Home > Reviews > OBLIVION – Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese

OBLIVION – Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese

oblivionOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the things I love most about being a film score reviewer is the opportunity to discover new composers at the beginning of their careers. It’s even more exciting when the said composers find themselves attached to a potential box office smash – which is exactly what has happened to Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese with Oblivion. Both these composers worked on the soundtrack for Tron Legacy a couple of years ago, with Trapanese orchestrating and conducting Daft Punk’s score, and Gonzalez having some fun with various remixes via his band M83, and Tron’s director Joseph Kosinski has continued his mini-oeuvre of taking a popular electronica band and translating their music to film with a larger orchestral component. French-born Gonzalez’s band M83 is already pretty well-established, having had several successful albums over the past decade or so, but this is his first film project as a composer in his own right. Similarly, New Jersey-born Trapanese had only orchestrated for Daniel Licht on the TV show Dexter before working on Tron Legacy, which was his first major motion picture experience.

One thing not to expect – from either the film, or the score – is much originality. The film stars Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, an engineer on Earth decades after a war with invading aliens wiped out most of the planet’s population. As the trailer says, “we won the war, but lost the planet”, with half the world an irradiated wasteland, and the other half unfit for human habitation. With the survivors housed off-planet on an enormous tetrahedron-shaped space station on its way to Titan, the moon orbiting Saturn, Jack spends his days tending to the hundreds of automated drones which are extracting the uncontaminated water supply for transportation to Titan, and battling the alien “scavs” trying to sabotage the machinery. But Jack is having vivid dreams of the past, and has the uneasy feeling that something is not quite right with the situation in which he finds himself. The film, which also stars Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau and Melissa Leo, is a thought provoking, visually impressive, and engaging sci-fi romp, but it steals concepts, ideas, and visual markers from a multitude of other movies, including the entire Alien series, 2001: A Space Odyssey, I Robot, Moon and even Independence Day, meaning that any serious sci-fi fan will be suffering from a heady case of cinematic déjà vu for a lot of the time.

So too with the music, which essentially plays like a combination of the scores from Tron Legacy, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, with little bits of 80s-era Tangerine Dream and Vangelis thrown in for good measure. The Zimmer influence on this score is much more apparent here than it was in Tron, with large chunks of the score repeating the ostinato-driven moodiness of Inception almost verbatim, albeit with less creativity and panache than Zimmer brings to his works in this genre. Written for a full orchestra with major accompaniment from Gonzalez’s electronics and an occasional rock band percussion section, Oblivion works well – and is indeed very fitting – in the context of the film. On CD, however, the limitations of the score quickly become apparent, resulting in an album which is inoffensive and generally agreeable, but somewhat underwhelming.

It’s very clear that Gonzalez does not have the knack for catchy themes and rhythms Daft Punk have, and as such Oblivion is clearly inferior to Tron Legacy on that front. The piano theme that opens the score in “Jack’s Dream” is pretty, if a little lightweight, and its re-appearances in the rest of the score (in cues such as “You Can’t Save Her” and “Undimmed by Time, Unbound by Death” for example) are more textural than melodic, and are so slight as to barely register on the audience. The actual main theme – a long-lined heroic piece for strings which comes in for the first time towards the end of “Tech-49” – does have a sense of nobility to it, but it doesn’t have the power or memorability of others from the genre; Oblivion is not a score which lives and dies by its main theme.

Instead, the score oscillates between pseudo-ambient textures and some larger-scale action music, accompanying scenes where the indestructible Mr. Cruise does his usual array of amazing stunts. On the whole, the more ambient music is generally very pleasant; Gonzalez and Trapanese firmly root their music in a tonal world, the orchestral lines are clean and appealing, and the synth elements are never abrasive or irritating. There’s just not much meat on the bones; cues such as the distinctly Tron-like “Waking Up” tend to noodle around, presenting a series of dreamy electronic tones accompanied by rumbling ostinatos and warm orchestral major-key chords, which certainly capture the isolation and starkly futuristic beauty of the world Jack finds himself in, but do very little in terms of presenting an engaging or truly memorable musical environment.

Some of Gonzalez’s sound design ideas are admittedly quite clever; the moody, haunting textures at the beginning of “StarWaves” are effective, as are the pulsating crystalline tones that combine with a more sweeping orchestral section at the beginning of “Earth 2077”, which stands as probably the melodic highlight of the score. But the bulk of it is all so underwhelming, so (for lack of a better word) sterile, that it makes the listening experience go by without much excitement. Now, it could be that the sterility in the music is intended to mirror the sterility of the environment in which Jack and Vicki reside, and if that’s the case then Gonzalez has done his job perfectly. It’s a stretch, but you never know.

One major set piece, the “Canyon Battle”, is easily the score highlight, a rollicking, thrusting action sequence which starts steadily, building up steam, but really lets loose during it’s second half with an array of flashing string rhythms, brass clusters and electronic pulses that raise the adrenaline levels considerably. Elsewhere, “Odyssey Rescue” clearly owes a debt to the “Outlands” sequence from Tron Legacy with its enhanced brass section and throbbing percussion element, which gradually grows to showcase the first appearance of a more rock-based sound, with a standard drum kit and a more urgent rhythmic element. The final third of “Losing Control” is Inception-lite, while the opening minute of “Radiation Zone” and the middle section of “You Can’t Save Here” are obviously less cacophonous versions of The Dark Knight Rises, although “Ashes of Our Fathers” is pretty decent.

Later, when Gonzalez brings his rock band drum kit out to play again – as he does in the second half of “Radiation Zone”, in “I’m Sending You Away”, and in the conclusive “Fearful Odds”, for example – the music embraces a sort of pseudo-1980s synthetic power anthem style, which reminded me a little of John Carpenter, or perhaps something from Blade Runner, and develops an undeniable old-school charm which is quite engaging. A cue from the score’s big finale, “A Temple of Our Gods”, also sees the composers breaking out the choir for a sense of ooh-aah wonderment, which gives the denouement a certain epic grandeur. The conclusive song, “Oblivion”, takes the more prominent heroic melodic element of the score and sets it to lyrics written and performed by Norwegian vocalist Susanne Sundfør, who brings a vocal range and sense of dynamic drama that is actually quite impressive.

I wanted to like Oblivion a lot more than I did, because I always want to try to be supportive of new composers making their way in the film music world, and I was a big fan of Trapanese’s contribution to Tron Legacy especially. I guess I just had trouble connecting with Oblivion’s general sense of unremarkableness; this, combined with the intentionally old-fashioned sound of some of Gonzalez’s electronic samples, the familiarity of the orchestral lines, and the obvious over-reliance on it’s Zimmer-inflected temp track, left it firmly in the middle of the road. There’s nothing really wrong with Oblivion at all, and in the film it leaves a positive impression, but as a standalone album it somehow gets lost in an overall sense of “heard it all before” .

Rating: ***

Buy the Oblivion soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Jack’s Dream (1:22)
  • Waking Up (4:09)
  • Tech 49 (5:58)
  • StarWaves (3:41)
  • Odyssey Rescue (4:08)
  • Earth 2077 (2:22)
  • Losing Control (3:56)
  • Canyon Battle (5:57)
  • Radiation Zone (4:11)
  • You Can’t Save Her (4:56)
  • Raven Rock (4:33)
  • I’m Sending You Away (5:38)
  • Ashes of Our Fathers (3:30)
  • Temples of Our Gods (3:14)
  • Fearful Odds (3:09)
  • Undimmed by Time, Unbound by Death (2:26)
  • Oblivion (written by Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese and Susanne Sundfør, performed by M83 feat. Susanne Sundfør) (5:56)

Running Time: 69 minutes 06 seconds

Back Lot Music 5797000228 (2013)

Music composed by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese. Conducted and orchestrated by Joseph Trapanese. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Bryan Lawson. Album produced by Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese and Bryan Lawson.

  1. April 26, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Tough but fair. I had high hopes for this after the first few tracks, but it was eventually overwhelmed by samey faux-Zimmer material, which is a shame. You could hear some of that influence in Tron too, but not nearly as pronounced or distracting.

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