Home > Reviews > WAR OF THE WORLDS – John Williams

WAR OF THE WORLDS – John Williams

waroftheworldsOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

British author Herbert George Wells first published his alien invasion novel The War of the Worlds in 1898, and in so doing probably invented an entire genre of science fiction storytelling. When Orson Welles performed a live radio adaptation of the story on Halloween night in 1938, he famously scared half of the American public into thinking an actual alien invasion was taking place, such was the believability and sincerity in Welles’s performance. Director George Pal brought the story to life in 1953 in what is now regarded a landmark entry into cinematic science fiction. Composer Jeff Wayne wrote a popular and successful musical concept album in 1978, which featured a young George Fenton playing a variety of instruments. Now, director Steven Spielberg has brought the classic tale to the big screen once more in what promises to be the definitive cinematic retelling, with a starry cast and a budget to match.

The film stars Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins and Miranda Otto, and was written by Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp. Quite simply, it’s the story of what happens when a hostile alien race invade Earth, intending to destroy it, and the way in which one man and his daughter (Cruise and Fanning) struggle to survive in the face of a mass onslaught by technologically superior beings. With a budget in the range of $128 million, the combined weight of Spielberg and Cruise driving the publicity machine, and technical expertise in the shape of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, designer Rick Carter and editor Michael Kahn behind the scenes, War of the Worlds looks set to be one of summer 2005’s biggest box office successes. Of course, also along for the ride is composer John Williams, collaborating with Spielberg for the 21st time in a professional relationship which stretches back to 1974.

Listening to War of the Worlds, it’s immediately clear that John Williams wanted to recapture the same feelings of disorientation and paranoia he first explored in Close Encounters of the Third Kind back in 1977. With the exception of parts of A.I. and Minority Report, both of which had their fare share of dissonant moments, War of the Worlds is by far the most avant-garde, impressionistic, downright angry score Williams has written for 20 years. Because of this, it’s also probably the most interesting scores Williams has produced since the turn of the millennium.

Despite being written for a full (and sizeable) symphony orchestra, the first thing that is immediately noticeable about War of the Worlds is that there is no real main theme. Most Williams scores, even the most inconsequential, have some melodic hook, a central core theme around which the rest of the score is based. War of the Worlds is different; there are recurring motifs and musical ideas which tie different elements of the score together, but on the whole these are more textural than melodic, more do to with instrumental performances and timbres than actual recognizable themes. I can fully appreciate that many listeners will cry out in horror about there being no theme, but personally I find this approach rather refreshing for Williams. War of the Worlds, in its basest sense, is a story all about chaos and anger and confusion, and by writing his music in a chaotic and angry way, Williams serves his story well.

Once the unusually unobtrusive opening narration by the dulcet toned Morgan Freeman has died down, Williams settles down into the pattern which will dominate the rest of the score – generally dark, moody orchestral passages punctuated by moments of sharp, thrilling action and tempered by brief, bittersweet reflection, usually focused around a piano. “The Ferry Scene” and “The Attack on the Car” are among the best examples of the flamboyantly staged action cues, wonderfully rhythmic and complex in their execution, the former being especially reminiscent of the similar action cues from the Jurassic Park series.

The soft, cooing “Reaching the Country” provides the first bit of respite, although this brief down-time is tinged with the same sense of sadness and loss that permeates the entire score, and features a swirling string figure that again brings to mind the modern Star Wars scores. However, this soon gives way to “The Intersection Scene”, the first of several cues which take a definite turn into horror territory, with syncopated rhythmic ideas which hearken back to the days of Jaws, a great deal skittery percussion which jumps across the stereo channels like a rabid spider, and some truly unnerving processed choral effects.

“Ray and Rachel”, “Refugee Status” and “The Separation of the Family” are gloomy, but nevertheless comparatively attractive string-led cues, moments of which are reminiscent of parts of Williams’s 1999 score Angela’s Ashes. A wandering string motif, not too dissimilar to the one heard in James Horner’s Aliens, and which was itself derived from a sequence from Aram Khachaturyan’s Gayane ballet, appears during the otherwise tempestuous “The Confrontation with Ogilvy”, and reaches its zenith during the cold and vaguely threatening “Epilogue”, ironically the most thematic piece on the album.

Both “Escape from the City” and the 9-minute “Escape from the Basket” are elongated suspense/action sequence which overlay various orchestral discords over a series of pulsating rhythms and ostinatos not unlike the ones heard recently in Revenge of the Sith – unsurprisingly, as they were written at almost the same time. Unusually for Williams, there is also a fair amount of electronic music in War of the Worlds. While this obviously makes perfect sense in a science-fiction context, Williams’s synths have in the past tended to stick out like a sore thumb against his orchestra. Here, however, they flow seamlessly into the rest of his musical palette, resulting in a score where the organic and the electronic are in unison. Cues such as “The Ferry Scene” and “The Intersection Scene” highlight this perfectly.

Personally, I found War of the Worlds to be a hugely satisfying listening experience – certainly more so than Revenge of the Sith. Although I can envisage a number of listeners complaining about its lack of thematic content and generally harsh tone, it nevertheless impresses with its relentless nature and intelligent structure, and shows why at the age of 73 he remains firmly at the top of his game.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (2:52)
  • The Ferry Scene (5:49)
  • Reaching the Country (3:24)
  • The Intersection Scene (4:13)
  • Ray and Rachel (2:41)
  • Escape from the City (3:49)
  • Probing the Basement (4:12)
  • Refugee Status (3:50)
  • The Attack on the Car (2:44)
  • The Separation of the Family (2:36)
  • The Confrontation with Ogilvy (4:34)
  • The Return to Boston (4:29)
  • Escape from the Basket (9:21)
  • The Reunion (3:16)
  • Epilogue (3:11)

Running Time: 61 minutes 01 seconds

Decca/Universal B0004568-02 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and Eddie Karam. Narration by Morgan Freeman. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Peter Myles. Album produced by John Williams.

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