PASSENGERS – Thomas Newman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Passengers is a romantic drama with a sci-fi twist, a love story amongst the stars with an unusual moral dilemma at its core, and with an action movie climax that stands at odds with much of the gentle comedy of the first half of the movie. Directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts, the film stars Chris Pratt as Jim Preston, one of 5,000 colonists on board a state-of-the-art starship traveling to a new life on Homestead II, a distant planet. The journey takes 120 years, and the passengers are all in hibernation, but a malfunction on board the ship causes Jim to accidentally wake up 90 years early. After unsuccessfully trying to put himself back into hibernation, Jim resigns himself to his fate; despite having access to the ship’s luxurious facilities, Jim only has an android bartender (Michael Sheen) for company, and after a year of isolation decides to commit suicide. It is at this lowest point that Jim comes across Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a fellow passenger, whose cryo-tube is still working, and the film’s moral dilemma emerges: should Jim, who believes he has fallen in love, wake Aurora up for companionship, knowing that doing so will result in her never reaching Homestead II?
The film is visually spectacular, with especially striking production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas, but was something of a critical flop, with many commentators expressing distaste and, in some cases, outright revulsion regarding the will-he-or-won’t-he issue surrounding Jim’s decision of whether to wake Aurora up; many saw Jim as an abuser and a misogynistic manipulator, who doomed Aurora to live a life entirely against her wishes. As such, very little was expected of Passengers in terms of Academy Awards recognition, and it was therefore something of a surprise when the film’s composer, Thomas Newman, received his 14th Oscar nomination for it’s score. I say it’s surprising because, although Newman is an Academy darling, and is genuinely lauded as one of Hollywood’s most talented composers, the score for Passengers is incredibly safe and predictable. The score plays almost like a Thomas Newman greatest hits album; it does everything right, fits the film well, and is as well composed as all Newman’s scores are, but it aims straight down the middle, ticking off boxes full of familiar Newman compositional techniques and orchestrations as it goes.
Broadly, the score can be split into quarters. The first quarter is made up of Newman’s patented ‘quirky’ style, albeit with a much heavier electronic element to illustrate the film’s setting in space. Throughout this opening sequence Newman employs many of the familiar compositional techniques that have typified his work for years: the oddly metered electronic rhythms, the spiky and bouncy piano arpeggios, the vaguely ethnic-sounding woodwind textures which seem to have an all-encompassing world music edge, the overall tone of wry comedy and good-natured inquisitiveness. “The Starship Avalon (Main Title)” features a specific motif for the spaceship itself, which is slightly distant and cold, but the other cues, notably “Hibernation Pod 1625,” “Rate 2 Mechanic,” “Crystalline,” and “Precious Metals,” are light and effervescent, upbeat and bouncy. Some of the textures in “Crystalline” especially remind me of the troubled-sounding ‘subdued’ music he wrote for scores like White Oleander, Little Children, or In the Bedroom.
The second quarter is warmer and more romantic, as it deals with Jim’s increasing infatuation with his sleeping beauty, Aurora (clearly an intentional reference to Charles Perrault and The Brothers Grimm via Walt Disney). Her theme, first introduced in “Aurora,” is much more traditionally engaging, embracing an appealing piano sound. In “The Sleeping Girl” the sound is augmented by elegant strings, harp, distant female vocals, and twinkling electronic glissandi, giving it a magical feeling, although it builds to a turbulent finale. By the time Aurora’s theme reaches its zenith in the lovely “Build a House and Live In It” Newman is firmly in familiar territory, with effortlessly lovely oboe melodies that recall the best writing from scores like How to Make an American Quilt, among others. Later, the “Spacewalk” is dreamy and soothing, full of gentle passion and romance.
The third quarter is concerned mostly with action, to underscore the desperate acts that Jim and Aurora must take to save the Avalon from doom. “50% of Light Speed” revisits the whistling Avalon motif from the opening cue, but then becomes more urgent, a cacophony of rapid strings and pulsing percussion, energetic and insistent. Subsequent cues such as “Cascade Failure,” “Zero-Gravity,” “Looking for Wrong,” and parts of “Untethered” build on this style, increasing the brass content, ramping up the throbbing and bubbling electronic beats, and giving the string section some moments of swirling, dramatic excitement. Some of these cues have echoes of the action music from things like Angels in America, which is something that Newman doesn’t do very often.
The fourth and final quarter is the resolution, a return to the quirkiness of the first quarter, blended with the romance of the second. “Red Giant,” parts of “Untethered,” and “You Brought Me Back” are rousing, heroic, almost euphoric, with rhythmic guitars underpinning the synth pulses. “Chrysler Bldg.” is quirky and playful, with marimba combining the synths and woodwinds in a manner not too dissimilar to the score for Wall*E, while the final three cues, from “Starlit” through “Accidental Happiness” and “Sugarcoat the Galaxy (End Title),” allow a peaceful sense of calm to descend on the score, with several statements of Aurora’s theme, and a hesitantly optimistic finale.
I admit, all this sounds charming and, if you’re a Thomas Newman fan there is much to enjoy here. As most of you know I am a Thomas Newman fan, and so for me, as a listening experience, I found Passengers to be genuinely excellent. It bears all the hallmarks of everything that makes Thomas Newman a good composer, touches all the cornerstones of his writing, and will fill anyone who knows his music well with a warm sense of familiarity. But, in saying that, the familiarity is also the score’s main downfall.
If you’ve heard any of Thomas Newman’s more popular works over the last decade, you’ll know exactly what Passengers sounds like before you even hear it, and that potentially is a problem because it’s beginning to feel like Newman is writing scores from the mindset of one-style-fits all. I have criticized Hans Zimmer for this exact same thing in the past, writing music that sounds the same irrespective of genre or location, and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t criticize Newman equally. With the exception of the slightly increased electronic content, the music from Passengers would work in any number of settings, and has, because Newman has now basically written the same score over and over again for almost a decade. I hate to use the word predictable, but there it is; this is the epitome of a stereotypical Thomas Newman score in every sense of the word. It’s lovely to listen to, but don’t expect to hear anything outside of his increasingly narrow comfort zone.
Buy the Passengers soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Starship Avalon (Main Title) (4:15)
- Hibernation Pod 1625 (1:19)
- Command Ring (0:57)
- Rate 2 Mechanic (2:08)
- Awake for 7 Days (1:25)
- Crystalline (4:07)
- Precious Metals (2:07)
- Aurora (1:44)
- Robot Questions (2:52)
- The Sleeping Girl (3:14)
- Build a House and Live In It (2:07)
- I Tried Not To… (3:53)
- Spacewalk (3:06)
- Passengers (1:47)
- 50% of Light Speed (3:13)
- Cascade Failure (2:55)
- Zero-Gravity (2:44)
- Never Happy Here (1:21)
- Red Giant (1:25)
- Looking for Wrong (1:46)
- Chrysler Bldg. (2:25)
- Untethered (2:34)
- You Brought Me Back (5:41)
- Starlit (3:12)
- Accidental Happiness (3:03)
- Sugarcoat the Galaxy (End Title) (3:12)
Running Time: 68 minutes 45 seconds
Sony Classical (2016)
Music composed by Thomas Newman. Recorded and mixed by Thomas Vicari. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by Thomas Newman and Bill Bernstein.