As I wrote in my summer 2017 movie music preview, "A rarely-recognized fact about the Alien franchise is that the music tends to play against traditional sci-fi/horror tropes. The scores often deploying quieter, ambient cues as juxtaposition pivots to intensify the shocks, when they come: the scores are both orchestral and experimental, and have consistently featured thoughtful arrangements that illuminate the more spiritual components of the stories."
This is aided by the fact that unlike most franchises, each film in the Alien franchise has strived to be a standalone narrative as well as to contribute to the larger world-building project.
With today's release of Alien: Covenant, Jed Kurzel is walking in some formidable footsteps. In some regard he must pay reverence to Alien origins while also transforming and making anew a franchise that's now almost 40 years old. To understand this task, it's important to see where these musical ideas originated and how they inform our understanding of the stories today.
From the get-go, composer Jerry Goldsmith set out to establish Alien in contrast to traditional conventions of science fiction or horror. The opening is slow and features characteristically avant-garde abstraction along with minimalistic ambience. The strings and isolated percussion are immediately important for laying the foundational dread and terror that's eventually unleashed, but in balance with a romanticism that comes from a full orchestra — recognizing that the film is ultimately about voyaging beyond known limits and discovering what lies there.
Using wind instruments in particular to achieve this, his score is a remarkable original achievement that still informs the new productions. This is all despite having been heavily trimmed back and replaced with other material in the film's original cut. Only recently have the original cues been remastered and made available, with Mondo now celebrating them with a special-edition vinyl release.
The second film set the franchise on course to not simply duplicate itself. Coming many years after the original, new director James Cameron also dispensed with the entire design of the first film — slow build, minimal action — in favor of a large-scale extraterrestrial war film. This is the kind of post-encounter narrative where the danger is obvious, and those who don't take appropriate caution will not last long.
Composer James Horner long voiced his displeasure at the process of composing the score for this film because cuts kept changing, and he continually lost time, having to write the majority of the music overnight. As I mentioned in my reflection after his passing, "Horner was not a temp score composer. He had a deep respect for the compositional process and believed that a film's score should not be rushed or disorganized."
Despite these misgivings, he managed to create one of his most acclaimed scores. Earning an Academy Award, abnormal for action films, his work influenced action scores for years.
Alien 3 (1992)
The making of David Fincher's Alien 3 has long gone down in the history of filmmaking trauma. Despite this, it manages to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts (and in the extended, far superior, "Assembly Cut").
Being as the film was steeped in questions of social organization and a concern for the soul under violent assault, the avant-garde composer Elliot Goldenthal was brought in to offer a decidedly different take on the narrative than anything heard before. While the foundation laid by Goldsmith is still present in the instrumental choices, Goldenthal didn't hesitate to let the experimentalism fly. Goldenthal is more often than not a big composer with huge brass sections supported by often anxiety-inducing percussive arrangements. This makes for a more aggressive and violent take on the material, and yet his technique of mixing electronics with live orchestration and wind instruments in tandem with percussion and brass make this an especially thoughtful hat-tip to the original.
At times reminiscent of The X-Files, but even more so a precursor to Brian Reitzell's work on the show Hannibal, this score is about stretching the imagination. It does not merely support the imagery, but explores the complex themes of religion, societal orientation, ethics, and morality about as far as they could go within the confines of an Alien narrative. It is not a stretch to imagine that in a different world, this is not far removed from what Jerry Goldsmith was after with the narrative approach he was given.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
For probably the most traditional film in the franchise, the Alien: Resurrection score by John Frizzell follows suit with fairly straightforward action/horror cues. While the arrangements try to bring in the sensibility of the Alien franchise, this is very much an attempt at a summer blockbuster and the unsubtle music reflects that. This was a last-ditch stab at reinvigorating the franchise, but as with the film, the score feels like an amalgam of various SF/horror scores thrown together. It's not a bad score, but it pales compared to its predecessors.
Marc Streitenfeld (along with a couple of key cues by longtime Ridley Scott collaborator Harry Gregson-Williams) had no easy task in helping bring the franchise back to life. With his background in sound design, this take is more akin to the work of Goldsmith and Goldenthal — both of whom created their work in a sort of bath that collaborated with, and at times did the work of, sound design. The track "Friend from the Past" is in fact a reprisal of Goldsmith's original main title.
That said, this score is still a major departure and shift. We've never heard so much at play this way within the franchise, and in many ways anywhere in cinema. The score is a monster that has never fully been given its due, combining all the elements of classic science fiction mysticism (a la 2001) with more disruptive violence and action. To accomplish, this Streitenfeld actually had the orchestra play some of the score's sections backwards — reversing that audio for the film.
It's a big score with major orchestral cues teeing up the vast philosophical themes at play within the general framework of an action film. This is about world-building in an age where everything is bigger, better, louder. To follow this up, Covenant composer Jed Kurzel has his work cut out for him.