Monday, 8 September 2014

Avatar Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you sport a love of technically astounding, orchestrally-based grandeur, filled with questionable but undoubtedly beautiful uses of thematic concepts, all of which James Horner's Avatar possesses

Skip it... if you're tired of hearing Horner repeat himself time and time again in regards to thematic material, for he does so again here, though all the aforementioned thematic ideas are far more fleshed out and wider in scope than ever before 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             


"This is one of the first scores I ever had the grace of listening to, and it's quality has not diminished in all the time since that first treasured listen."

There are few directors working in Hollywood that possess as much passion, vigour, dedication and cash as James Cameron, one of the world's leading filmmakers. For decades, the man has been crafting some of the finest cinematic escapades, including the thoroughly captivating Aliens, the tragic romance that was Titanic, the epic action that was Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and more recently, the grand spectacle that is and was Avatar. The film centres around a quadriplegic, brought to the world of Pandora due to his brother's death. He is given the opportunity to feel the stimulation of running again, thanks to the 'Avatar' program, which allows various individuals the opportunity to bond with a Na'vi host body; the Na'vi being the native aliens that inhabit the world of Pandora. Jake Sully, this previously mentioned quadriplegic, the film's main character, learns to love his Na'vi self, and after seeing the disastrous consequences of human's interference in the natural world of Pandora, begins to see fit to protect his new found people. The film was hailed by the Academy, as well as by audiences and critics initially, and this led to an unparalleled box office draw, with Avatar ending it's run as the highest grossing film of all time, beating out the previous holder of the rank, Titanic, which was also directed by Cameron. The film's premise and story had been trodden before, with various films having covered the corporate corruption and exploitation plot over the history of motion pictures, though no film had ever captured such a rich and versatile world as Avatar had, as Cameron's use of visual effects immediately set it apart in regards to the visceral component of the film. Whether or not one did not become attached to the tribulations that the characters were facing was not necessarily a huge problem, when such a unique and awe-inspiring scope and world is on offer. I myself have a personal connection to the film; it happened to be one of the first films I ever saw in cinemas with my grandmother. Ever since, we have seen numerous films together, and every time I get an opportunity to visit her, we are away at the cinemas as quick as possible. It's an experience that I'm not like to forget anytime soon.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the outstanding reception seemed to spark an ignition from various viewers who criticized the film as an unoriginal mess. Eventually, such an outlook at the motion picture became common place, and whilst a loyal fan base numbering in great quantities still exists today, many consider the film over-lauded. Funnily enough, this isn't the case nowadays thanks to these same people, so their argument that the film is over-hyped has little credibility in 2014. Nevertheless, the majority of viewers would've undoubtedly described Avatar in a short statement, back after their first viewing in cinemas; "it was an experience". Though by this, many would be considering primarily and solely the visual component of the picture; many viewers discounted the absolutely outstanding, beautiful efforts from composer James Horner, who composed the score which has in recent years formed a following near unmatched by any other score released in the decade. Powell's How To Train Your Dragon, Shore's The Hobbit and Newton Howard's Lady in the Water have formed such followings, though Avatar is arguably the finest of all these scores. It is a score of epic proportions, much like it's visual counterpart, filled with varied instrumentation all throughout, as well as some of the most insanely energetic and inspired material ever put to screen or album. Whether in the context of the film or not, you can understand any and all the enthusiasm Horner harbored for the project, just by the music and it's underlying subtleties, it's powerful action, as well as it's insurmountable raw emotion. The film is an experience in this retrospect as well.

Though before I continue, I do need to make clear that I am aware of Horner's self-plagiarism throughout Avatar, and my final rating of the score shall be made with this embedded within my head. Though, honestly, this never does seem to bother me, especially with Horner in mind. Whether it be in regards to Glory, Legends of the Fall or Vibes, I seem to find it difficult to properly criticise a score of this great a scope and energy, even if the composer has blatantly taken portions of another of his scores and inserted it into this context. From thematically to instrumentally, there are a great deal of ideas that were executed in previous Horner works that have either been referenced or downright copied in Avatar, with little differentiation between the two or more uses of the same concept. Whilst Horner has often referenced his theme from the score Glory, it has never been as blatant as it is here, as is the case with a number of leitmotifs all throughout the score, though the execution of many of these phrases are far more enjoyable and wholesome within Avatar, particularly this aforementioned Glory leitmotif. Instrumentation, and even portions of the love theme from Horner's Titanic score, most notably his love theme for that score, are taken and inserted into Avatar; the ending to the outstanding cue "War" has flutes that seem to have been taken directly from this score in question, and the main theme is a variation on the love theme of Titanic. Horner's plagiarism of his own work is constant and often slightly distracting, though when the music is this awe-inspiring and large in scope, it's hard not to forgive him and simply enjoy the music for it's instrumental capabilities.

Thematically, though often unoriginal in conceptualization and execution, Horner has exceeded with providing thoroughly memorable and emotionally resonant material, all trademarks of a quality Horner score. The primary theme, which could also be considered a love theme, is best illuminated within the cue "Becoming One of "The People"/Becoming One With Neytiri", and is a simplistic 4 note ascension, utilised with a great array of instrumentation in mind, from boy vocals, to woodwinds, to swirling and delightful strings and brass; this is by far Horner's best use of a single one of his themes. Whereas many of the other leitmotifs in the score, most commonly the wide assortment of Na'vi themes, seem to get little replay time, this love theme is consistently thrown about in countless different arrangements, and all are refreshingly original (despite the fact that the phrase is undoubtedly reminiscent of many-a-Horner theme). We see this theme revisited in nearly every cue after the aforementioned "Becoming One of "The People"/Becoming One With Neytiri", including prominently within "Jake's First Flight", "Gathering All The Na'vi Clans For Battle", and it's first use within the album, "Pure Spirits of the Forest". There are a number of other cues where various portions of the theme threaten reprisal, though they often cut away quickly. This is far more conceivable in the second half of the score, as the romance of the story is overshadowed by themes of war and despair. The film's second half is less so a romantic space opera, and more so a story of the hardships and effects of war, and so the lovely and dazzling love theme plays a secondary role in such a time of tribulation and augmentation. Other themes are certainly noticeable, even if their use is limited in time. A theme that is certainly worthy of mention is the secondary Na'vi theme that plays within "Becoming One of The People"; it's biggest moment is set in between uses of the love theme, within the middle of the cue. The final Na'vi theme that features prominently is the war theme, which, contradictory to the love theme, features heavily during the second half of the running time. Foreshadowed only slightly throughout the first portion of the score, it features on a less distinctive level in "Scorched Earth", before being elaborated and conceived fully within the cues "Quaritch", "The Destruction of Hometree", and "War". It's likeliness to other Horner works is undoubtable, with such comparisons ranging from Titanic to Willow; though it's use here is far more aggressive and danger-ridden than any of these mentioned prior uses. 

With the soundscape and themes set in place for the Na'vi characters and culture, the humans seem to lack as great a distinctive sound, though it is still existent; in fact, it's use is far more numerous than one would expect based on a first listen through. Horner utilizes a synthetic sound primarily for the humans at first, as is noticeable in the latter half of the first cue on the album, "You Don't Sleep in Cyro...", and whilst it's not made as blatantly clear as anything Na'vi or forest-related, it is certainly made clear by Horner that this is the sound he intends for the relative antagonists of the film. The militaristic theme for the humans is dabbled into throughout the score, though it's first truly pivotal and noticeable use is within "War", where the militarized drum beat is the first giveaway of an aggressive human presence; this drum rhythm then gives way to a dreadfully low and powerful brass leitmotif, which is what even a casual listener will undoubtedly be harrowed by. "War" in general is a cue of which listeners shall be continually distraught by on an emotional front, thanks to some insanely impressive instrumentation and tonal fluctuations. From great battle music, which rivals some of the finest battle material of the past decade, to emotional tribulation and resolution, as seen near the ending of the cue, thanks to the much needed reprisal of the love theme, "War" hosts a great quantity of varied thematic devices and particularly intelligent writing. Horner's action music has never been so keen as what is on offer in regards to this ecstatic piece of music; no doubt one of the finest of his career to date. 

Though funnily enough, it's been noted by many reviewers that the vast majority of Horner collectors and fans have been more impressed by the softer and more delicate of moments. This is understandable, for however impressive Avatar's scope proves to be, it's the moments of near-understated variety and ingenuity that prove to be the most efficient and memorable components of the score. Why do people consider the Na'vi material far more enjoyable and memorable? Because of it's variety and distinctive sound, that whilst often comparable to other Horner cues and concepts, is semi-unique in it's instrumentation and mixing. Where most people draw criticism with this score is the obvious plagiarism issue; though I believe this is an unfounded and unfair criticism, based on the quality of music on offer. Cues like "War", "The Bioluminescence of the Night" and "Becoming One of the People/Becoming One With Neytiri", whilst not always wholly original, are composed of a great deal of intelligent and inspired work from Horner. Everything considered, Avatar could be seen as a "Best-Of" from Horner, and that should certainly see both collectors of Horner and casual listeners happy; collectors thanks to the wide variety of call-backs to prior scores from the composer's career, and casual listeners due to the impeccable recording and moving material that should strike a chord with nearly all those who take the time to absorb the full impact of this magnificent 79 minute long album. It's by far one of Horner's most accomplished and detailed projects, and can serve as an enjoyable or even monumental experience for either newcomers to the work of James Horner, or experienced listeners who are interested in traversing an album full of the composer's best compositional assets. All make for a wonderful time, in any case. You can purchase Avatar on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.   

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