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STAR TREK – Michael Giacchino

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The last composer not named Jerry Goldsmith to score a Star Trek movie was Dennis McCarthy, who scored Star Trek Generations in 1994. We’ve had a full 15 years of Star Trek on the big screen with one sound from one legendary composer – talk about big shoes for Michael Giacchino to fill. But then again, Giacchino has made a career filling big shoes, from his early days following John Williams on the Jurassic Park video games, to picking up Lalo Schifrin’s mantle on Mission: Impossible III in 2006.

Like the recent Batman and Spider-Man movies, the new Star Trek is a re-booting of the franchise which first hit the small screen back in 1966, and has since encompassed four TV series and, including this one, eleven movies. Directed by J.J. Abrams, it charts the early years of the crew of the Starship enterprise at Starfleet Academy – hotshot Iowa farm boy James Kirk (Chris Pine), logical Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto), doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), Scottish engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg), rookie pilot Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), sexy communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Russian science officer Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) – as they embark on their first assignment. And what an assignment it is, as the crew is forced into a confrontation with a disgruntled Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana), who has emerged from a black hole with a super-weapon that threatens to destroy the universe.

The main thing everyone talks about with Star Trek is the theme, and Giacchino’s new one is superb. Beginning with soft horns and a cooing choir in the opening “Star Trek”, it owes a tonal debt to both the softer moments of James Horner’s Star Trek II and to Alexander Courage’s original TV show theme… but more on that later. The theme is liberally applied throughout the score, often as an action motif (“Nero Fiddles, Narada Burns”), often as a heroic fanfare (the Enterprise reveal in “Enterprising Young Men” and the emotional sendoff in “That New Car Smell” both give goose-bumps), and occasionally more thoughtfully (“Hella Bar Talk”), but the thing which has stuck in the minds of many is the fact that it is strangely underdeveloped: there are virtually no themes variations or progressions, just straightforward re-statements: this is the theme, this is it.

Giacchino has said that this was a conscious stylistic choice on his part for this film, and that his ‘full theme’ has not been heard for the new crew of the Enterprise, just as the James Bond theme was not heard in the Casino Royale re-boot until David Arnold decided Daniel Craig was worthy of it. In all likelihood the theme will take flight during the next film in the series, so I’m prepared to give Giacchino a free pass until then. One thing it has going in its favor is memorability, which is more than can be said of a lot of the droning dross we hear in too many scores these days.

The main antagonists, the Romulans and the nefarious Captain Nemo, have their own motif, a snaky descending brass piece clearly influenced by the tribal-sounding Klingon music from Jerry Goldsmith’s Motion Picture and Horner’s score for Wrath of Khan. Its appearance in an action setting, in “Nailin’ the Kelvin”, is the first of many breathless performances, while later cues such as “Nero Sighted” are full of dense energy and barely-contained fury, a mass of swirling strings, throaty brass blasts and pounding percussion which is hugely enjoyable. To counterbalance the warlike nature of the Romulans, the eerie appearance of a weeping erhu, in cues such as “Run and Shoot Offense” and “That New Car Smell”, acts a leitmotif for Spock and the thoughtful, peaceful Vulcan culture, adding a touch of melancholy exoticism to the package.

The film’s most moving moment is underscored tenderly in “Labor of Love”, a wonderful juxtaposition of space-bound carnage, death and destruction offset by tenderness and sacrifice that works wonderfully in the context of the film itself. The choir, when Giacchino works it into cues such as the wonderful “Nero Death Experience”, gives the score a sense of scope and majesty that had been hitherto missing from the piece, as well as an innate sense of humanity that makes the plight of the Enterprise crew more deeply felt. There’s even a brief hint of the first few notes of Courage’s theme at the end of the cue, insinuating that this Enterprise crew has almost earned its stripes. The powerful choral performance of the new Trek theme during the film’s action climax in “Nero Fiddles, Narada Burns” is a second piece of outstanding musical juxtaposition on Giacchino’s part, somehow managing to make Nero seem almost like a tragic anti-hero.

However, the best is saved for last: the nine minute “End Credits” sequence is where everything comes together, and is most notable for the way Giacchino works several enormous orchestral re-statements of Alexander Courage’s main theme into the fabric of his underscore. What’s most impressive is how seamlessly the two themes merge together, as if both have flown from the same man’s pen: the prancing, anticipatory string line which often precedes the bolder statements of Giacchino’s theme brings Courage’s theme to new life, and the way in which Giacchino intercuts between the two is a wonderful conceit, as if musically alluding to the two generations becoming the same. When the two play simultaneously in virtual counterpoint, as they do around the 1:00 mark, it’s nothing short of genius. Recapitulations of the emotional Vulcan motif, plus Nero’s brutal theme with it’s big fat horns, and a final heroic flourish, bring the album to an excellent close.

All in all, this is very impressive achievement from Giacchino, whose stock in Hollywood seems to be rising by the day. It’s clearly a notch behind the classic early Goldsmith and Horner scores, which are likely never to be bettered, but it’s also a significant improvement on the more recent Goldsmith TNG movie scores, and leagues ahead of anything Leonard Rosenman or Dennis McCarthy wrote for the franchise. The directness of the theme, the excitement of the action music, and the overall sense of energy and life makes it a thoroughly enjoyable listening experiences, and I am eager to see where Giacchino takes the franchise in future.

Rating: ****

Buy the Star Trek soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Star Trek (1:03)
  • Nailin’ the Kelvin (2:09)
  • Labor of Love (2:51)
  • Hella Bar Talk (1:55)
  • Enterprising Young Men (2:39)
  • Nero Sighted (3:23)
  • Nice to Meld You (3:13)
  • Run and Shoot Offense (2:04)
  • Does It Still McFy? (2:03)
  • Nero Death Experience (5:38)
  • Nero Fiddles, Narada Burns (2:34)
  • Back From Black (0:59)
  • That New Car Smell (4:46)
  • To Boldly Go (0:26)
  • End Credits (9:11)

Running Time: 44 minutes 59 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6966 (2009)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec, Peter Boyer, Richard Bronskill, Chris Tilton and Chad Seiter. Original Star Trek theme by Alexander Courage. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Stephen M. Davis. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

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