By Karol Krok
When the major big title is delayed, one can almost certainly gather that something went very wrong in its development. Wachowskis had no luck in releasing a completely successful film in the past 15-16 years. Even though The Matrix Reloaded almost doubled on the money that its predecessor made, the two sequels were considered to be massive failures my vast majority of critics and general audience. In 2008, Speed Racer underperformed badly. Cloud Atlas, while certainly ambitious and intriguing, failed to spark universal love. And so Jupiter Ascending arrives on big screens all across the globe, almost a year after its planned original release date. Given studio’s non-existent promotional campaign, it’s not likely to attract crowds. Which is somewhat of a shame, given that it’s an original property and not a sequel/reboot/adaptation.
Michael Giacchino worked with Wachowskis once before on Speed Racer, for which he adapted the classic television theme. Now, seven years later, he reunites with famous siblings in creating the musical score for their space opera Jupiter Ascending. In a slightly unusual move for a film like this, the composer was asked to write bulk of his material before shooting even began. When news of this approach hit the internet, fans started to get excited for what promised to be a pure “listening experience” and those are hard to come by in modern Hollywood. On top of that, it’s the second epic of this sort after popular John Carter score from 2012.
It’s worth pointing out straight away that Jupiter Ascending is no John Carter, nor is it really trying to be. The two works were composed by the same person, both feature grand orchestral music, use multiple themes, describe similarly fantastical setting… And that’s where similarities end. The 2012 score was very much in the spirit of John Williams, James Horner, Miklós Rózsa, David Arnold or John Debney. Its thematic elements were obvious and accessible to any listener. In the case of Giacchino’s latest, things are somewhat less clear than that.
Because large chunks of Jupiter Ascending were written before filming, there is an independent free-flowing feel to many pieces presented on lengthy soundtrack album. It opens with a four-part concert piece that serves as introduction to many major thematic ideas that will later be recurring throughout the actual film score. The opening movement presents a memorable central Jupiter theme (presumably for main character Jupiter Jones played by Mila Kunis). Full orchestra statement opens the piece in a grand fashion after which it is taken over by a boy soprano , very much reminiscent of Howard Shore’s works for Peter Jackson’s films (especially the Dwarf/Elf love theme from The Hobbit). This melody will be an important ingredient in the climactic story moments, to which it’ll add almost religious qualities (especially in ‘Abdicate This!’ and climactic ‘Commitment’). On the other hand, layered string performances heard in ‘A Wedding Darker’ make it almost unrecognisable for inattentive listener. Indeed, this cue must be one of Giacchino’s most sophisticated harmonic variations on any theme in his entire career. The main tune itself isn’t used as prominently as you’d expect within the main body of Giacchino’s score, not in its first half anyway (save for an early gentle choral reference in ‘Scrambled Eggs’).
Towards the end of this first movement of the suite, another, more cerebral and regal, Ascension theme is introduced. Just as with main Jupiter theme, this melody comes into power towards the end, rather than announcing fully formed right from the outset. The final 3 minutes of the entire score serve as a grand climax for those two.
Second movement of the Jupiter Ascending suite presents a more emotional theme that seems to recall composer’s own writing for Lost TV series in its gently plucked harp and intimate writing, as well as hymnal passages from Medal of Honor: Frontline. This melody doesn’t make that many appearances in the score as presented on album. It is hinted at in the middle of ‘Mutiny On The Bounty Hunter’. Only in ‘‘It’s A Hellava Chase’ does it receive a waltz-like setting and this very moment is a particular highlight. All the other statements, found in cues like ‘Family Jeopardy’ and ‘Abdicate This!’, are rather fleeting as compared to treatment within concert suite.
‘3rd Movement’ introduces yet another emotional theme that seems to serve as this score’s love theme. In this piece, Giacchino explore both its romantic and forceful qualities that he’ll employ frequently later on. Of particular note are the emotional statements heard in ‘Digging Up the Flirt’ and its gorgeous glass harmonica performances in ‘Commitment’. Several action variants can be found in ‘It’s A Hellava Chase’.
Also in this third movement, chanting rhythmic chorus is used to punctuate the propulsive action music driven by rising motif. That is when the main Jupiter theme re-appears played on brass. The final part of this suite (‘Jupiter Ascending – 4th Movement) goes back quieter treatment of already established material. The softer anticipation of love theme precedes its actual fully developed statement about halfway through, while boy soprano returns to intone sombre variation on the rising action motif heard previously. The choral rendition of Jupiter theme leads this section of soundtrack album to a fitting conclusion.
The actual score starts with ‘The House of Abrasax’ (which is track 5), in which Giacchino features a 5-note motif that seems to be related to yet another major theme not appearing within his four-movement suite. ‘The Abrasax Family Tree’ is heavily featured in a lengthy 9-minute piece of the same name. In it, Giacchino puts his idea through several variations – from the mysterious vibraphone to grand orchestral gestures. The boy soprano voice is also used to a haunting effect. This idea serves as a villain theme and is frequently used in that context in numerous action tracks (‘The Shadow Chase’, ‘Mutiny On The Bounty Hunter’,) as well as in quieter moments (‘One Reincarnation Under God’ and ‘Abdicate This!’). In ‘Family Jeopardy’, Giacchino briefly employs London Voices (with particular stress on male singers) to create its darkest variation.
Apart from major thematic ideas, Giacchino has an arsenal of several minor motifs and ostinatos at his disposal all throughout Jupiter Ascending. First one of those (mentioned above) appears in the 3rd and 4th movements of concert suite and is used frequently in the first part of soundtrack album in variations that often blend seamlessly into with composer’s own highly percussive action writing. The second one of those is much more propulsive, similar to the first one (possibly even related) and that features forceful choral chanting. It first appears in ‘The Shadow Chase’ and, as is the case with two Jupiter/Ascending themes, will become more prominent in story’s conclusion.
There is one self-contained and standalone piece on the soundtrack album that features thematic material exclusive to this one track – ‘The Titus Clipper’. There is a distinctive vibe of John Barry to this melody, both felt in harmonic progressions and choices of orchestrations. The light ethnic percussion is soon introduced to spice things up. The piece gradually becomes grander, especially when full chorus joins in. But, towards the end, solo violin, chorus and string section close it in an contemplative statement. It is one of album’s undeniable highlights and one of Giacchino’s finest moments as a composer.
As can be expected from a film like this, the score is full of action. And while this department often felt the least appealing elements of Michael Giacchino’s style, here he dresses up his relatively simple basic structures in more ornamented and complex textures. The setpieces found in Jupiter Ascending are also more frantic than ever. ‘The Shadow Chase’ is the first one of those and, as mentioned before, it features a lot of quotes from various thematic elements. Same with even more impressive ‘It’s A Hellava Chase’. That cue has its own unique action motif that is developed impressively across the 8-minute running time. ‘Flying Dinosaur Fight’ (as well as its bonus track alternate) present a brutal percussive writing, made more comfortable only by quick variation on main theme in its middle section. There are also some smaller action moments, that demonstrate composer’s slightly lighter and playful side (of which ‘I Hate My Life’ would be the best example). Composer makes a fantastic use of woodwind section in all those exciting passages, which should show just how much flavour and colour they can bring to the table
The entire material presented by Giacchino fittingly culminates in 10-minute ‘Commitment’. Extended variations on love theme are being passed over between various sections of the orchestra. The chanting rising motif marks its rise to power, while both Jupiter and Ascension theme reach their full potentials as the races towards the epic finish line with full orchestra and chorus. It’s a real powerhouse of an ending.
The score was recorded both in America and the United Kingdom, with three conductors – Wicki, Ziegler and Simonec. And yet it sounds like a whole and that is a testament to Michael Giacchino’s new recording engineer Joel Iwataki. Ever since those started to work together, the music became more vibrant and three-dimensional. The now-retired previous collaborator Dan Wallin favoured dry recording which proved to be controversial among film music fandom (to put it mildly).
In conclusion, Jupiter Ascending is, in a way, a complete opposite to its s-f sibling John Carter. While that score offered obvious themes, straightforward narrative spine and obvious identifiable highlights, the score to Wachowskis’ latest film goes deeper into development process and offers its composer chances to mature his writing in ways never attempted before. As a result, he probably created a work that’s far less instantly attractive to casual listeners and requiring multiple listens. The thematic development might prove to be a tad elusive at first and that can diminish the enjoyment slightly. But, if you listen carefully, things really start to connect.
As a result, this 103-minute album from Sony Classical might appear overlong and unstructured at first glance. In all honesty, it probably could probably use some trimming here and there to improve its narrative flow. But even in this seemingly rough form, it still remains an impressive music from ever-developing composer. His orchestral writing might still need some polishing from the perspective of symphonic subtlety but journey he’s taking us on is very much worth taking. In its best moments, Jupiter Ascending features Michael Giacchino’s finest writing to date.
Jupiter Ascending is out now from Sony Classical
Here is our review of Giacchino’s score as heard within the context of this film.