PROMETHEUS – Marc Streitenfeld
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Prometheus sees the eagerly-awaited and highly anticipated return to the Alien franchise of director Ridley Scott, whose groundbreaking science fiction films in the late 1970s and early 80s help shaped the genre as we know it today. While not a direct prequel to his 1979 masterpiece, the film does take place before the events of that classic film, and within the same general universe. However, whereas the original Alien was essentially a haunted house movie in space, Prometheus asks bigger questions about the meaning – and origins – of life itself. Noomi Rapace and and Logan Marshall-Green star as a pair of scientists who, via some ancient cave paintings, discover a “star map” which they think will lead them across the universe to where life on Earth began. Years later, the pair arrive on a distant planet with a cadre of associates funded by the Weyland corporation: icy administrator Charlize Theron, ship’s captain Idris Elba, geologist Rafe Spall, biologist Sean Harris, plus a sentient android named David, played with clinical conviction by Michael Fassbender. However, upon their arrival and initial forays onto the planet, the team find much more than they anticipated, and a great deal of danger.
The Alien franchise has a storied and impressive musical heritage, from Jerry Goldsmith on the original Alien, through James Horner on Aliens, Elliot Goldenthal on Alien 3, and John Frizzell on Alien Resurrection, as well as Brian Tyler and Harald Kloser on the Alien-Predator crossovers. It must have been a daunting task for German composer Marc Streitenfeld to step into this arena, not only with the weight of previous composers to consider, but with the added pressure of Prometheus being one of the most highly anticipated films in years. Having only scored seven films since making his debut in 2006, there was really nothing in his filmography to suggest that he had the composing chops necessary to step up to the task, and unfortunately this proves to be true. His score is a murky, surprisingly pedestrian orchestral/electronic hybrid which clearly tries to pick up the mantle of his predecessors, but has nowhere near the technical or compositional excellence that Goldsmith, Horner and Goldenthal brought to their orchestral/electronic hybrids.
In fact, it seems that Streitenfeld’s music actually suffered a similar fate to that of his peers. It is well-known that at least three of the prior composers had terrible experiences writing their Alien scores: Ridley Scott replaced much of Jerry Goldsmith’s score with classical pieces and re-arranged the rest out of sequence; James Horner and James Cameron almost came to blows on the scoring stage of Aliens, and Elliot Goldenthal suffered so much studio interference that his Alien 3 score was altered beyond recognition in the final cut. Streitenfeld’s ignominy is in having the bulk of his thematic material replaced with music by Harry Gregson-Williams in the finished picture; Gregson-Williams’ “Life” theme is by far the standout musical element in the film, and features at least half a dozen times during some of the movie’s most pivotal moments. The theme – which features on the soundtrack album in “Life” and “We Were Right” – is a noble, optimistic melody for horns and strings augmented by a light choral element, and is quite beautiful, although its use in context seems rather muddled: it’s almost as though Scott, realizing his movie didn’t have a strong musical identity, simply stuck Gregson-Williams’s theme in wherever he felt the need for a memorable musical moment, irrespective of what the scene was or whether the use of that theme at that moment actually made narrative sense. Nevertheless, the theme is lovely, and will undoubtedly go on to become the most remembered musical aspect of the film.
The rest of Streitenfeld’s score is a surprisingly uninvolving affair, and despite the presence of three new themes and a couple of smaller motifs and recurring performance techniques, it never really lingers long in the memory or generates much of an individual identity. There’s a suitably large orchestra, and a whole bank of synthesizers and electronic textures to add otherworldly ambiences, but on the whole it fails to truly establish itself beyond its own narrow scope, instead content to mirror the action with creepy vignettes of suspense and a couple of explosions of noise for the action sequences.
A main theme of sorts is heard in the opening “A Planet”, and crops up again in later cues such as “Small Beginnings”, “Dazed” and “Collision”; it shares some of the same harmonic language as Gregson-Williams’s theme, with the two almost seeming to merge together in cues such as the rather impressive “Earth”, but in context it fades into the background whenever the “Life” theme comes to the fore, making it seem curiously unresolved and understated. A see-sawing four-note danger motif (not like Horner’s) appears in “Going In”, “Not Human”, “Too Close”, “Hyper Sleep”, and several other cues to represent the unknown but omnipresent threats facing the crew of the Prometheus, although the instrumentation and layers of sound accompanying the motif tend to make it difficult to identify. Often, Streitenfeld uses what sounds like a processed bass flute to bring this motif to life, which lends the score an unexpected 1970s flavor, before the grinding synthesizers and other industrial groans and moans quickly bring it back into the present.
In some cues, notably “David”, Streitenfeld manipulates his music to give it an abstract, oddly detached feeling, which he achieved by having his orchestra play the music backwards and reversing the sound in post-production. Also in this cue, and in cues such as “Small Beginnings”, there’s a staccato pulse beating under the music, a little like a mechanical heartbeat, but which Streitenfeld describes as ‘the sound of blood rushing through your ears’, which acts as something of a recurring tone to represent David’s synthetic nature. Elsewhere, the music establishes a rhythmic undercurrent to give the score a sense of forward motion, whereupon Streitenfeld layers on various blocks of dissonant orchestral noise, adopting a “wall of sound” approach to overwhelm listeners during action scenes. Cues such as “Hammerpede”, the opening parts of “Infected”, “Hello Mommy”, “Dazed” and “Planting the Seed” adopt this style, which is effective enough, but seems more than a little overly-familiar.
A large-scale final theme, which seems to musically represent the God-like power employed by the Engineers, is first performed on noble brasses in the opening cue “A Planet”, and appears again as a leitmotif for the Final Engineer in the powerful “Space Jockey, the noble and resilient “Collision” and the conclusive “Birth”. One final conceit is a processed restatement of Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme for Alien in “Friend from the Past”, which underscores a pivotal scene of exposition and is a nice nod and a wink to the old master. The majority of film-goers won’t even notice it, but I liked the tribute.
As much as Prometheus works well enough in context, Streitenfeld’s work on this score really doesn’t live up to its pre-release hype, and will not be remembered as well as any of the others in the pantheon of Alien scores. As much as I don’t like questioning a composer’s credentials, I do have to wonder whether hiring a comparatively green composer like Streitenfeld was a wise idea for a film of this magnitude; it’s likely that the assignment was simply too big for him, and having heard his small contribution, one can’t help but wonder what Harry Gregson-Williams or someone like him would have done with a canvas like this. It’s a shame; much like the film it accompanies, it promised much, but delivers less.
Buy the Prometheus soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- A Planet (2:37)
- Going In (2:03)
- Engineers (2:29)
- Life (2:30)
- Weyland (2:04)
- Discovery (2:32)
- Not Human (1:49)
- Too Close (3:20)
- Try Harder (2:03)
- David (3:00)
- Hammerpede (2:42)
- We Were Right (2:42)
- Earth (2:35)
- Infected (1:56)
- Hyper Sleep (2:01)
- Small Beginnings (2:11)
- Hello Mommy (2:04)
- Friend From the Past (1:14)
- Dazed (4:29)
- Space Jockey (1:29)
- Collision (3:05)
- Debris (0:44)
- Planting the Seed (1:35)
- Invitation (2:16)
- Birth (1:24)
Running Time: 56 minutes 55 seconds
Sony Classical 88691978342 (2012)
Music composed by Marc Streitenfeld. Conducted and orchestrated by Ben Foster. Additional music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Theme from Alien by Jerry Goldsmith. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Kirsty Whalley, Del Spiva and Joseph Bonn. Album produced by Marc Streitenfeld.