THE MARTIAN – Harry Gregson-Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Ridley Scott has been in something of a career slump of late. The once-revered director of classics like Alien, Blade Runner, and, more recently, Gladiator, did not receive many good reviews for his last few films, which have included Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. His new film, The Martian, may set things back in the right direction. Based on the acclaimed debut novel by Andy Weir, the film is a space adventure that plays as a cross between Castaway, Gravity, and Apollo 13; it stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut on the latest successful NASA mission to make a manned trip to Mars. Unfortunately disaster strikes and the other members of his team – including Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Peña – are forced to blast off the planet, leaving Mark behind, presumed dead. NASA officials Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig, and Chiwetel Ejiofor announce Mark’s death to a shocked world – but, back on Mars, Mark has somehow survived the accident, and is now faced with a terrible double dilemma: how to survive on Mars with dwindling food and water supplies, and how to contact Earth so that they can come and rescue him. The film is a superb combination of high action-adventure and intelligent application of real science, and will surely appeal to those with any interest in the realities of space exploration and the possibilities and problems it holds for those bold enough to do it. The film is anchored by Matt Damon’s excellent lead performance as Watney, which is at times surprisingly funny as he muses ironically at his situation and the bizarre things he has to do to survive, and is at other times spectacularly beautiful, taking every possible opportunity to present the barren Martian landscapes in all their austere glory.
The score for The Martian is by composer Harry Gregson-Williams, working with Scott for the third time after Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus. Ridley Scott has had something of a spotty relationship with his composers; he has worked with many different musicians over the course of his career, ranging from Howard Blake, Vangelis, and Jerry Goldsmith, to Trevor Jones, Hans Zimmer and, more recently, Marc Streitenfeld, but has also gained a reputation as someone who likes to mess around with the music: he famously replaced a fair amount of Goldsmith’s score for Alien with classical music in 1979, got into all kinds of musical issues between Goldsmith and Tangerine Dream on Legend in 1985, has licensed temp cues to fill gaps in several of his scores, and as recently as last year had three different composers – Alberto Iglesias, Federico Jusid, and Gregson-Williams – working on Exodus: Gods and Kings. Thankfully, The Martian seems to have been generally immune to most of Scott’s musical foibles, with Gregson-Williams presenting a unified, singular vision for the film. The combination of creative freedom and artistic inspiration clearly worked wonders for Gregson-Williams, who responded to these circumstances with what I personally feel is his best score in many years – at least since Prince of Persia in 2008, and maybe since Prince Caspian almost a decade ago.
Stylistically, the score is a combination of Vangelis-style electronica combined with the more potent orchestral statements for which Gregson-Williams is better known. Parts of it play like an easy-listening ambient moods album, full of soothing synth textures, while others are more urgent and dramatic, increasing the tension with more strident rhythmic ideas. Choral embellishments play an occasional part, and at several key moments the score rises to embrace epic orchestral majesty.
The score opens with stark, slightly oppressive synth chords and impressionistic processed effects, earmarking “Mars” as a cold, inhospitable place, but these quickly gives way to a hesitant performance of the score’s main theme, a recurring two-note motif that acts as Mark’s personal musical identity. The electric guitar sounds lonely, clearly alluding to the distance between Mars and home, but is augmented by a gentle, mesmerizing string backing, counterbalancing the isolation with warmth and humanity. It’s interesting how much mileage Gregson-Williams gets out of this simple two-note main theme; pretty much every cue is built around it, but he changes the instrumentation, changes the tempo, and changes the instruments that surround it constantly, allowing it to remain fresh and vital throughout the score.
“Making Water,” for example, takes Mark’s theme and transposes it to surprisingly playful-sounding harps, and optimistic strings, underscoring his can-do spirit and ingenuity in the face of terrible circumstances. Later, “Messages from Hermes” orchestrates the theme for a warm piano, but makes the accompanying synth arrangements echo with alien sounds, simultaneously reminding us that Mark is so close to home, but also so far away. “Pathfinder” is all electronic and all business, taking the theme to the limits of contemporary sci-fi music. The zenith of the score’s thematic strength comes during the awesome “Crossing Mars,” which begins with a detached, expectant synth performance of the theme, but gradually grows into a triumphant, fully orchestral statement for majestic, heroic horns, sweeping, stirring strings, and a light choral accent.
Elsewhere, cues like “Science the Shit Out of This” and “Hexadecimals” make use of cool ticking electronic beats, and smooth metallic textures, keeping time with the turning wheels of problem-solving inside Watney’s head, while “Sprouting Potatoes” is a lovely, pastoral piece highlighting Caroline Dale’s gorgeous cello solo, marveling at the awesome wonder of new life. Some of the more bubbly, upbeat synth ideas in these cues have a sort of Daft Punk vibe to them, in keeping with the oeuvre of contemporary electronic writing, while others are almost gleefully retro, with warbling sound effects straight out of a 1980s Nintendo game, or an early Wendy Carlos score.
The score’s first main action sequence is “Emergency Launch,” which resonates with string tremolos and bassy percussion hits that rumble in the pit of your stomach, and gradually builds into a throbbing beat with relentless forward motion from the strings and a sense of danger from the pulsating brass chords, before climaxing with gut-wrenching string-and-chorus figure that laments for the apparently lost. Later, “Reap and Sow” offsets Dale’s solo cello against nervous-sounding synth pulses and an agitated trumpet line, while “Crops Are Dead” revels in harrowing tragedy, as boy soprano Dominic Lynch from the London-based Bach Choir intones the desperation of Watney’s plight after a terrible accident with religioso solemnity.
The score reaches its cathartic finale during the last three cues. Several different versions of Mark’s theme anchor “See You In a Few,” ranging in emotion from child-like wonder to overwhelming relief and gratitude, with orchestrations which move from solo piano to harp, to guitar, and others, mirroring the myriad of sensations Mark feels. The frequent use of choir, juxtaposed against the electronics, mirrors the one of the film’s key issues, looking at the parallels and differences of humanity and technology. An ever-increasing sense of drama and tension runs through “Build a Bomb” and the first half of “Fly Like Iron Man,” until a wave of triumph celebrates the score’s exhilarating climax. The swirling string runs, explosively dramatic brass clusters, magical synth tones, and moments of choral splendor end things on a high note.
Interestingly, in the film, several key scenes are actually underscored with 1970s and 1980s disco-pop songs – an in-movie in-joke relating to the fact that the only music Mark has to listen to during his time on Mars is Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain)’s cheesy record collection, which she leaves behind during her evacuation. It may seem incongruous to see the broad, lush vistas of an alien world underscored with that type of music but, oddly, it works, and some of the songs – notably Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” David Bowie’s “Starman,” ABBA’s “Waterloo,” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” – are on the nose in terms of the way the lyrics perfectly describe Mark’s state of mind at the time. I actually wish some of these songs had been featured on the score soundtrack, not only because they actually play an important part in the context of the film, but because (as a child of that era) I think they are really good songs! Those who want them can find them on the separate song CD.
Although The Martian might not have the crowd-pleasing overt heroism of something like an Apollo 13, and may disappoint listeners looking for that sort of score, I personally think Harry Gregson-Williams interpreted Ridley Scott’s vision perfectly. The electronic ideas capture its scientific backbone in terms of the film’s celebration of intellect and ingenuity, and pays homage to its classic sci-fi outlook. The singular theme representing Watney ensures he remains the score’s anchor, and the moments of orchestral power, when they come, are more keenly felt due to their infrequency. This is good stuff, cleverly thought out, skillfully applied, and artfully crafted. To paraphrase one of the film’s most memorable lines, Harry Gregson-Williams scored the shit out of it.
Buy the Martian soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Mars (2:25)
- Emergency Launch (3:09)
- Making Water (2:38)
- Spotting Movement (1:49)
- Science the Shit Out of This (2:16)
- Messages from Hermes (3:31)
- Sprouting Potatoes (1:39)
- Watney’s Alive! (2:46)
- Pathfinder (2:33)
- Hexadecimals (2:33)
- Crossing Mars (3:36)
- Reap & Sow (2:21)
- Crops Are Dead (3:26)
- Work the Problem (1:58)
- See You In A Few (5:11)
- Build a Bomb (5:06)
- Fly Like Iron Man (4:45)
Running Time: 51 minutes 50 seconds
Columbia Records (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Orchestrations by Alistair King and David Butterworth. Featured musical soloists Harry Gregson-Williams and Caroline Dale. Special vocal performances by Dominic Lynch. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Cecile Tournesac and Kirsty Whalley. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams.