Wednesday, 16 November 2016

To boldly go: part 2

Title: Mission to Mars
Year: 2000
Composer: Ennio Morricone

Maestro Morricone really isn’t well-known for writing music for space operas. So when it was announced that he would score Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars there was almost no previous clue how he would handle the dangers and awe of space travel. Nevertheless he did it in his unmistakable style mixing something new to his bag of old tricks, combining unusual instrumental choices to electronic applications and traditional melodic writing to moments of stark chromatic structures reminiscent of modern classical music. At the same time he experimented with what was the appropriate kind of music for sci-fi films by his controversial choices. Around the film’s release there was talk that Morricone’s score was one of the worst parts of the film. Trust me, the film had issues far greater than this score which by itself is a masterpiece and one of the most unique experiences in Maestro’s catalogue.

The backwards assembled album begins with the end title piece A heart beats in space which starts with exactly that: the sound effect of a beating heart in the emptiness. After the sweet prelude provided by the cor anglais, the music moves to a developmental section for strings, a distant choir and soft electric guitar which create a true feeling of weightlessness. Around the 3-minute mark we’re introduced to the nostalgic main theme of the film which is a stellar (sorry for the pun) melody that can only come from the pen of a true Maestro. The cue ends with a reprise of the opening atmosphere in a reversed order along with a bright Baroque style trumpet solo before cooling off back to the heartbeat. A surprisingly reflective opening to a space adventure film and a great one for sure.

In a way the album’s opening dictates how the rest of the album will be like. The tempo is usually slow, the melodies are given time to develop and flourish, and everything is oozing with the peace stemming from the depths of ageless space. A martian continues in similar vein and after the electric oboe has reprised the main theme, the writing becomes certainly more romantic and it’s easy to forget that you’re not actually listening to an impressionistic tone poem. During the cue’s latter half, the whole orchestra and choir are painting wondrous landscapes slowly rising towards A world which searches which provides fragments of the main theme once again. Between the most controversial tracks of the album the listener is treated with the peaceful A wife lost which is based on the cor anglais theme and has a bit dated synthetic sound that lessens its enjoyability slightly, and Ecstacy of Mars whose chromatic patterns, misty choir sound and another reprise of the cor anglais theme are emphasizing the astronauts’ unbelievable sights.

And now we get to the issue that is the electronic organ. You see, Towards the unknown is an 8-minute monster of a piece dominated by a chromatic rising and falling organ melody over a steadily beating bassline. The reviewers’ arguments were that an organ isn’t suitable for a space film (I wonder if they still feel like that after Hans Zimmer’s treatment of the instrument in Interstellar). But if I may ask, why wouldn’t it be suitable? I think that science fiction films are just a perfect opportunity to try something out of the box. Besides the organ sound has been modified to sound very sterile and alien (sorry again). For some listeners these might be the longest 8 minutes of their lives but for me they’re absolutely ingenious. Just that way of adding more and more instruments to the mix slowly creating tension and depth to the piece before resolving probably to the most gorgeous statement of the main theme on the whole album. The cue ends also with one of the most memorable single chords ever (at 7:36) that blurs the line between tonality and atonality beautifully. The other suspenseful tracks on the album, An unexpected surprise and And afterwards?, don’t unfortunately reach the same heights but the latter includes interesting Ligeti-inspired choral work but also annoying, restless electronic tingling which sounded already dated in the year 2000.

The two greatest epiphanies on the album are the 13-minute Sacrifice of a hero and the film’s finale Where? which cover the entire range of emotions of the human existence. The first one continues from where Towards the unknown left off. The bassline is soon taken over by ominous brass and woodwinds, a martial drum and Maestro’s 70s giallo trademark, the whispering and whistling choir. This development is followed by an almost 2-minute sustained note which accompanies the heroic brass. Finally it resolves to the most devastating moment on the album for woeful strings and flute solo that turns back to harsh atonality once more before the final patriotic sendoff. Where? on the other hand begins gloomily but soon we get the first fanfare that signals the closeness of salvation. After that the atmosphere slowly swells to the final climax that explodes in pure joy and hope. The whole orchestra and choir provide the last majestic rendition of the main theme in one of the Maestro’s most spectacular finale cues ever. The album ends with All the friends, a short and sweet postlude to the fallen astronauts.

Mission to Mars is a score that divides the film music community: you either hate or love it. As you can probably tell, I’m part of that latter group. It’s rare to hear a space adventure film score this daring. Maestro Morricone treats it almost like a classical symphonic work, like a literal ‘space opera’ without the vocal parts. It’s easily in my top 10 Morricone scores of all time and probably his greatest achievement in the new millennium.

Rating: *****

1. A heart beats in space (07:58) *****
2. A martian (06:06) *****
3. A world which searches (02:58) *****
4. And afterwards? (06:33) ****
5. A wife lost (03:27) *****
6. Towards the unknown (08:15) *****
7. Ecstasy of Mars (02:57) *****
8. Sacrifice of a hero (13:20) *****
9. Where? (05:32) *****
10. An unexpected surprise (02:33) ***
11. All the friends (02:39) *****

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