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ALIENS – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece Alien was a watershed landmark, a seminal film that forever changed the genre, so it was something of a surprise that a sequel was not forthcoming straight away. With behind-the-scenes wrangling between executives at 20th Century Fox, and a script that languished in development hell, it actually took almost seven years for Aliens to hit the big screen, but with hindsight it was more than worth the wait. For me, Aliens is one of the greatest action films ever made; a blockbuster war movie allegory about the Vietnam War, inspired by several seminal works in classic sci-fi literature, written and directed by the young and hungry auteur behind the 1984 hit The Terminator. In James Cameron’s capable hands, Aliens became a masterpiece of tension and horror, pulsating adventure, and noble sacrifice.

Aliens picks up the story 57 years after the events of the original film, when Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only survivor of the crew of the Nostromo, is picked up floating in deep space by a salvage crew. After returning to Earth, Ripley is astounded to discover that the planet where she and her shipmates found the original alien has now been colonized; when her desperate warnings about the threat the alien poses are un-heeded, she tries in vain to re-assimilate into civilian life. However, before long, Ripley is called back into action when contact with the colonists is lost, and a team of elite space marines is sent to investigate. Accompanying the marines as an advisor, Ripley travels back to LV-426 in the company of the wisecracking soldiers, all of whom are unaware of the horrors they are about to face. The film has an iconic supporting cast – world-weary corporal Michael Biehn, motor-mouthed private Bill Paxton, slimy bureaucrat Paul Reiser, coolly intellectual android Lance Henriksen – and several set-pieces that have entered cinematic folklore, many of which involve the young colonist orphan Newt (Carrie Henn) whom Ripley rescues, and the fearsome alien queen.

James Horner was hired to score Aliens, hot off the success of works such as Cocoon, Krull, Brainstorm, 48 HRS., and his two Star Trek sequels, and having already worked – albeit indirectly – with James Cameron on Battle Beyond the Stars in 1980. Unfortunately, Horner’s experience on Aliens was one of the worst of his career. Thinking he had six weeks to write and record the score, Horner arrived on set to find Cameron still in the middle of editing, and pre-occupied with the film’s sound effects. As the weeks passed, with deadlines approaching, and with no finished film for him to view, Horner became more and more concerned that he would not be able to finish everything in time. Cameron and his producer Gale Ann Hurd constantly refused to change the post-production schedule, and on the few occasions where Horner was given footage to view, the music he subsequently wrote would be rendered useless when Cameron edited a new cut overnight, changing the composer’s precise musical timings. The relationship between the two men deteriorated to such an extent that, while shouting at each other about the latest issue, Cameron allegedly pinned Horner to the wall of the booth at Abbey Road by his neck. In the end, Horner recorded everything in four days, and once the film was over, the two men would not reconcile for almost a decade, until they eventually came together to work on Titanic in 1997.

Considering the circumstances under which it was conceived, it’s a minor miracle that there is any music in Aliens at all, let alone for it to be this good. Aliens is one of James Horner’s all-time great scores, an aggressive, angry, brutal work full of terrible dissonances and nerve-shredding tension, punctuated by explosions of thunderous action, and rousing heroism. It was recorded in England with the London Symphony Orchestra, augmented by the latest in 1980s electronic synthesizer technology, and garnered Horner his first Academy Award nomination for Best Score. However, in the final cut of the film, as Nick Redman’s incisive liner notes for the Deluxe Edition soundtrack release explain, only a handful of cues remain intact, playing where they should, unedited and un-truncated. Cameron and his team of film and music editors cut, hacked, and spliced Horner’s score up into almost unrecognizable chunks. Bits of different cues are heard all over the place, stitched together like some sort of musical Frankenstein but, astonishingly, it works like gangbusters. As such, the only place where you can hear Horner’s original unmolested vision for the score is on CD, and it’s magnificent.

The music, broadly, can be split into three categories: slow, elegant, icily desolate string writing that captures the loneliness of space; creepy, ambient, abstract, defiantly dissonant sequences that underscore the lurking terror of the aliens themselves; and balls-to-the-wall full-throttle action music for the full orchestra, rampaging its way through the score as Ripley and the squadron of marines battle for their lives against the alien hordes. There are a couple of recurring themes present in the score, but these are not really the driving force of Horner’s music, which is instead content to concentrate entirely on the here-and-now, underscoring the moment, and taking the viewer on the ride of their lives.

It’s interesting to note how many of Horner’s trademark instrumental textures and compositional tics are present throughout Aliens, beginning with the echoing trumpets and dark chord progressions of the “Main Title” that became a fixture throughout much of his career. Later, the stately horn progressions from Star Trek II and the rattling flute ideas from Something Wicked This Way Comes can be heard in “Dark Discovery,” while the back-and-forth horn calls and responses at 1:31 in “Ripley’s Rescue” originally appeared in Krull. Even the four-note ‘danger motif’ that followed Horner throughout his career makes several guest appearances here, coming across as a speeded-up variation on the similar sounding version he first used in Wolfen in 1981.

The mournful, eerily beautiful string writing is clearly influenced by the Adagio from Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s 1942 ballet work Gayane, which was itself memorably used by Stanley Kubrick in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. After some creepy build-up and rat-a-tat-tat snares, foreshadowing the militaristic tone of the film’s second half, the main theme emerges from the “Main Title” at around the 1:30 mark on high wavering strings, speaking to Ripley’s years of isolation, floating aimlessly in the blackness of space. Subsequent performances of the theme in cues like “LV-426,” “Newt,” the angry and frightening “Face Huggers,” and the first half of “Futile Escape” give the theme a deeper meaning, as it begins to represent not only Ripley, but her increasingly protective relationship with Newt.

The suspense and tension music sees Horner engaging in a great deal of uncharacteristic dissonance. Although he wrote music for many horror films during the early years of his career – Humanoids from the Deep, Wolfen, and Deadly Blessing among them – Aliens contains some of his most challenging, difficult sequences of musical abstraction. Cues such as “Dark Dreams” juxtapose hesitant snippets of the main theme with cascading, collapsing string figures and shattering explosions of sound, while later cues like “The Complex,” “Atmosphere Station,” “Med Lab,” and “Sub-Level 3” add to the overall sense of dread. The effect that these cues have is to slowly, carefully, turn the screw on the audience. A little tapped percussion, an industrial-metallic electronic texture, a sinister-sounding brass chord, some high sustained strings, some softly trilling woodwinds; it’s all expertly designed to instill a sense of nail-biting anticipation, that uncanny feeling that something is about to happen, that something terrible is hiding in the shadows, and that when it emerges it’s not going to be pleasant. The skittering strings have the feeling of claws on metal, the echoing woodwinds like water dripping from rusted pipes.

However, by far the most memorable aspect of the score for me is the action music, which is hugely bombastic, making use of the full orchestra and a vast array of percussion items, famously including snare drums and anvils. “Combat Drop” introduces the ideas, with rapid snare tattoos overlaid by bright trumpets and ample horns, which eventually emerge into a vivid horn triplet motif that acts as a recurring idea for the space marines. This idea explodes during “Ripley’s Rescue,” an exciting chase sequence which uses the throbbing Space Marine motif as its centerpiece, and continues through “Futile Escape,” the second half of which is a show-stopping masterpiece cue of simply gargantuan scale, with multiple layered performances of the Space Marine motif for different sections of the brass section, relentlessly hammering anvils, thunderous snare drum riffs, furiously swirling strings, and an excellent section showcasing a prepared piano beginning at 5:25.

The contrapuntal heroic brass flourish at the beginning of “Going After Newt” is magnificent, perfectly capturing the determination and maternal resolve Ripley shows as she embarks on her final – possibly suicidal – mission to rescue the terrified young girl from the clutches of the alien queen. “Bishop’s Countdown” is the culmination of the score, and arguably one of the most famous action cues ever written, which became a staple of trailer music throughout the 1980s and 90s, but which to this day has not lost any of its potency. The period of thrusting, tempestuous trumpet writing beginning at 0:32 is one of the most genuinely thrilling 28 seconds of Horner’s entire career, while the staccato flourish of drums, strings, and brass that follows it has become the template for all composers depicting an imminent event from which our heroes are trying to escape. Unfortunately, the pastoral sense of relief at the end of the cue is a false dawn, as Ripley must face the formidable alien queen for a final time in “Queen to Bishop”.

Thankfully, once the “Resolution” has been achieved, the conclusive “Hyperspace” offers a genuine sense of peace and respite, with soothing woodwinds, gentle celesta textures, and a warm horn refrain similar to parts of Cocoon, followed by a sentimental but somewhat resigned performance of the Adagio theme for gentle strings as the survivors drift off into the unknown.

The score for Aliens has always been popular; it was originally released on both vinyl LP and CD at the time of the film’s release, with a fairly short 40 minute running time and a non-chronological running order, split between three record labels: Varese Sarabande in the United States, Colosseum in mainland Europe, and TER Records in the UK, and with different cover art in each region. Varese Sarabande then released a ‘deluxe edition’ of the score in 2001, with a longer running time, chronological sequencing, and even a few bonus cues, including the percussion-only version of “Combat Drop” heard in the film. This is my recommended version.

Aliens is one of the crowning achievements of James Horner’s career, and that’s saying something for a man who wrote as many masterpieces as he did. It certainly won’t be for everyone, and anyone who grew up on his lush, emotional and romantic themes may have a hard time connecting with this forceful, brutal, and often challenging suspense and action music, but for those like me who relish scores which can quicken the pulse with vicious percussive ideas and savage, but defiantly musical orchestral lines, Aliens is an essential purchase. It’s one of the standout scores of the entire decade.

Buy the Aliens soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (5:10)
  • Going After Newt (3:08)
  • Sub-Level 3 (6:11)
  • Ripley’s Rescue (3:13)
  • Atmosphere Station (3:05)
  • Futile Escape (8:13)
  • Dark Discovery (2:00)
  • Bishop’s Countdown (2:47)
  • Resolution and Hyperspace (6:10)
  • Main Title (5:13)
  • Bad Dreams (1:22)
  • Dark Discovery/Newt’s Horror (2:07)
  • LV-426 (2:03)
  • Combat Drop (3:29)
  • The Complex (1:34)
  • Atmosphere Station (3:11)
  • Med Lab (2:04)
  • Newt (1:14)
  • Sub-Level 3 (6:36)
  • Ripley’s Rescue (3:19)
  • Face Huggers (4:24)
  • Futile Escape (8:29)
  • Newt is Taken (2:04)
  • Going After Newt (3:18)
  • The Queen (1:45)
  • Bishop’s Countdown (2:50)
  • Queen To Bishop (2:31)
  • Resolution and Hyperspace (6:27)
  • Bad Dreams (Alternate) (1:23) – BONUS
  • Ripley’s Rescue (Percussion Only) (3:20) – BONUS
  • LV-426 (Alternate Edit – Film Version) (1:13) – BONUS
  • Combat Drop (Percussion Only) (3:24) – BONUS
  • Hyperspace (Alternate Ending) (2:08) – BONUS

Running Time: 39 minutes 57 seconds – Original Release
Running Time: 75 minutes 28 seconds – Expanded Release

Varese Sarabande VCD-47263 (1986)
Varese Sarabande 302-066-241-2 (1986/2001)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Edited by Michael Clifford and Robin Clark. Score produced by James Horner. Deluxe Edition album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson.

  1. July 21, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Just a note. The percussion version of ‘Combat Drop’ was not heard in the film. The cue in the film is a library cue by Harry Rabinowitz.

  2. Valentin Berger
    July 21, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Great review, great score. I’ve always been kind of surprised that Cameron and Horner continued working together after such a bad experience. Well, good luck for us, it resulted in two more wonderful scores!

  3. Brendon Kelly
    July 21, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    Great review of a great score! Thank you. I am looking forward to seeing this live at the RAH in November!

    One observation – I believed the solo drum piece was by Harry Rabinowitz, not the percussion only version of Combat Drop.

    Brilliant review though.

  4. July 21, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    Great review! James Horner was nominated against strong nominees. He was the dark horse!

  5. K.A,K
    July 22, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Great review for a great score. On a side note, have you had a chance to check out Finding Dory?

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