Tag Archives: Indiana Jones

Rocks In The Attic #709: John Williams – ‘Jurassic Park (O.S.T.)’ (1993)

RITA#709What does William’s score to 1993’s Jurassic Park have to do with Dies Irae, a latin hymn from the thirteenth century?

After watching the latest disappointing Jurassic Park sequel, it’s refreshing to wash my brain out with the score to Spielberg’s original film. At this point in his career, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Williams would be washed-up. Surely the composer of Jaws, Superman, the Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones trilogy – and many, many more – would have nothing left. Somebody that prolific can’t keep on being prolific, can they?

The answer seems to be a resounding Yes. Not only does Jurassic Park contain two distinctly memorable main themes – Theme From Jurassic Park and Journey To The Island – but the rest of the score is just as strong as his ‘70s and ‘80s output. But what’s all this about Gregorian Chant?

The answer is in a descending motif in the ancient hymn. For centuries, this doom-laden melody has been used as short-hand for evil or foreboding – Dies Irae itself translates to Day Of Wrath. A host of great composers have used the motif in their works – Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Holst, Liszt, Mahler and Rachmaninoff, to name but a few – but it’s its use in modern film soundtracks that interests me the most.

The tune is easiest to spot in the first few notes of The Shining’s opening Main Title, played by Wendy Carlos on the Moog Synthesiser. Here, the melody isn’t even disguised, it’s as clear as the day in which it’s used to soundtrack, as the Torrances drive up the mountain approaching the Overlook Hotel.

RITA#709b
Williams uses it to great effect in Jurassic Park, throughout the cues entitled Incident At Isla Nublar (from 3:32), and High Wire Stunts (from 0:00). But this isn’t the first time he’s referenced it. It can be found a couple of times in his iconic score to 1977’s Star Wars. Here it plays as the accompaniment immediately before Luke’s Force Theme rises up in The Burning Homestead (from 1:28), and is echoed in the doom-laden brass line (from 1:43) as Luke’s fate realigns.

And it’s not just John Williams sliding it into his scores, the musical equivalent of directors inserting the Wilhelm Scream into their sound mix. Other famous composers have “borrowed” the melody too. In 2001’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, Howard Shore uses it as the bassline thoughout the cue entitled Weathertop (from 0:18), as the Ringwraiths attack the Hobbits. Jerry Goldsmith utilises it in his 1982 score for Poltergeist, Hans Zimmer uses it briefly in 1994’s The Lion King, and Bernard Herrmann used it back in 1963 for Jason And The Argonauts. Unsurprisingly the tune also makes for good horror music fodder.

RITA#709aEven back in 1927, Gottfried Huppertz inserted the motif into his Dance Of Death cue for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (from 1:17) – confirming that the appropriation of Dies Irae in cinema is as old as cinema itself.

Interestingly, John Williams does something sneaky with Dies Irae in Jurassic Park. Usually the sequence of the first four notes in the motif is enough to suggest doom and despair, but Williams takes just the first three notes and does something unexpected with them. They serve as the starting point for the Jurassic Park’s main theme – as positive and upbeat a film theme as could be, even when played on a Melodica.

Hit: Theme From Jurassic Park

Hidden Gem: Dennis Steals The Embryo

Rocks In The Attic #646: John Williams – ‘Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom’ (1984)

RITA#646The other night, after a hard week at work, I sat down to watch Kingsman: The Golden Circle with my wife. I wasn’t expecting much – I hadn’t heard good things – but I wasn’t prepared for how stunningly average it was. Would I say it is a bad film? No, not really. It was technically well made, by a more than competent director (Matthew Vaughn), but it was instantly forgettable.

When I grew up through the 1980s, there seemed to be fantastic genre films coming out all the time, dotted with the occasional howler (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Jaws IV: The Revenge – possibly anything with “IV” in the title, although Rocky IV was a banger). These days, the howlers are relatively easy to avoid. Production of big marquee films tends to be spread across multiple studios sharing the risk of a multi-million dollar budget, and as a result they don’t seem to let a franchise die at the hands of a bad script or a deluded director.

Hollywood’s destructive habit in the last decade is movie-making by numbers; a manifesto of mediocrity. The sheer amount of unremarkable genre films it has produced is testament to the absence of risk that directors and producers are willing to take in order to make something that stands out.

I remember reading an interview with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige back in 2009, where he outlined his plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). His strategy of an overloaded release schedule – 4 or 5 films a year – seemed too good to be true. That’ll never happen, I thought. But it now feels like there’s a new Marvel film out every other month.

The other unbelievable aspect of his strategy was talk of bringing Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk together for an Avengers movie. That will definitely never happen, I thought. The Hulk and Iron Man had been revitalised in film by Marvel already, and I just couldn’t see Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton sharing a film together with whatever big names they had lined up to play Captain America and Thor. In a way I was right, as they eventually replaced Norton with a different (cheaper?) actor in Mark Ruffalo, but Feige’s vision ultimately proved true. Ensemble genre films are a dime a dozen these days, and it’s rare for a superhero film to be limited to only one or two key roles. This week saw the release of the trailer for the third (?) Avengers film, introducing the Guardians Of The Galaxy into the earth-bound world of the Avengers. Around and around it goes. Pop will eat itself.

But when Feige sits down in his old age – in his superhero-sized mansion – and tells his privileged grandchildren about his life’s work, how will he feel? For the – by my count – seventeen (!) MCU films that have seen the light of day since 2008, I can really only put my finger on one or two that I would hold up as being great films. Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012) stand head and shoulders above the rest, and while there have been great moments among the others, in general they’re all junk; popcorn escapism for the masses.

The rot set in early on, with 2010’s Iron Man 2. How could they get the sequel so wrong, when they got the first Iron Man so right? I spoke to a fan of the series upon its release, and he couldn’t see any difference between the two. That’s the problem with casual film viewers. They just want what they expect, and they’ll happily visit the cinema every time for that hit of familiarity – Coca-cola in their veins, popcorn in their arteries, and the anticipation of safe storytelling that’s not going to push any boundaries and make them feel uncomfortable. Narrative left-turns in cinema these days are met with whispered conversations in the dark as couples explain to each other what is happening on screen.

Marvel’s now-misguided strategy to steady the ship was to deliver a third iteration in the Iron Man series (2013) which was so incredibly poor, that they should have developed a new category at the Academy Awards to recognise it. ‘And the ‘Best Mediocre Picture’ Oscar goes to…’

If Marvel’s attempts at serious filmmaking are to be laughed at, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to think of their rivals’ efforts at DC. Christopher Nolan reinvigorated the modern superhero film with Batman Begins in 2005, and so you’d think his successors might have learnt a thing or two from him. But as soon as he stepped away from the director’s chair, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) kicked off with one of the dullest superhero films ever committed to celluloid (Man Of Steel, 2013).

Where Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) was a glorious piece of wondrous entertainment, setting a high bar that wasn’t really challenged until Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel is a turgid mess. I seem to remember a fight sequence at the end that lasted around three hours. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and I secretly hoped that mankind would have been wiped off the screen just so that it would have put me out of my misery.

I might have watched Donner’s Superman and Richard Lester’s Superman II close to a hundred times each. I wouldn’t watch Man Of Steel again if my life depended on it.

Which brings me to Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. Now, Steven Spielberg knew how to make a good genre film back in the ‘80s. Easily the weakest of the original trilogy – although not according to my old buddy Quentin Tarantino, who sees it as the strongest of the three – it’s still an infinitely more enjoyable film than the unremarkable dross dealt out to us by Hollywood in the twenty-first century.

Hit: Anything Goes

Hidden Gem: Finale And End Credits

Rocks In The Attic #509: Don Davis – ‘The Matrix (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#509I love The Matrix. It’s one of my favourite films of the ‘90s; probably my favourite science-fiction film of that decade. It’s an awesome movie, but I think I like it more for what it represents than for what it actually is. For me, the Matrix represents a truly wonderful thing – the end of George Lucas’ reign over special-effects movies in Hollywood.

Yes, Lucas was responsible for a great deal of my childhood cinema: the three original Star Wars films, and the three original Indiana Jones films. A round of applause, please. But that’s it. Nothing else. His 1973 breakout hit American Graffiti might be an enjoyable slice of 1950s nostalgia, but Back To The Future did it much better in 1985. And let’s not get started on the Star Wars prequels or the fourth Indiana Jones film.

His legacy is one of the things that ultimately curses him: Industrial Light & Magic. The special effects house set up to handle the myriad of effects shots in the first Star Wars film ultimately came to monopolise Hollywood in the decades that followed. The company may have been trendsetters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they hit a peak with the groundbreaking effects in 1992’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but by the late 1990s they had lost their edge. Nothing was special anymore; they had become complacent. The company that had once blown everybody away were now resting on their laurels.

Then a film was released in 1999 out of nowhere. Titled The Matrix, it was written and directed by brothers Larry and Andy (now Lana and Lilly) Wachowski, responsible at that point for only directing one film, Bound (1996), a crime thriller starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

The Matrix came along with no hype. From the outside it looked like just another science-fiction film out of Hollywood, with a steam-punk aesthetic that we had seen before in dull gothic flicks like The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). The lack of advance word even led to UK film magazine Empire relegating the film to its ‘Also released this month” section.

I saw the film at the cinema with my good buddy Stotty. Talk about being blown away. I was so engrossed that a Coca-Cola-induced urge to go to the toilet mid-way through had to be repressed. I wasn’t going to miss a second of this, particularly after being sideswiped by the film’s major left turn around twenty minutes in.

The idea, in retrospect, is simple: introduce the audience to the main character, then towards the end of the first act, suggest that the narrative you’re following is a fallacy, and that the film’s protagonist is being similarly hoodwinked. Hollywood had recently provided a film with a similar narrative hook, in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Truman Burbank figures it out for himself when he overhears some radio chatter, almost gets pulverised by a studio light falling out of the sky, and notices the regularity of people bicycling down his street, but in The Matrix, our protagonist relies on others to wake him from his dream. Films ever since have played with the elastic nature of narrative. It seems like they’re ten a penny these days, but back in the late ‘90s it felt refreshing and new.

Everything about The Matrix seemed well thought-out. The design, the cast, the music, the sound, the editing, everything; but what grabbed people most of all were the special effects. The Wachowskis rewrote the book, taking their lead from the infinite possibilities of Japanese Anime rather than traditional Hollywood special effects. Finally, seven years following Terminator 2: Judgement Day, here was something that we hadn’t seen before: Bullet Time.

John Gaeta from Manex Visual Effects, working out of Alameda, California, developed a prototype of the effect prior to the film, and the Wachowskis jumped on it. Gaeta’s concept was based on an old idea – that a moving image is simply a sequence of still images played at high speed – but Gaeta’s application of the method to film action sequences was ingenious.

A simple stunt, for example one character jumping up to kick another character, could be transformed from something very simple to something extraordinary. A rig featuring dozens of still cameras would bet set up around the actors, and the cameras would shoot the movement in the scene, before being compiled together to form a moving image. By employing a fairly simple idea, the filmmakers created the illusion of movement around the action, capturing the shot at super-slow motion, but still travelling at high-speed, hence ‘bullet’ time.

There’s an element of The Matrix borne out of a clichéd Hollywood trope – that of the white male protagonist being the saviour of the universe, or the ‘one’ as Neo’s anagrammatical name would suggest – but despite this, the films manages to still feel fresh. The main protagonist is derivative to a degree, taking the base elements of George Lucas’ original Star Wars conceit – that our hero is possessed with a magical ability to transcend all evil forces – but there’s so much innovation in the film, it’s easy to overlook this. It’s like receiving a pair of socks on Christmas Day, but finding that they turn you invisible when you put them on. Erm, thanks Aunty Flo.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Matrix without mentioning the sequels. At the time, they were exciting but just like the Star Wars prequels from George Lucas (him again), they suffered from a preponderance of weightless digital effects and little in the way of practical effects. Most Hollywood sequels are lazy rehashes of the same ideas that made the first film so interesting. The Wachowskis couldn’t be accused of this though; if anything, they overthought their sequels, giving them a highbrow slant that hasn’t been see in a sequel since The Godfather Part II.

It’s great to have Don Davis’ score to the film on this lovely slab of green wax. I probably enjoy the score as much as I love the pop soundtrack, which despite a few timeless classics is starting to feel very much of its time. I’m not familiar with Don Davis’ other work, but this is a great score – and its refreshing for a big action film to be scored by somebody other than John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Welcome To The Real World