover classical market by storm if it were given half a chance. The combination of dance music and opera in this form would, I feel, attract a large and appreciative audience. This merging of old and new is currently in-vogue in Hollywood, with scores such as Craig Armstrong’s under-appreciated Plunkett & Macleane providing precedence, and Revell’s work here proves that, with the right composer and the right attitude, an anachronistic approach to film scoring can be a challenging and refreshing change.

The three score tracks, which amount to around 11 minutes in total, are in a similar vein as the vocal tracks – ‘Mars Red Planet’ pits a large-scale choir against the familiar bed of synths and what can only be described as “radar blips”, while ‘Crash Landing’ is a violent, almost metallic assault on the eardrums. By far the best track of pure score is ‘Alone’, in which Revell embraces more a traditional scoring method by writing an emotionally heightened, tragedy-laden cue featuring some beautiful violin and cello tones and an outstanding, deceptively simple piano solo.

As far as the songs are concerned, they are a mixed bag. I usually enjoy Peter Gabriel’s music, but his work on Red Planet is too abrasive and experimental for my tastes. ‘The Tower That Ate People’ and its remix, despite containing a terrific dance music beat, is virtually unintelligible lyrics-wise, while the modern house mix of The Police’s classic ‘When The World Is Running Down’ could almost be taken as sacrilege. Similarly, Strange Cargo’s ‘Montok Point’ is more a dance music track than a film music cue, although credit should be given to William Orbit and the boys for working a series of brilliant spacey textures. Sting’s ‘A Thousand Years’, however, is superb, featuring the usual mix of melancholy vocals and an upbeat pop rhythm track. It doesn’t quite live up to the standard Sting himself set earlier this year with the enchanting “Desert Rose”, both of which are featured on his latest album Brand New Day, but I still like it a lot.

My only other thought is to wonder how this music will work in the film. As clever and innovative as it is on disk, as I remarked at the beginning of the review, I fear that Revell will suffer the same fate as Ennio Morricone earlier in the year, and have his music laughed off the screen. It’s certainly good, but it may be a little too different for some audiences to accept when they actually sit down and watch the finished movie. As a standalone album, though, and with a few reservations on the song front, Red Planet is an album worth investigating for anyone with a taste for the unusual.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • The Tower That Ate People (written and performed by Peter Gabriel) (4:05)
  • The Inferno (4:31)
  • A Thousand Years (written by Sting and Kipper, performed by Sting) (5:57)
  • Mars Red Planet (3:25)
  • The Fifth Heaven (4:53)
  • Montok Point (written by William Orbit, Rico Conning and Joe Frank, performed by Strange Cargo) (7:13)
  • Canto XXX (5:11)
  • Alone (2:13)
  • Dante’s Eternal Flame (written and performed by Melissa Kaplan and Graeme Revell) (3:40)
  • Crash Landing (5:13)
  • The Tower That Ate People – Remix (written and performed by Peter Gabriel and Brian Transeau) (6:27)
  • When The World Is Running Down (written by Sting, performed by differentGear vs The Police) (3:35)

Running Time: 56 minutes 28 seconds

Pangaea/Ark-21 186-810-063-2 (2000)

Music composed by Graeme Revell. Conducted by Nick Ingman. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec. Special vocal performances by Emma Shapplin. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Album produced by Graeme Revell and Paul Haslinger.

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