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ALIEN 3 – Elliot Goldenthal

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When I first started writing about film music, in the summer of 1997, I tried to write a review of Alien 3. I had seen the film previously, and liked it a great deal, and I remember being especially impressed with the music in the finale, so I went out and bought Elliot Goldenthal’s soundtrack CD. This was my first experience of his music outside of film context, and my film music knowledge at that point barely extended beyond the big orchestral scores of John Williams and James Horner, and the sweeping romance of John Barry. Hearing Alien 3 for the first time was… well, it was almost indescribable. I had no idea what I was listening to. It felt like angry, vicious, random noise, and I absolutely hated it. I hadn’t yet begun to explore the darker and more atonal side of film music, I had no knowledge of Stravinsky or Penderecki, or of twentieth century avant-garde music in general. In short, I had no clue what Elliot Goldenthal was doing. I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand it. Thankfully, thirty years down the line, I now have had vastly more exposure to and tolerance of this type of aggressive music, and I can now appreciate it for the masterpiece it is.

Alien 3 was the second sequel to Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, and came six years after James Cameron’s first sequel, Aliens, from 1986. It was the feature debut of a brash and exciting director from the world of advertising, David Fincher, who was hired to replace the studio’s original choice of director, Vincent Ward. To say that the production was troubled is an understatement of epic proportions, but there are plenty of other places online to read about that, so I’m not going to go into it here; suffice to say, the film was released with some degree of trepidation, and it failed to connect with either critics or audiences in the way the first two films had, and was eventually considered something of a flop. The film again stars Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, and picks up the story immediately after events of Aliens; a fire on board their spaceship results in escape pods being jettisoned, which crash on a nearby planet housing a penal colony populated by violent male inmates. Ripley is thought to be the only survivor of the crash, until it quickly becomes apparent that an alien embryo has also made its way to the planet; before long, the alien is wreaking havoc within the colony. The film co-stars Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen, and Brian Glover.

Prior to Alien 3 Elliot Goldenthal’s only major film music experience was on the films Drugstore Cowboy and Pet Sematary, both of which were released in 1989, and he was still considered by most to be a classical concert and theater composer. Alien 3 changed all that for Goldenthal, and initiated a brilliant but much-too-brief career on the film music A-List that saw him writing scores such as Demolition Man, Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, Titus, Frida, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, as well as two blockbuster Batman films, over the next decade or so. Alien 3 is, in many ways, the prototypical Goldenthal score because, unlike Pet Sematary, it contains the first appearances of many of the compositional stylistics that would grace his works over the rest of the 1990s, and which became so beloved by his admirers.

However, unlike some of those later works, Alien 3 is not something you listen to easily. It’s a score which assaults your senses, batters your intellect, and offers a relentless cacophony of sounds and textures that range from the operatically beautiful to the almost unbearably bleak. This is a score with virtually no warmth, and virtually no hope; it dwells in the darkest corners of the orchestra, growling and snarling, only raising its voice when it wants to chase you and rip your head off. The score does contain themes, but Goldenthal dissects them constantly, offering brief glimpses and tiny allusions for almost an hour, until finally resolving them in the devastating finale.

The opening cue, “Agnus Dei,” is in many ways a perfect encapsulation of the score; it combines the tones of a bone-chillingly cold orchestra and desolate electronics with the sound of a solo choirboy, Nik Nackley, singing in Latin, echoing through the darkness. The score’s main theme is introduced here halfway through the cue, carried mostly by strings but almost unrecognizable, before it is swallowed up by the first appearance of the skittering, clattering percussion ideas that come to represent the alien itself, and then by a host of brutal orchestral dissonances. Fans of Goldenthal’s work will see how this combination – angelic choir pitched against harsh orchestra – would go on to become a defining idea in Goldenthal’s work, across scores as varied as Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, and more.

Later, “Lento” returns to the beautiful sounds of the choirboy softly singing over a bed of more approachable piano, string, and woodwind textures, but it’s still all filled with that sense of coldness and loneliness that permeates the entire score. Then, at 1:48, the score erupts into a huge, powerful, almost triumphant sequence featuring a bank of brass, swirling strings, and pounding timpani, representing one of the score’s standout moments; it doesn’t last long, though, and quickly segues into a mournful section for lonely strings. Finally, the cue climaxes with the full orchestra playing the melodic lines of both ‘Agnus Dei’ and ‘Lento’. In context the liturgical choir represents the religious aspect of the story, specifically the fact that the inmates of the prison colony have strongly turned to religion as a way of controlling the chromosomal urges for anti-social behavior that landed them in the prison in the first place. As the score develops, these ideas come to illustrate the notion of noble self-sacrifice the prisoners embody as one, then another, then another, give themselves over to the alien in order to save Ripley.

“Bait and Chase” is the first of the score’s intense action sequences, a frenzy of tremolo strings pitched against the rattling ‘alien percussion,’ abstract woodwind textures, and perhaps the score’s defining idea: the incredible, blaring, pitch-bending brass that would again go on to be another defining characteristic of Goldenthal’s action writing on dozens of subsequent works. “The First Attack” opens curiously, almost playfully, a piccolo and an oboe dancing around underneath the orchestra accompanied by a piano and harp glissandi, before the rampant action takes over once more in the cue’s second half.

The brass writing at the beginning of “Death Dance” is insane, some of the most desperately inhuman sounds I have ever heard emerge from a trombone, and then when it combines with savage percussion, buzzing tremolo strings, and wild electronics, the effect is brilliant. However, for me, the score’s standout action piece is “Explosion and Aftermath,” a thrilling cacophony of intense dissonance and raging excitement, which again showcases Goldenthal’s wholly unique brass writing. The frantic trills that open the piece are perhaps the quintessential Goldenthal trademark – they appear in almost every subsequent action score he wrote – and then when they are joined by banks of undulating, swirling strings and rattling percussion textures, the resulting music is like an injection of adrenaline and energy.

And then there are the cues that almost defy classification; cues which are so angry and jarring and experimental that they almost break the barriers of music and become closer to musique concrete and sound effects. “The Beast Within,” for example, sees the strings playing a deconstructed version of the main theme over and over again, surrounded by various ambient sound effects, before the whole thing climaxes with a harsh dissonant chord, representing in context the birth of the alien hybrid in the filthy bowels of the prison. Later, in cues like “Candles in the Wind,” the brutal and aggressive “Wreckage and Rape,” and especially the eerie and disturbing “The Dragon,” Goldenthal takes his experimental orchestral textures, his pitch-bending horns, and his dissonant ambiences to their absolute extreme, in a relentless musical representation of horror and carnage. Some of the things Goldenthal does here, especially with brass glissandi, is astonishing, and foreshadow some of the similar writing he would later use more traditionally in scores like Batman Forever and Sphere.

The score’s finale begins in “The Entrapment,” which underscores the scene where Charles S. Dutton’s character Dillon – the spiritual leader of the prisoners – attempts to corner the alien creature in a lead foundry and kill it by drowning it in molten metal. Goldenthal scores most of the scene with more intense action, layered tremolo strings and howling brasses, before concluding with a bank of shimmering, cascading, iridescent classical strings that accompany the waterfall of hot lead that douses the alien. This is another device that Goldenthal has used frequently since – I’m reminded especially of parts of Titus – and it’s tremendously effective both in context and on album.

The conclusive “Adagio” underscores the film’s iconic final scene in which Ripley – having dispatched the alien, but having also realized that yet another alien embryo is growing inside her – decides to sacrifice herself by throwing herself and the unborn alien into Dillon’s pool of molten lead. The religious iconography here is unmistakable, not least from Ripley’s Jesus crucifix pose as she falls, and to capture the drama of this moment Goldenthal finally presents his main theme in darkly romantic, brooding, full-orchestral glory. This is the moment in the film that first captured my attention and inspired me to seek out the soundtrack in the first place, all those years ago, and its power is undiminished now. The theme for Ripley, only hinted at and touched up on in the rest of the score, finally gets its emotional payoff, ending the score in a magnificent high.

The original album for Alien 3, released by MCA Records shortly after the film came out, included almost 50 minutes of Goldenthal’s music and, honestly, is just about a perfect representation of the score, as it contains all the major action sequences, the beautiful boy soprano performances, and the stunning finale. Despite this, in 2018, La-La Land Records released an expanded album of the score, remastered and re-sequenced into film order. The album includes more than 40 minutes of additional score, plus bonus tracks and alternates, and is presented in a special 2-CD 3,500-unit limited edition, produced by Nick Redman and Michael Matessino, and featuring exclusive in-depth liner notes by writer Jeff Bond. It comes highly recommended to fans of the film and Goldenthal devotees but, frankly, I have always been satisfied with the original album presentation, and I would caution the unwary that over two hours of this music might be a little too much to handle.

As you can clearly tell, I think Alien 3 is an outstanding score, but it took me years to get to this point. As a twenty-something whose favorite scores had big themes and sweeping romance, the aggressive and challenging nature of Elliot Goldenthal’s music took me completely by surprise, to the extent where I just couldn’t get to grips with what he was doing. In some ways, I still feel like this – this is desperately harsh, uncompromising stuff, and to this day my musical knowledge is limited such that I have never fully understood the deeply intellectual, difficult things he is doing with his orchestra here. But, despite this, Alien 3 remains a triumph, both in context and as an album. The action music lays the ground work for the action sound of his entire career, the boy soprano vocal solos are as beautiful as they are haunting, and when he finally reaches for the stars in the finale, the effect is magnificent.

Buy the Alien 3 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Agnus Dei (4:29)
  • Bait and Chase (4:42)
  • The Beast Within (3:09)
  • Lento (5:48)
  • Candles in the Wind (3:20)
  • Wreckage and Rape (2:43)
  • The First Attack (4:19)
  • Lullaby Elegy (3:41)
  • Death Dance (2:18)
  • Visit to the Wreckage (2:04)
  • Explosion and Aftermath (2:20)
  • The Dragon (3:08)
  • The Entrapment (3:42)
  • Adagio (4:14)
  • 2018 LA-LA LAND EXPANDED RELEASE
  • 20th Century Fox Trademark (Alien Version)/Main Title (4:53)
  • Status Reports (2:59)
  • The Survivor Is a Woman (1:59)
  • The Wreckage (2:08)
  • Lullaby Elegy (Extended Version) (5:28)
  • The Cremation (4:04)
  • Chow Down With the Boys (2:28)
  • How Do You Like Your New Haircut? (1:46)
  • The First Attack (Film Version) (1:18)
  • Appreciative of Your Affections (1:45)
  • That’s His Boot (2:29)
  • A Mark, A Burn (0:57)
  • Wreckage and Rape (2:43)
  • Candles in the Wind (3:24)
  • Bishop Turned On (2:29)
  • You’re Going to Die Too (2:01)
  • It’s a Long Sad Story/Clemens Dies (4:21)
  • Andrews’ Sting/What Are We Going to Do? (4:53)
  • Explosion and Aftermath (Extended Version) (3:13)
  • I Have to Get to the Ship (4:17)
  • In the Basement (1:33)
  • Alien’s Lair (3:33)
  • The Beast Within (3:12)
  • Visit to the Wreckage (2:05)
  • Bait and Chase (Extended Version) (4:56)
  • It’s Started (3:36)
  • More Bait and Chase (2:21)
  • Trap the Alien/Dillon’s Deliverance (2:04)
  • Gotcha/Hello, I Must Be Going (2:29)
  • Adagio (4:18)
  • The Cremation (Alternate) (4:34)
  • You Can Still Have a Life (Alternate) (4:04)
  • 20th Century Fox Trademarks/Alien Version (1:15)
  • Agnus Dei (4:29) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Bait and Chase (4:42) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • The Beast Within (3:10) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Lento (5:49) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Candles in the Wind (3:21) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Wreckage and Rape (2:44) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • The First Attack (4:20) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Lullaby Elegy (3:41) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Death Dance (2:17) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Visit to the Wreckage (2:04) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Explosion and Aftermath (2:21) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • The Dragon (3:07) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • The Entrapment (3:42) Original 1992 MCA Album
  • Adagio (4:16) Original 1992 MCA Album

Running Time: 49 minutes 57 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 149 minutes 41 seconds (Expanded)

MCA Records MCAD 10629 (1992)
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1454 (1992/2018)

Music composed by Elliot Goldenthal. Conducted by Jonathan Sheffer. Orchestrations by Elliot Goldenthal and Robert Elhai. Boy soprano vocals performed by Nik Nackley. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki and Tim Boyle. Edited by Craig Pettigrew. Album produced by Elliot Goldenthal and Matthias Gohl. Expanded album produced by Nick Redman and Michael Matessino.

  1. teacher8007
    May 19, 2022 at 9:34 am

    Those who have cherished and loved the MCA album should plunge into the original score as perceived for the film and presented in the LALA LAND release: a whole new aural experience awaits the fortunate to do so, a magical descent down the rabbit hole of E. Goldenthal’s genious, thematically / orchestrationaly / and contrapuntaly- wise.

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