Home > Reviews > STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS – Michael Giacchino


startrekintodarknessOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

NOTE: There are plot spoilers in this review that were unavoidable as I wanted to sensibly talk about the music and its context within, and impact upon, the film, If you haven’t seen the film yet, I might suggest waiting to read this until you have.

The second of director J.J. Abrams’ newly-revamped “alternate timeline” Star Trek movies is Star Trek Into Darkness, one of the most anticipated films of the early summer months of 2013. Set one year after the events of the last Star Trek film, Into Darkness finds Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Starship Enterprise – First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Chief Medical Officer Bones McCoy (Karl Urban), Chief Engineer Scott (Simon Pegg), Navigation Officer Sulu (John Cho), Communications Officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin) – on a mission to observe a primitive humanoid race on a distant planet. When one of the crew members finds his life in jeopardy Kirk is forced to violate the Starfleet prime directive of non-interference in order to rescue him, and upon his return to Earth is demoted by his commanding officer, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood). However, things suddenly change when a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks a Starfleet installation and murders several high ranking officers, before fleeing to Kronos, the home world of the brutal and warlike Klingon race. Given permission to go after Harrison by Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and with a cache of prototype photon torpedos on board, Kirk and the crew sets off on a covert mission… but before long doubts about Harrison’s identity, and his motivations, begin to surface.

Star Trek Into Darkness, a few logical fallacies aside, is a superbly entertaining sci-fi romp, with an appealing and likeable cast that has grown admirably into the roles previously occupied by William Shatner and company, witty dialogue, some wonderfully exhilarating action set pieces, and several pertinent political statements regarding terrorism, drone strikes, and the nature of revenge. It’s visually spectacular, with state-of-the-art special effects and some truly awe-inspiring shots, and has a great score by Michael Giacchino, who builds on the musical style initiated in his first Star Trek outing in 2009, and augments it with several new themes and motifs for the new aspects of his musical universe.

Several of the three themes from the first Star Trek – including the main Trek Anthem and the theme for Spock – feature prominently in the score, giving the two films a pleasing sense of musical continuity. Both the A- and B-phrases of the Anthem crop up regularly: on noble horns during the first moments of “Logos/Pranking the Natives”, on searching strings in “Sub Prime Directive”, and with chaotic dissonance and skewed chord progressions in the torturous “Earthbound and Down”, for example. Later, “Warp Core Values” and “Buying the Space Farm” cleverly echo the emotional sacrificial elegy from the first Star Trek score which accompanied George Kirk’s death on the USS Kelvin, linking the fates of father and son. The music segues into a beautiful, ghostly version of the Trek Anthem complete with heavenly choir, before climaxing with a gentle solo piano rendition that is wonderfully poignant.

The film’s main new theme is the motif for the terrorist John Harrison. A slow-burning, languid, slightly feline-sounding theme for slithering strings and an undulating six-note rhythmic counterpoint, the theme actually first appears as a pretty, idyllic variation in “London Calling”, where the menace provided by Harrison’s presence is masked by elegant rhapsodic pianos and a lush, classical aspect. It makes its first full-fledged appearance two minutes into “Meld-Merized”, announcing Harrison’s destructive intent, and later makes its way into the sinister “Brigadoom”, where Kirk and McCoy interrogate Harrison to strident string pulses, eerie glass bowl effects, and subtle allusions to Harrison’s musical identity that grow bolder and more elaborate as the cue progresses to to the film’s big reveal moment.

Perhaps most ingeniously, Giacchino blends Harrison’s theme with fractured statements of the Star Trek anthem, playing against one another, to accompany Kirk and Harrison in the daring “Ship to Ship” space jump sequence, offset by dancing string lines and frenetic, anxious percussion writing. This is the third of the score’s four main action set pieces, all of which raise the testosterone and blood-pressure levels considerably. In the first, “Pranking the Natives”, Giacchino introduces light-fingered tribal drums, a tingling hammered dulcimer, and leaping, prancing string-and-woodwind runs to accompany Kirk and McCoy sprinting through the red-tinged forests of Nibiru, fleeing from the yellow-clad, white faced natives. In the subsequent and similarly-orchestrated “Spock Drops, Kirk Jumps”, Giacchino re-arranges the B-phrase of the Anthem into a new form which seems to be channeling Howard Shore and his stepwise whole note ascending scales from The Lord of the Rings, possibly as a subtle and very clever fanboy allusion to the Nibiru volcano and its fiery cousin in Mordor.

The second action sequence – and the second new musical idea – is for the Klingon race, which makes its most prominent appearance in the show-stopping “Kronos Wartet”. Jerry Goldsmith’s rattling, percussive Klingon motif from the original Trek films is well established, and although Giacchino’s take on the characters is different, it is no less effective. A mixed voice choir chanting in the Klingon language and a dark, descending motif for low brass and anvils is woven through a brutally powerful action sequence for the full orchestra. The actual brass motif, somewhat unexpectedly, reminds me of Alex North’s growling motif for Vermithrax the Dragon from the 1981 score Dragonslayer, and conveys a similar sense of fear and danger.

The final action sequence, “The San Fran Hustle”, is a hard-hitting, propulsive, full-orchestral chase through the streets of San Francisco, and features a wonderful re-arranged version of Spock’s theme as an action motif. Whereas in the first film Spock’s theme was a dreamy lament for erhu and cello, his theme as heard in Into Darkness is full of staccato strings, snare drum licks and punchy brass phrases, accompanying Spock’s full-throttle sprint through the rubble in pursuit of his quarry. The finale of the cue sees Harrison’s theme get another major workout in counterpoint to Spock’s theme, a guest appearance from the Star Trek Anthem A-phrase as the cavalry arrives, and even a brief allusion to Gerald Fried’s classic original series fight music as Spock goes all pon farr on Harrison’s ass, before it eventually climaxes in a frenzy of percussion.

A lovely, sentimental performance of Sandy Courage’s legendary Star Trek TV theme anchors “Kirk Enterprises”, before the album closes with a large-scale concert version of the main theme, complete with a full and spine-tingling choir. A bonus cue, “The Growl”, is a J.J. Abrams-penned piece of annoying electronica that features as source music in a nightclub sequence, and can be quickly skipped over.

What I like about Star Trek Into Darkness is that, with this score, Michael Giacchino has firmly cemented the musical identity of the new Trek universe. The Star Trek Anthem is now clearly established as the new theme for the franchise as a whole, sitting as equals alongside Courage’s original series theme, and Jerry Goldsmith’s masterpiece work for the 1979 movie and the subsequent Next Generation TV series. Which one you like best is clearly a matter of taste, but the nay-sayers who originally decried Giacchino’s theme as unmemorable must now be forced to eat their words. Not only that, Giacchino’s mastery of the orchestra, his clever variations on pre-existing themes, his knack for exhilarating percussive action, and his intelligent application of thematic ideas, makes Star Trek Into Darkness a worthwhile entry into the pantheon of Trek scores, and the first satisfying blockbuster score of summer 2013.

Rating: ****½

Buy the Star Trek Into Darkness soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Logos/Pranking the Natives (3:02)
  • Spock Drops, Kirk Jumps (1:44)
  • Sub Prime Directive (2:24)
  • London Calling (2:10)
  • Meld-Merized (2:41)
  • The Kronos Wartet (5:26)
  • Brigadoom (3:42)
  • Ship to Ship (2:51v
  • Earthbound and Down (2:38)
  • Warp Core Values (2:57)
  • Buying the Space Farm (3:18)
  • The San Fran Hustle (5:01)
  • Kirk Enterprises (3:01)
  • Star Trek Main Theme (3:25)
  • The Growl (written by J.J. Abrams, Charles Scott, Anne Preven and Cassia Conway, performed by Conway) (2:56) [BONUS]

Running Time: 47 minutes 03 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7198 (2013)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec, Brad Dechter, Norman Ludwin, Andrea Datzman, Cameron Patrick, Larry Kenton, Marshall Bowen and Susie Benchasil Seiter. Theme from Star Trek TV series by Alexander Courage. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Alex Levy. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

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