Home > Reviews > SKYSCRAPER – Steve Jablonsky

SKYSCRAPER – Steve Jablonsky

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1988 director John McTiernan made a film called Die Hard, in which a group of terrorists take over a Los Angeles skyscraper, and a hard nosed cop played by Bruce Willis must defeat them to protect his family. Now, in 2018, director Rawson Marshall Thurber has made a film called Skyscraper, in which a group of terrorists takes over a Hong Kong skyscraper, and a hard nosed ex-FBI agent played by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson must defeat them to protect his family. And they say originality is dead in Hollywood. The reviews and box office returns for the film have not been great, especially compared to the director’s previous efforts Dodgeball and Central Intelligence, and despite the star-heavy power of The Rock in the leading role, serviceable support from Neve Campbell, and a decent amount of vertiginous thrills and spills.

The score for Skyscraper is by Steve Jablonsky, whose loud and pulsating music works perfectly adequately in the film and is exactly the sort of music the director and the producers asked for. Congratulations, Steve – a rousing success all round! Five stars!

Oh, wait, that’s not right at all.

You see, this is exactly why there needs to be a clear delineation between what a score sounds like in the context of the film, and how enjoyable and effective that score is as an actual piece of music when experienced on its commercial soundtrack album. Because, from my entirely subjective point of view, and based on my personal musical taste, Skyscraper is an abject failure. It’s been well over a decade now since his stunningly brilliant solo debut score Steamboy, and in the intervening period Jablonsky has achieved massive commercial success via the Transformers franchise, but has never truly ever re-captured that essence of initial brilliance. There have been a few other enjoyable entries along the way – parts of The Island, D-War, Your Highness, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, a couple of others – but beyond these minor diversions, Jablonsky’s career has mostly been littered with enormous missed opportunities to show what he’s really capable of. The nadir remains 2012’s Battleship – the memories of the sampled MRI machine will never go away – but Skyscraper comes close to it in terms of sheer dissatisfaction.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Skyscraper is its terrible lack of ambition. The film is the very definition of big dumb fun; in it there is a scene in which The Rock leaps from a helicopter, defies every known law of physics, and lands on the side of a burning building, before saving his daughter from a bad guy. This music should almost write itself, right? A huge heroic power anthem for the main character, a pretty emotional theme for his relationship with his wife and kids, a massive amount of balls-to-the-wall action material that uses the orchestra and electronics in fun and creative ways, maybe a darker theme for the villains. And we do get that – sort of – because all the raw ingredients are there, but the final end product just feels so underwhelming, so by-the-numbers, and so devoid of any real sense of individuality or uniqueness.

Jablonsky has said in interviews that his idea was to paint Johnson’s character as a relatable everyman: a wounded vet with a prosthetic amputated leg and a deep love for his wife and kids; not a super hero. That’s all well and good, and I can certainly see the logic in toning things down a little to make something a touch more intimate, but the character is still heroic and does things no other human being could logically do, amputated leg or no. Instead of painting Johnson’s character as a down-to-earth family man, he just makes him bland, with very little musical color whatsoever to make him accessible to the audience.

To be fair, one or two cues are quite interesting. A couple of the action cues, especially “The Crane” and “Skyscraper,” include a memorable action motif that moves between cellos and deep horns, chugging and grinding away in a manner that sounds like a more masculine version of Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman theme as originally heard in Batman v Superman. The motif is surrounded by a battery of grungy electronic sound design and pitter-pattering tapped drums, and the whole thing clearly wants to mimic Zimmer’s contemporary Dark Knight-style, but it doesn’t have of any Zimmer’s finesse or stylishness, and ultimately it becomes very repetitive. My favorite action cue on the album is probably “Chopper Ambush,” which features a different string motif, strident and urgent, underpinned by blasting brass and crushing electronics. Again, it quickly gets repetitive, but at least it’s something different and it generates a decent head of steam, if only for a few minutes.

Jablonsky’s thematic ideas are under-developed, in my opinion. There are what seems to be three or four different motifs: one for Johnson’s character Will Sawyer, one for his relationship with his family, one for the skyscraper itself, and then one for the film’s main villain. Will’s theme appears for the first time towards the end of the first cue, “Hostage, Pt. 1,” where it builds out of a series of basic orchestral lines, obnoxious growling electronic chords, various thumping and ticking noises, and endless repetitive ostinati. The theme itself appears to be a basic guitar chord underpinned by synth percussion with a string wash, which gradually increases in volume. It clearly wants to be a heroic anthem, but it feels like generic TV music, something that you’d hear on one of those interchangeable network crime drama shows.

The family themes appear in “Will & Sarah,” “Georgia & Henry,” and “Lucky Man,” and seem to be extrapolations on Will’s theme, albeit re-orchestrated to sound more emotional and poignant with more prominent strings, acoustic guitars, and lighter-hued bubbling electronica. It’s all pleasant and inoffensive but, as is the case with the action music, you can’t shake the nagging feeling that it all sounds composed-by-committee, as if to adhere to a predetermined sound palette. In this case, the music feels like it could be a rejected idea from Man of Steel, tossed aside because it doesn’t quite push all the right emotional buttons. The same can be said for the skyscraper theme, as heard in “Welcome to Heaven” and “The Pearl,” which want to be epic and awe-inspiring while inhabiting same sonic world as the rest of the score. There are several light crescendos, some increased brass, and a bit more electronic pulsing/bubbling, but again the adjectives that spring to mind are ‘bland’ and ‘safe’.

The villain theme appears in the eponymous “Botha,” and briefly piques the interest with its thumping central ostinato, big bad brutal brass motif, crushing electronic effects, and percussion lines – apparently Jablonsky recorded a set of tom-toms and forced them through several distortion pedals and a compressor to get the final sound. Unfortunately, after a few minutes of this, the adjectives that spring to mind here are ‘obnoxious’ and ‘ear-splitting,’ and this feeling can be attributed to most of the rest of the action music too, which abounds with endless grinding, pulsing, and throbbing, beating away at your eardrums. The finale of “Bridge Collapse” interjects some string writing that seems to be intended to convey terror, anguish, and high stakes, while “Proper Motivation “ features an unexpected performance of the Will & Sarah theme in an action setting, but these are slim pickings. By the time we get to “Reflections” Jablonsky has basically resorted to turning the sound of blood pumping in your ears into music.

It’s perhaps telling that the best piece on the album, by a significant margin, is the end credits song “Walls” by British singer-songwriter Jamie N Commons. Commons himself has a wonderfully gravelly blue-eyed soul voice, like Joe Cocker reincarnated, and the mellow, tuneful beats that accompany him are as welcome as an oasis in the middle of a musical desert.

I don’t like writing reviews like this, because I know how much time and energy and thought and detail goes into every single score written, and – as I said at the beginning of the review – the music works perfectly adequately in the film, and is exactly what the director and the producers asked for. But, at the end of the day, that’s all it does. As such, Skyscraper is a perfect example of a film score which, due to the fact that it exists as a standalone commercial product that can be purchased by consumers and experienced in a different context away from how it was written, must be judged by stronger and more demanding criteria . Using these criteria, for me, Skyscraper ultimately has very little going for it. With a few very brief exceptions, the music is dully predictable at best, actively annoying at worst, and elongates the running tally of Steve Jablonsky soundtrack disappointments. To paraphrase a wiser man than I, this score doesn’t come anywhere near to scraping the sky, and is in fact much closer to the bottom of a certain barrel.

Buy the Skyscraper soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Hostage, Pt. 1 (7:29)
  • Will & Sarah (3:56)
  • Welcome To Heaven (2:40)
  • Botha (3:22)
  • The Crane (7:06)
  • Chopper Ambush (3:54)
  • Duct Tape (2:38)
  • Bridge Collapse (3:10)
  • Proper Motivation (3:44)
  • Out On A Ledge (4:27)
  • Georgia & Henry (2:52)
  • Reflections (5:25)
  • Hostage, Pt. 2 (1:56)
  • Reboot (2:19)
  • Lucky Man (5:07)
  • Skyscraper (5:00)
  • The Pearl (5:38)
  • Walls (written and performed by Jamie N. Commons) (3:55)

Running Time: 74 minutes 38 seconds

Milan Records (2018)

Music composed by Steve Jablonsky. Conducted by Alastair King. Orchestrations by Penka Kouneva and Larry Rench. Additional music by Bryce Jacobs, Luke Richards and Christian Wibe. Edited by David Metzner and Ronald Webb. Album produced by Steve Jablonsky.

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  1. superultra
    July 24, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    This score really made me lose my patience with Jablonsky. If he’s going to reject real composition opportunities again and again to score bland action films, fuck it. He can dig his own grave and be forgotten among the other bland composers of this era. There is real brilliance in his music, even Transformers’ thematic continuity is more impressive than people give it credit for.

    He understands instrument variety, melody, and thematic work and how to implement it all, but he is asked to ignore it again and again for committee scores with little to no substance. Either stick with Transformer-style scores that allow him to at least use some of his melodic and thematic talents, or go back to animated films where he can compose traditional music. He is not able to do minimalist or sound design scores. He is best when he’s allowed to do whatever he wants. It’s sad when music for an obscure, Korean, mobile game is closer to his vision than a Hollywood blockbuster.

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