At the end of this month, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performs the scores to two landmark science-fiction films—2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope. We are marking the occasion all September by counting down ten of our favorite musical moments in sci-fi movies. These aren’t necessarily the best overall scores—we love Alan Silvestri’s music for Back to the Future. (But honestly, the most memorable musical moment from BTTF unfortunately will always be the implication that Marty McFly gave Chuck Berry his signature rock song.) They also aren’t really a “Top 10,” as the exclusion of a couple—namely E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Superman: The Movie—was done deliberately to avoid having John Williams dominate the list.
10. Theme from Time Bandits, Michael Moran, composer
Director Terry Gilliam’s 1981 time travel comedy has loads of interesting music by English composer, songwriter, and keyboardist Michael Moran. Some is meant to evoke the different locations and eras traversed by the film’s dwarven anti-heroes, from Mycenaean Greece, to England of the Middle Ages, to the RMS Titanic on the day it sinks. (Featuring cameos along the way by Sean Connery as King Agamemnon and John Cleese as Robin Hood.) There’s also a great recurring dies irae full of brass, percussion, and choir every time God turns up to exclaim, “Return the map! It will bring you great danger.”
Perhaps the most memorable musical scene features a slapstick “Me and My Shadow” by the aforementioned dwarves performing for Napoleon (Ian Holm) in the middle of a battlefield. Also, George Harrison, credited as an executive producer on the film, contributed a pretty killer song (“Dream Away”) for the closing credits. But it’s the synth-heavy opening theme by Moran that really captures our attention (0:55). The only era it evokes is late ‘70s / early ‘80s progressive rock, but the discordant turn the music takes at the introduction of the map hints at some of the movie’s darker themes to come.
9. "The Mark (Interlude)" by Moderat from Annihilation
The newest movie on our list, Alex Garland’s 2018 mind-trip meditation on alien invasion, cellular mutation, and self-destruction (fun!) has a great electronic music score by Geoff Barrow (from the English band Portishead) and Ben Salisbury. But it’s the use of the short interlude “The Mark” by German electronic trio Moderat in the climactic alien confrontation scene that kept us awake at night. “The Shimmer” is one of the strangest aliens in sci-fi film history, so this atmospheric and highly … well, alien, piece of music greatly contributes to the uncanny feeling this scene evokes.
8. “Time” theme from Inception, Hans Zimmer, composer
The collaboration between director Christopher Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer has yielded a trio of Oscar nominations for Best Score: Inception in 2010, Interstellar in 2014, and Dunkirk in 2017. (Zimmer has 11 total Oscar nominations, and one win for 1994’s The Lion King.) While the music for Interstellar is arguably the better overall score of the two Nolan-Zimmer sci-fi films, it’s the “Time” theme from Inception that gives us all the feels.
Elements of the theme resound throughout the movie, but the closing scene really lets it shine as the characters all awaken from their shared dream—or do they? Zimmer’s music intermittently fades and swells over the final 3:30, adding in a wiry electric guitar followed by some triumphant brass, before all fall out except the initial piano and strings for the touching family reunion. The ending note, a quick glissando, adds to the big question mark the movie leaves us with.
7. “Sea of Simulation” from Tron, Wendy Carlos, composer
Wendy Carlos is a pioneer in the use of synthesizers in classical music and in electronic music composition. Switched-On Bach, her 1968 recording of Bach works like The Well-Tempered Clavier performed entirely on Moog synthesizers was the first classical record to sell 500,000 copies (later going platinum) and earned three Grammy Awards.
Carlos’s work caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick who hired her to write music for A Clockwork Orange in 1972 and The Shining in 1980. Though Kubrick ended up using only a small portion of the music she wrote for them, both soundtracks—and Carlos’s music on them—are excellent and hugely influential.
Carlos’s only other film score is for Disney’s 1982 computer simulation fantasy Tron, and her music may be the best thing about the movie. The theme is instantly catchy and sounds equally brilliant whether being performed by an orchestra with electronics on the soundtrack, or as a fully synthesized “chiptune” for the official arcade game or recorded decades later by electronic music acts like 8 Bit Weapon.
The theme from Tron is wonderful, but for the purposes of this list of our favorite moments, we have selected Carlos’s anxious music—with (perhaps unintentional) allusions to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score—from the scene where the film’s heroes cross the Sea of Simulation on a Solar Sailer avoiding the insect-like “gridbugs” below.
6. “Gort – The Visor – The Telescope” from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bernard Herrmann, composer
Speaking of Bernard Herrmann—one of the giants of 20th century movie music—his work for this 1951 Robert Wise-directed classic is the well from which all future sci-fi film composers have drunk. His influence has been specifically cited, for good reason, by composers Jerry Goldsmith and Danny Elfman.
Science fiction movies perhaps provide a chance for composers to be adventurous and take more risks than a drama or action film. Herrmann was one of the first to discover and fully realize this: his instrumentation for this score included violin, cello, and bass (all electric); two theremin; three organs including two Hammonds; three vibraphones and two glockenspiels; two pianos and harps; three trumpets and trombones; and four tubas.
And oh, those theremin! The electronic instrument with a wholly unique sound had been used in film before, notably by Miklós Rózsa who popularized the theremin in Hollywood during the 1940s. It had even been used in earlier sci-fi movies, including Ferde Grofé’s score for 1950’s Rocketship X-M. But it was a pair of 1951 blockbusters that solidified the theremin’s popular reputation as the sound of aliens, monsters, and spaceships: The Thing from Another World with music by Dimitri Tiomkin and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Whereas Tiomkin’s score is muscular and puts the theremin in the middle of the full orchestra, Herrmann’s music is more lithe, and he has his two theremin front and center for the introduction of Gort, the bulky and menacing robot protector.
5. “The Enterprise” from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Jerry Goldsmith, composer
When the first Star Trek movie came out in 1979, it had been ten years since the original television series had been on the air, and the cult sci-fi show had only grown in audience and stature as it re-ran in syndication around the country almost immediately after being cancelled by NBC. Producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise (the only director with two films on our list) put this six-and-a-half-minute scene (wordless for nearly five-minutes!) in as a thank you to the Trekkies for their continuing and enthusiastic support, which—along with the success of Star Wars—had convinced Hollywood to put money behind a movie version.
Though this Star Trek film has a reputation for taking its time to get where it’s going, the leisurely pace works well here. Long, grand beauty shots of a refitted Enterprise as Kirk and Scott (and we) gaze with wonder are accompanied by Goldsmith’s sweeping and regal score, slowly building upon the new theme through a series of variations. That Goldsmith’s theme eventually equaled the prominence of the original TV series theme—itself an instantly memorable ear worm—is due to the composer’s creativity and gorgeous orchestration. It was repurposed for many of the subsequent Star Trek feature films, as well as becoming the theme for the popular 1987 television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
4. Main Titles from Blade Runner, Vangelis, composer
Vangelis’s music for Ridley Scott’s 1982 future noir tale of fugitive replicants and the Blade Runners that hunt them down is pure icy atmosphere. Chariots of Fire, his other score from this period, had an instrumental theme song so catchy that it hit number one on the pop charts the same year. You’ll find nothing like that in Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Instead, you get stark, haunting soundscapes like the music heard over the Main Titles, as you get your first glimpse of the 21st century Los Angeles wasteland.
Spare and delicate throughout, the music is also beautiful and polyglot, echoing director Scott’s depiction of a multi-cultural melting pot with Eastern and Middle Eastern inflections in the score. In addition to his usual assortment of synthesizers, Vangelis incorporated the Indonesian gamelan, plus glockenspiel, gong, and tubular bells. Much like the film itself, which was panned and little seen upon its initial release, the music from Blade Runner became a cult favorite, building in influence over time. With an official soundtrack unreleased until 1994 owing to legal issues between Vangelis and the studio, the music circulated in sci-fi and electronic music circles on bootleg tapes and (later) CDs.
3. “The Throne Room and End Title” from Star Wars: A New Hope, John Williams, composer
The music heard over the main titles of Blade Runner is pretty much the polar opposite of John Williams’ bold and bracing theme for George Lucas’s first Star Wars film in 1977, which hits you in the face right out the gate during the opening credits crawl. Known by heart by every child who ever play-acted scenes from the movie, the score rightly earned Williams his third Oscar, following Jaws and his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof. (Back when there was a second category for adapted score.)
While the opening music is certainly iconic, for our list of memorable moments we have selected Williams’ music from the end of the film, set over the final scene in the throne room and the closing credits. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s reenacted many scenes from A New Hope, but three in particular: the Han Solo and Greedo firefight in the Mos Eisley Cantina (Han shot first!), the climactic Rebel assault on the Death Star (“Stay on target”), and the Throne Room. And it’s Williams’s majestic music that gives the Throne Room scene—a relatively banal finale to be honest—its spark.
2. “Wild Signals” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, John Williams, composer
Intergalactic diplomacy in five notes. John Williams reportedly presented Steven Spielberg with over 300 versions of the five-tone motif (of the approximately 134,000 possible combinations) before the director selected the one that would be used as the foundation for alien-human communication in his 1977 first-contact slow-burner. (And, with an on-screen shout-out to Zoltan Kodaly’s solfège method, we know that those five tones are Re Mi Do Do So, with the second “do” being an octave lower than the first.)
Music as cultural diplomacy was nothing new in 1977 of course, but Spielberg carries the theme throughout the movie to this climactic duet between the two species at Devils Tower in Wyoming. “It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,” says one of the scientists. The fictional conversation gets increasingly complex when computers take over the human half of the duet, but in the real score, it’s all written by Williams. If math is the only universal language, the communication of math through music by scientists performing as musicians is a wholly original concept that Spielberg and Williams deliver with Close Encounters. A stunning work.
1. “Kyrie” from Requiem, György Ligeti, composer; Also sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss, composer; and The Blue Danube, Johann Strauss II, composer from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a cheat to include three discrete pieces by three different composers from three separate times as our top memorable sci-fi music moment. But hear us out. A little-known fact about 2001 is that director Stanley Kubrick had originally commissioned Alex North to write an original score for the entire film, and he scrapped it entirely in post-production, keeping instead the classical works he had inserted as temporary music. (Poor Alex North didn’t find out that his score had been trashed until the film’s premiere.)
The rest of course is film history, and it’s nearly unimaginable that Kubrick’s magnum opus—so connected as it is to its music—could ever have had a different soundtrack. But in some alternate reality, 2001: A Space Odyssey had just one composer underpinning the whole thing. So, when we say that these three works form our favorite moment, we are really talking about two scenes joined by one incredible cut from Kubrick.
The first scene of course is The Dawn of Man, the famous ten-minute opening when two tribes of primitive hominids battle over a watering hole. The introduction of the Monolith to one of the tribes (at 2:40) is set to the “Kyrie” from György Ligeti’s Requiem, which becomes a recurring music cue throughout the film. The dissonant chords of Ligeti’s micropolyphony give the Monolith its power, imbuing it with godly or otherworldly origins.
Shortly after (and following a quick flash cut back to the Monolith at 5:59), one of the prehistoric men discovers the use of bones as tools to commit violence, all set to the powerful chords of Richard Strauss’s 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. That Strauss’s work was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name suggests all sorts of comparable 2001 themes—from the Overman to the will to power—too numerous to dive into here. But Kubrick knew them well, and there’s a reason he chose this work not just for this scene but also to play over the title card at the very beginning.
The Dawn of Man transitions millions of years into the future in one of the most famous shots in film history, as a bone is thrown into the air on prehistoric earth and transforms into a falling satellite in orbit in the year 2001. This leads to the second scene: the satellite ballet Kubrick has choreographed to “The Blue Danube,” the English name for “An der schönen blauen Donau,” a waltz by Johann Strauss II. That the film moves forward in time by going back in time with its music—from 20th century Ligeti to Romantic-era Richard Strauss to the earlier (and unrelated) Johann Strauss II—is a singular moment in a film full of them.