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AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER – Simon Franglen

December 29, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For a while, people sort of forgot what a big deal Avatar was. When James Cameron’s spectacular sci-fi epic first hit screens in December of 2009 it was immediately heralded as a visual masterpiece, boasting some of the most impressive and realistic special effects in the history of cinema, as well as being a groundbreaking step forward in the use of 3D technology and motion-capture. It won three Oscars, was nominated for another six (including Best Picture), and grossed something in the region of $2.9 billion at the global box office, making it one of the most financially successful films ever. But then the backlash came, with some people (rightfully) criticizing the story as being a tired re-tread of both the Pocahontas legend and movies like Dances With Wolves and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, while also noting its ‘white savior’ tropes. And then… well… it all sort of drifted away. Cameron announced that there would be sequels – possibly four of them – and then he went away to go and make them. And, slowly, over the course of more than a decade, almost everyone forgot about the whole thing. Every once in a while some bit of Avatar news would leak out – shooting began way back in 2017 – but more than anything the Avatar sequels felt a little like a mythical thing, some fairy-tale idea seemingly destined to never come to fruition.

Except, now, the first sequel has actually been released. Avatar: The Way of Water picks up the story more than a decade after the events of the first film, and finds former marine commando Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) living peacefully among the Na’vi on the moon of Pandora with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their children Neteyam, Loak, and Tuk, as well as their adopted daughter Kiri, the offspring of Sigourney Weaver’s character Dr. Grace Augustine, who died at the end of the first movie. However, things change when the human colonists who left ten years previously return once more – but this time not only do they want to exploit Pandora’s natural resources, but they have a personal vendetta against Sully. This new threat forces Sully and his family to leave their forest home in search of safety – a search that eventually brings them into contact with the Metkayina, a clan of Na’vi who live on the ocean, led by tribal elders Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet).

Avatar: The Way of Water is certainly visually spectacular. Not only have Cameron and his FX team again rendered the forests of Pandora in magnificent, creative detail, but the film’s new oceanic setting opened up a whole new canvas for them to explore – a canvas they filled with massive sea creatures, entire undersea ecosystems full of plants and teeming with aquatic life. Not only that, but Cameron had to devise an entirely new technology that would seamlessly render motion capture underwater, something that had never been attempted before. There are lots of places online that discuss this astonishing technological achievement better than I can here; suffice to say, I thought it was staggering to look at. Unfortunately, the story, and the screenplay, and the performances (especially by the children) left much to be desired, and disappointed me enormously. Many of the story beats appear to have been lifted wholesale from earlier Cameron films – The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic – which I found surprisingly lazy. Furthermore, the entire impetus of the film appeared to have no ambition beyond a basic ‘humans return, and they want to kill Jake’ thread, and it was somewhat frustrating that Cameron seemingly used this incredibly basic and limited origination point as little more than an excuse to play with the limits of VFX. All the technology in the world is pointless if it’s not in the service of a compelling, moving, interesting story, and unfortunately I found the story of The Way of Water to be neither compelling or moving – in fact, to my own surprise, I found myself a little bored with it at times. Let’s hope that sequels three, four, and five, offer something meatier.

Avatar was one of the last major scores written by composer James Horner prior to his death in 2015. Once the initial shock of his passing had subsided, thoughts inevitably turned to the question of who would score the Avatar sequels, considering that they had already been announced and put into pre-production before Horner’s plane crash. The answer to the question was – rightfully – Simon Franglen. The 59-year-old Englishman has been a massive name in music production circles since the late 1980s – he has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Madonna, to Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, David Foster, Toni Braxton, the Bee Gees, and Luciano Pavarotti – and during that same time he worked in film for composers such as John Barry, Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, and Howard Shore, often as a synth programmer. In short, he’s no slouch.

Franglen first worked with James Horner on Titanic in 1997 (winning a Grammy Award as a producer of the song “My Heart Will Go On”), re-connected with him a decade later on Avatar, and thereafter worked as an arranger and score producer on basically every score until Horner’s death, including The Karate Kid, The Amazing Spider-Man, Wolf Totem, and Southpaw, among others. It was Franglen who took the lead in completing Horner’s score for The Magnificent Seven in 2016, which was barely half-finished at the time of his death, and he then adapted Horner’s music from Avatar for the theme park experience Pandora: The World of Avatar, which continues to be shown at Walt Disney World in Florida. So, to say that Franglen is intimately familiar with Horner’s music is a massive understatement.

In the solo scores that Franglen has written himself over the last couple of years – The Curse of Turandot, Notre-Dame Brûle – you can hear elements of James Horner’s music everywhere, in the instrumental phrasing, in the chord progressions, and in some of the compositional techniques. As someone who deeply loves Horner’s music, it’s so nice to hear his style living on through Franglen, but that’s not to say that Franglen is simply a James Horner clone, because he’s not. Franglen has a voice and a musical style of his own too – he just likes to acknowledge the legacy of his friend when he can, and I for one love that approach. For Avatar: The Way of Water, the remit was inevitably slightly different, in that the Horner influence was greater and more intentionally focused. In an interview with Clarence Moye for Awards Daily Franglen said that he wanted to honor the legacy of Horner while also bringing new themes into the score, adding that “the vast majority of it is fresh and new because it’s a new film, and there are new characters in those new places. But there are moments when it’s important to have the original themes there. I hope that the fans of the original will like and recognize that we’ve tried to keep that because also there’s a flow for a series of films. Avatar isn’t a standalone film. It’s part of a whole canon of movies, we hope. Therefore, bringing some of the score from Avatar into The Way of Water was appropriate and a good thing to do.”

Franglen’s main new theme for the score is introduced in the opening cue, “Leaving Home,” and throughout the score it acts as a recurring theme for Jake and Neytiri, and the family they spend so much time trying to protect. The theme is structured similarly to the way Horner often structured his themes, in that it is built around a long-lined melody that moves and grows and morphs into other things when required, and has an appealing warmth to its tone. Considering that the ‘family’ is the emotional focus of the entire film, Franglen sensibly builds all the emotional parts of his score around this Family theme, and as such it appears everywhere – not just as an orchestral anchor, but as the cornerstone of an original song called “The Songcord,” performed by Zoe Saldaña singing Na’vi lyrics, and embedded into several of the action cues to underscore significant emotional moments.

There are several outstanding cues where the Family theme takes center stage. For example, in “Sanctuary,” Franglen embellishes the theme with some rousing tribal percussion and nativist choral chants that are wonderfully evocative. In “Into the Water” Franglen re-arranges the theme for an array of delicate wordless female vocalists accompanied by unusual, experimental-sounding electronic textures that really enhance the sense of ‘alien-ness’ about this Pandoran culture, while also making it sound familiar and welcoming. In “The Tulkun Return,” which underscores a scene where hundreds upon hundreds of whale-like creatures descend upon the Metkayina lagoon – the theme is rousing, jubilant, full of life and energy.

Speaking of the Metkayina, the music that represents their culture is very different from the music that represented the Na’vi forest culture from the first film. For starters it’s more electronics-based, but anyone with an instinctive aversion to that sound needn’t worry; Franglen’s electronics sparkle, shimmer, and glisten, like sunlight catching the top of a wave, and they combine beautifully with light, almost fragile orchestral textures and gentle, ethereal choral sounds. The music captures the essence of the Metkayina people and their relationship with the water – at times, the music has the calming, peaceful sound of surf lapping up on a sandy beach. It’s just lovely, and cues like “The Way of Water” and the magnificent “Cove of the Ancestors” are great examples of this. Occasionally the Metkayina music reminds me of the otherworldly music James Newton Howard wrote in the 1990s for films like Waterworld and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which is something I enjoy a great deal.

Related to this is the theme for “Payakan,” one of the majestic whale-like Tulkun creatures, who befriends Jake’s son Loak and becomes his guardian. The theme for Payakan has an almost Basil Poledouris-like tone to it, gracefully rising and falling like the water itself, powerful but also peaceful.

Standing at odds to all this wonderment and enchantment is the theme for the film’s antagonists, the paramilitary division of the RDA Resources Development Administration, and it’s leader, the vicious Colonel Miles Quaritch, who died during the events of Avatar, but who has been resurrected as a clone for the sequels. The RDA Marines theme is hinted at during several of the score’s opening cues, but receives its first major statement – a six-note blast of brass full of menace and bitterness – in the dark and tense “Masks Off”. This theme also plays a significant part in the back-and-forth musical conflict of the score’s conclusive action sequences, but more on that later.

The main Horner theme that returns from the first score is the ‘I See You’ theme, which Franglen uses judiciously to represent Jake’s life on Pandora and his love for Neytiri. You hear it prominently in cues like “Happiness Is Simple,” where the theme is surrounded by wooden and metallic percussion sounds and exotic woodwinds, and it expresses a sense of freedom and joy. Then later in “Mighty Eywa” Franglen allows the theme to develop from soothing intimacy to soaring grandeur, bringing back wonderful memories of the original score. The theme also makes some appearances embedded deeply in several of the action cues, but like I said we’ll get to that in a moment.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to point out some of the many, many loving nods to James Horner that Franglen inserts throughout the score. As pretty much everyone reading this will know, Horner is my all-time favorite film composer, and hearing Franglen include so many little references and subtle acknowledgements made me happy and emotional. The phrasing of the pan-pipes that goes all the way back to things like Where The River Runs Black in “Songcord Opening”. The use of a puffing shakuhachi at the end of “A New Star,” and again in “Kids in Peril”. The gorgeous sylvan ‘nature’ sound in “Converging Paths” that appeared in scores like The Spitfire Grill and The New World. The snare drum/cymbal combination writing from Apollo 13 in “Rescue and Loss”. The echoing trumpet effect from Aliens at the end of “Family is Our Fortress”. The unexpected quote from Star Trek III at the end of “Cove of the Ancestors”. The crashing pianos from The Pelican Brief and the anvils from Aliens in “Knife Fight”. The wonderful, wonderful use of the four-note ‘danger motif,’ first in “Eclipse” and then in “World Upside Down,” made me overflow with joy. The vocals in “Eclipse” also have the same anguished intensity of something like The Four Feathers.

However, it is likely to be the action music that leaves many people on the edge of their seat. Franglen’s action music is, in short, outstanding. He writes action music in the same way that Horner wrote action music, in that it’s based more around melody than rhythm. The music is energetic and rhythmic, obviously, but it’s just different and better than so much of today’s familiar action music. There are none of those basic, obvious chugging ostinatos and repetitive pulses here – this is dense, exciting, well-orchestrated music that uses the full ensemble in creative, complex, sometimes unexpected ways. The cues follow the story of the scene in question – not in mickey-mousey ways, but in ways that allow the viewer and the listener to feel the shifts in the story, where first one party has the upper hand, then the other, and the music emphasizes the emotional changes that all that implies. Horner’s music did all that – it’s one of the reasons I love it as much as I do – but what’s interesting is that Franglen’s music does that too, but in a different way, a way that sounds quite fresh and original. Is it better? I don’t know, but I certainly love that Franglen is doing it all in this way regardless.

It all starts in the aggressively modern “A New Star” – dark and ominous – and then evolves into the exciting “Train Attack,” which blends an belligerent variation on Horner’s main Avatar theme with some elements from the ‘War’ theme from the first score in a vibrant, bombastic way. “Rescue and Loss” is a superb exercise in tension and release – it builds to a frenzy, with layer upon layer of trilling flutes over strident brass and dancing strings and pulsating synth textures, then backs off, becoming quiet and anxious, before building again, and it does this over and over for almost seven minutes.

The entire sequence from “The Hunt” through to the end of “World Upside Down” is essentially one 30-minute action extravaganza that barely lets up for its entire running time. Much of this music again brings back elements from the ‘War’ sequence from the first score, and blends that with thematic statements referencing the original Avatar theme, the new Family theme, and the RDA Marines theme, in a variety of interesting ways. The energy levels Franglen generates through these action cues is immense; the music never stops moving, never stops presenting new and interesting instrumental combinations, new percussion patterns, ebbs and flows and moments of grandeur tempered with moments of anguish and despair.

“The Hunt,” has an uncompromising, propulsive quality, and regularly spotlights an array of solo brass heralds that sound like the ominous bugle blasts that often accompany English fox hunts – the unmistakable sound of ‘we’re coming to get you’ – offset against superb complex drum rhythms; the finale of the cue has an echo of “Samuel’s Death” from Legends of the Fall about it. “Na’vi Attack” is probably the pick of the action cues – it’s an absolute epic, with an unstoppable sense of forward motion, and some especially inventive use of yelped vocals alongside the huge brass triplets from ‘War’ from the first score. “A Farewell to Arm” – Giacchino pun! – has some dramatic renditions of the Family theme and some dark, brutal contemporary electronics.

“Bad Parents” has a guttural power that verges on the furious, a mass of swirling strings and shrill vocals offset with dangerous-sounding electronic textures, and climaxes with a huge statement of the family theme. The subsequent “Knife Fight” revisits some of the most intense parts of Aliens with crashing pianos, anvil hits, relentless snare drum riffs, and dark and twisted electronic chords, all of which build to an enormous finale.

“From Darkness to Light” marks the beginning of the score’s lyrical finale, and offers a gorgeous solo cello version of the Family theme backed by an angelic choir and effervescent, crystalline metallic percussion textures. There is a sense of relief in this music that is palpable and deeply felt; this sense of emotional resolution continues on through the subsequent “Family” – listen to those searing solo trumpet lines! – and then through “Songcord Chapter,” until the conclusive “The Spirit Tree,” wherein Franglen really pushes all the emotional buttons to give the audience a sense of finality and closure. The final few minutes of the cue are just magnificent, building through tender Horner-esque piano chords, a solo vocalist, a haunting ethnic woodwind texture, and a lush string arpeggio, until it crescendos in spine-tingling fashion and Franglen’s family theme resounds, arranged for the fullest might of the orchestra.

The actual final cue is an extended version of “The Songcord,” the original song based on the main family theme performed by Zoe Saldaña singing Na’vi lyrics – lovely. Also worth mentioning is the other original song, “Nothing Is Lost [You Give Me Strength],” written by Franglen with Abel Tesfaye and Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso, and Axel Hedfors of the Swedish House Mafia, and performed by pop superstar The Weeknd. The song only appears on the shorter ‘soundtrack’ album for The Way of Water, while the longer ‘score’ album features 40 minutes more of Franglen’s music, but omits the song. The song is nice enough, by the way, and uses a lot of textures and ideas from the score, but the lyrics are a little wishy-washy.

In short, Avatar: The Way of Water represents the best of both worlds. It clearly and intentionally and lovingly acknowledges the work of James Horner in terms of specific thematic references, the score’s general sound, and by way of several specific compositional easter eggs that Franglen seemingly included as a nod to the fans. But it’s also very much a Simon Franglen score; when it’s not emulating Horner there’s a great deal of originality in play here, and in some of the electronic elements especially you can hear echoes of the music Franglen wrote for Turandot, Notre-Dame Brûle, and even things like Peppermint, which is something that I personally appreciate a great deal. Although Franglen has been around ‘behind the scenes’ for decades, it’s good to hear him truly developing his own identity. Franglen’s new original theme is powerful and memorable, the action music is rich and dense and exciting, and the dramatic impetus of the score is conveyed excellently.

The bottom line is this; Simon Franglen is not James Horner. I’m sure he would be the first one to acknowledge this, and the fact that no-one will be able to replace him. But, with Avatar: The Way of Water, Franglen has made a strong case to be considered his heir apparent, in that he takes a lot of what made James Horner the magnificent composer he was – including some of his mannerisms and ideologies – and blends them with his own sensibilities to make something new. Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the best film scores of 2022, and hopefully it cements Simon Franglen as an exciting new voice in film music for years to come – not just on the planned further Avatar sequels, but across the entire soundtrack spectrum.

Buy the Avatar: The Way of Water soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
  • Nothing Is Lost [You Give Me Strength] (written by Abel Tesfaye, Steve Angello, Sebastian Ingrosso, Axel Hedfors, and Simon Franglen, performed by The Weeknd) (4:28)
  • Into the Water (3:40)
  • Happiness Is Simple (2:22)
  • A New Star (2:57)
  • Converging Paths (1:45)
  • Rescue and Loss (6:40)
  • Family Is Our Fortress (3:07)
  • Hometree (3:28)
  • The Way of Water (2:30)
  • Payakan (3:30)
  • Mighty Eywa (4:13)
  • Friends (1:47)
  • Cove of the Ancestors (2:46)
  • The Tulkun Return (2:51)
  • The Hunt (5:48)
  • Na’vi Attack (4:44)
  • Eclipse (3:13)
  • Bad Parents (3:23)
  • Knife Fight (2:48)
  • From Darkness to Light (4:14)
  • The Spirit Tree (2:58)
  • The Songcord (3:20)
  • EXPANDED SCORE ALBUM
  • Leaving Home (3:28)
  • Songcord Opening (1:58)
  • Happiness Is Simple (2:22)
  • A New Star (2:57)
  • Train Attack (3:03)
  • Masks Off (3:22)
  • Converging Paths (1:45)
  • Rescue and Loss (6:40)
  • Family Is Our Fortress (3:07)
  • Sanctuary (2:55)
  • Into the Water (3:40)
  • Training Montage (2:15)
  • The Way of Water (2:30)
  • Where the Men Hunt (1:45)
  • Payakan (3:30)
  • Mighty Eywa (4:13)
  • Friends (1:47)
  • Cove of the Ancestors (2:46)
  • The Tulkun Return (2:51)
  • The Hunt (5:48)
  • Kids in Peril (3:36)
  • Na’vi Attack (4:44)
  • A Farewell to Arm (2:26)
  • Eclipse (3:13)
  • Bad Parents (3:23)
  • Knife Fight (2:48)
  • World Upside Down (2:03)
  • From Darkness to Light (4:14)
  • Family (3:14)
  • Songcord Chapter (2:10)
  • The Spirit Tree (2:58)
  • The Songcord (3:20)

Running Time: 76 minutes 00 seconds (Soundtrack)
Running Time: 100 minutes 40 seconds (Score)

Hollywood Records (2022)

Music composed by Simon Franglen. Conducted by Simon Franglen, Anthony Parnther, Michael Valerio and Mark Graham. Orchestrations by Steven Baker, JAC Redford, Graham Foote, Carl Johnson, Jon Kull, Simon Rhodes and William Ross. Original Avatar themes by James Horner. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes and Brad Haehnel. Edited by Daren Hall. Album produced by Simon Franglen.

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