By Charlie Brigden
This time it’s war. Where Alien was ostensibly a haunted house movie in space, Aliens takes on the Vietnam war and has tons of aliens everywhere, coming out of walls, vents, and the odd person’s chest. Taking over from Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner pulled both horror and action scoring elements into the film and set the stage for some of the greatest film music ever composed.Like its predecessor, the music of Aliens is creepy as hell from the first second, with low foreboding notes – overlaid with sparse military percussion to infer the presence of the marines in the story – building to a really creepy swell with a surround of alien noises that are almost vocal. Taking care of the horror element, this brilliantly segues to a piece of music that bookends the film – a reflective motif based on the adagio from the Gayene ballet by Aram Khachaturian (also heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey). The use of the adagio provides an emotional element for the music in the character of Ripley as it tracks the lifeboat Narcissus through the void, echoing the isolation of the character in the vast unknown.
Horner’s music is key to building the tension, with the use of the disturbing ambient wind carrying on from Goldsmith’s score and drawn-out melodic strings to provide atmosphere. These is then interrupted by piercing insectoid strings for those jumpy moments (it’s this kind of thing that makes Aliens such a great rollercoaster ride – theatrical edition only, mind) that are a jolt to your system. But there is some magnificent work here in establishing a tone for more upbeat parts, such as ‘LV-426’ where he starts with a quiet reflective version of the Gayane motif which segues into the heroic marine theme, scoring our first shot of the gigantic shapeship Sulaco.
It’s worth mentioning – especially when talking about thematics – that Horner’s score was screwed around with in editing as much as Goldsmith and Goldenthal’s were, if not more so. I’m trying to strike a balance between referring to the film and the score as intended (thankfully different versions are available to make the comparison). This is especially relevant because the movie version of ‘LV-426’ (known as ‘I’m In’) omits the Gayane motif and instead uses a section of the main title before cutting in the heroic marine statement (slightly awkwardly), which is pretty inferior.
The relevancy continues in the cue that follows – ‘Combat Drop’ – which scores the section where the marines suit up and take the dropship to the planet surface. It was originally scored by Horner in a melodic call-to-arms fashion using a lot of heroic brass that reminds me of another (fantastic) call-to-arms scene written by Horner: ‘Battle In The Mutura Nebula’ from his score to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. For me, while it’s a great cue to listen to, it’s not only too reminiscent of that previous cue but also too lighthearted for the tone of the film. In Trek, it’s for a big moment where Kirk prepares to take on Khan for the final time, here it’s suppposed to be for a bunch of badass marines off to exterminate a deadly species. In the film, it’s replaced by a percussive piece by composer Harry Rabinowitz, which honestly works a lot better.
As mentioned at the beginning, Aliens does have some great action moments and Horner does his best to ramp these up (and boy does he do that). ‘Ripley’s Rescue’ is a prime example of an amazing action cue that went mainly unused in the film. Using a motif not unlike the Klingon theme in Horner’s Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, it’s the very definition of the oft-used score adjective “pulse-pounding”, with some amazing horn work over a thrilling drum pattern. It’s badass and has the kind of building intensity some of today’s composers wish they could create.
Of course, I can’t go any further without mentioning ‘Bishop’s Countdown’. Actually two cues (‘Escape’ and ‘False End’), this is simply *the* action cue and is neck and neck with ‘Anvil of Crom’ from Basil Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian in terms of how many times it’s been used for trailers and the like. And it’s no surprise, it’s just a massive explosion of brass with an absolutely great version of the marine motif to score ‘Punch it, Bishop!’. Just GREAT.
The score was originally released by Varese Sarabande in 1987 and ran just under forty minutes. This has been expanded by Varese into a deluxe edition that contains the score as recorded by Horner and a number of alternate cues. It’s a really good presentation and sounds great, with a really good remastering job. While the score as edited in the film is mercifully unavailable on CD, it can be heard as an alternate isolated score audio track on the theatrical edition of the film on the Alien Anthology blu-ray, along with a track of Horner’s intended version. Both are fascinating experiences.
No matter its influences, Aliens is a classic of both genre scoring and film music in its own right, and The Deluxe Edition is a reflection of that. Whether you’re a fan of the franchise or just soundtracks in general, it’s simply unmissable.
Aliens: The Deluxe Edition is out now from Varese Sarabande