Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Maze Runner Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you're interested in a score which doesn't necessarily conform to the scoring conventions of it's own genre, whilst denoting the mood and tone of itself with the use of varied and intelligent compositional and instrumental techniques

Skip it... if you're not a fan of scores which sport anti-climatic tendencies, and a direction that never seems focused on a single ideal, such as romance, action, adventure or horror
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             


"To summarize The Maze Runner in a less formal context; Paesano consistently gives us blue balls."

The next installment into the saga of young-adult dystopian novel cinematic adaptations has arrived in The Maze Runner, but few weeks after the release of the much less well received The Giver, a film which I rather enjoyed, as can be found evident thanks to my review, posted this Monday gone. The Maze Runner is based upon the source material of the same name, written by James Dashner, and published in the year 2007, well received by the general public and critics alike. The story follows the young protagonist of the book, Thomas, as he is brought into a place known as the Glade with absolutely no memory of what happened before he arrived in this aforementioned location; the only memory he can muster is that of his own name. The Glade is inhabited by a community of young boys, all roundabouts the same age as Thomas, who assign each other jobs to provide for their greater well-being. The Glade is surrounded by a large maze, inhabited at night by dangerous creatures known as Grievers; fortunately for the boys, huge doors around the perimeter of the maze protect them from the creatures, allowing them to live in relative harmony. At a point during the story, Thomas and the other boys decide upon escape, and so ensues the story and drama. Of course, one must insert a love story within a novel of this genre (or a love triangle, if you're feeling particularly uninspired on the day of writing), various subplots which seem completely irrelevant for the main goal of the film, and side characters whom are nearly all completely forgettable. Apparently, most of these boxes seem to have been ticked here (based on accounts from which I've received), so The Maze Runner sits well as a relatively unoriginal, basic young-adult dystopian novel. The adaptation, directed by Wes Ball, has received some fairly decent critical reception, and the box office predictions for the film are certainly amiable. This coming weekend should, undoubtedly, be another win for a young-adult adaptation in regards to the financial component. 

The score to the film, composed by relative newcomer to the big stage, John Paesano, has composed little in the way of big, popular work. His biggest work to date, apart from The Maze Runner, has been Dragons: Riders of Berk; the series that bridges the story lines of the How To Train Your Dragon films. This score won him some minor recognition in the scoring community, with fans of the How To Train Your Dragon series' music suddenly interested in the work of a man chronicling the stories of the same characters as John Powell's well loved scores. What has really peaked the scoring communities interest, however, is this here score, which is Paesano's first blockbuster; a milestone for any composer. For The Maze Runner, what is evident from the score is that Paesano was asked to provide an ethnically diverse, instrumentally varied piece of composition, taking inspiration from various sources, including James Horner and Michael Giacchino; various instrumental choices greatly reminded me of the recent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes score, as well as Horner's 2009 masterpiece, Avatar (of which I also recently took the time to review). Whilst the intention and direction initially seems carefully constructed, full of interesting sounds and changes in rhythm, the score quickly loses it's definitive orientation, and it often sounds as if random and unrelated fluff, however well varied, is hitting our ears. This habit stems from early on during the album, from the second cue "What Is This Place?", and continues on throughout the rest of the material. There are moments of consistency and singular ideals, though one would be hard-pressed to find a large array of such moments. The only periods of time when the score sounds as if it's trying to head down a specific direction are those which encompass the use of the limited-in-quantity themes on offer. 

I feel like I've already denoted this score as a poorly constructed wreck, with most of my comments up to this point being widely negative, whereas much of the score isn't particularly irritating or boring; it just seems to be confused, or attempting to do too much at a single point, or both. What is to be commended, however inconsistent much of the instrumentation and writing is, is in part thanks to this aforementioned inconsistency; The Maze Runner is most certainly not anything of the generic nature of a basic Remote Control product. It's strange how deeply impressive the writing within the young-adult scores this year have been, first with the absolutely astounding (though far better in regards to consistency and thematic exploration) The Giver, composed by Marco Beltrami, and now this. Whilst the bodies of work that were released last year within this genre were collectively relatively good, these including another Beltrami work, Warm Bodies, James Newton Howard's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Antonio Pinto's The Host (among others which I've undoubtedly missed), nothing really stands out as particularly original or trying hard to be as such. On the other hand, The Giver and The Maze Runner are clearly shifts in the right direction for varied and particularly memorable writing within the young-adult dystopian adaptation body of works; though whether or not I'll be humming any of the rather unoriginal thematic material from this here score a few years, or even months, down the track is something that I could not disclose at the present. Perhaps it's the diverse subject-matter that this year's films (within this genre) are handling that allows composers to extend their arms and provide more than just the generic, electronic-based, sombre dystopian score. Funnily enough, it is possible to construct a young-adult dystopian score filled with a decent quantity of intrigue, variation, and surprising originality.

Though one should not consider this an entirely original and well-rounded score, for it loses points in a number of highly important criteria, namely thematic identity. It seems to have been an issue plaguing recent scores, namely the television titles released within the past few months of so, that thematic identity is seemingly non-existent within a number of scores. The Maze Runner is another example of a composer's emphasis on a wide variety of body work, fleshed out with a number of interesting and carefully implemented instrumental choices, though this leaves the personality and thematic identity of the score often sparsely touched upon. The main title of the score, displayed prominently in "The Maze Runner", is widely unheard of for the majority of the running time, only restating it's existence within the final cue on the card, "Finale". And this is unfortunate primarily because of the theme's lavish and bold presentation, filled with heroic brass and percussion not often seen in such a genre as this. To see this theme's importance practically nullified throughout the vast majority of the score is somewhat disheartening and disappointing; I'm not asking for a constant flurry of reprisals of the theme throughout the score, as that would weaken the leitmotifs' impact once it does make an important entry. We saw this in the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which consistently implemented the use of the main theme throughout the entirety of the score, causing it to lose the effect it displays so well in the leitmotifs' first outing in the opening cue. The complaint is that of consistency, Paesano; if you're going to introduce a sprawling and highly entertaining theme, please don't wait for the ending of the score to reprise it's use. It makes it seem as if the theme's use is an afterthought, thrown in at the end to satisfy the grating hunger that the listener is quickly developing for a solid, identifiable and easily accessible thematic outburst of music. 

Other themes are short in supply, again due to Paesano's focus upon the body of work. Casual listeners should be able to determine a number of relatively important thematic concepts, including a piano motif that is first heard of during the latter quarter of "What Is This Place", elaborated upon during the cues "My Name Is Thomas", "WCKD Is Good" and "WCKD Lab"; other piano phrases are ushered in for short whiles before becoming part of the widely forgettable material that is employed for the body of work. This piano theme explores the slow and desolate cliches that riddle the dystopian genre, accepting it's commonplace essence of loneliness that nearly-entirely accompanies every score fit into this category. A love or general adventure theme may be evident within "Waiting In The Rain" and "Why Are We Different?", due to the light use of Japanese bamboo flutes (which is common all throughout the running time, in actual fact), slow and adventurous marimbas and generally light percussion, highly reminiscent in it's mood of some of the first few cues from Horner's fantastic Avatar; high commendation indeed. Though much of the score could be attributed to a great deal of inspiration from various composers; the plodding and eclectic soundscape often sounds comparable to Zimmer's The Thin Red Line,  the aforementioned Giacchino score, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which I believe was also inspired heavily by The Thin Red Line), and other scores along the lines of such. Fortunately, the instrumentation Paesano utilizes throughout the majority of the score is wide and varied enough to allow the album to pass as simply 'inspired by' rather than 'temped by', as it would be easy to assume that temp tracking did occur, due to the often stark resemblances to prior works by other composers of a higher prestige.

The instrumentation and material in general, as it seems I've made unintentionally clear, is a mixed bag all throughout the running time; often, it feels as if the composer is just arranging a random assortment of builds and false climaxes, fit with guttural brass, tribal and ethnic percussion and fast strings, fitted with aggressive tendencies. In Paesano's attempts to construct a flowing, consistently reinvigorating score, he often produces music that feels repetitious and unexciting. Those who claimed issue with Giacchino's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, another recent slow, post-apocalyptic/dystopian score, will surely criticise The Maze Runner for it's barrage of unsatisfying, boringly executed passages of music, and I can certainly understand why; this score certainly drifts along at points, thoroughly enthralling the listener at times, disenchanting and irritating at others. Whilst The Maze Runner consists of a greater and more frantic pace (this isn't saying all too much, in truth), Dawn presents a greater variety and quantity of impressive motivic material and constantly interesting phrases, and possesses far more emotional dexterity and range than this here score. However, one could retort with the issue in regards to Dawn's lack of action and excitement, which The Maze Runner, on the other hand, handles expertly well; much of the action within Paesano's score is well composed, full of vibrance and energy. "Ben's Not Right" is where the action first rips open, with timpani rolls, wood blocks, aggressive bamboo flute trills, string and brass runs running riot throughout, with constant fluctuations in volume and pace setting a fantastic mood for the score ahead. The jungle-like soundscape is but another great addition to this cue, furthering the anticipating for what's ahead. Unfortunately, things settle down to a range of slow and monotonous tendencies as the cue "Banishment" rolls through; it's not overtly poor on an instrumental or compositional level, however. Cues like "Into The Maze" and "Griever", on the other hand, are just plain irritating, with their stop-start propensities, and constant volume fluctuations. It appears a consistent direction and flow is far too difficult to adhere to, and so we are forced to sit through a good majority of the score which has the aptitude to do as such.

Paesano's action music is by far the highlight of the album, with the cue "Final Fight" signalling the greatest collation of faster paced, energetic music the album has to offer. And what it has to offer isn't necessarily poor or disappointing all throughout; in fact, there is much good to be seen, as I've made quite abundantly clear consistently within this review. Ultimately, what brings the score down is it's obsessive need to bustle and fluctuate without actually delivering on all it's promises. Paesano often builds up a phrase, using ostinatos it until it seems like it has to explode in a fiery and exciting rush of climatic satisfaction, though this never appears to happen. To put it in a less formal context; Paesano repeatedly gives us blue balls. He allows the excitement and anticipation to build, before simply stopping the cue in it's tracks, allowing for another phrase to do the same. It's excruciating. What he does manage to do right though, is provide a number of interesting and diverse instrumental inclusions, implementing various instruments that one would not generally see within a score set for a film of this genre. Paesano has not considered genre restrictions that are generally seen for a film of this type, and has instead branched out and into other areas of composition and ethnicity that should not be anticipated by the average listener (unless, of course, you've been forewarned). The leitmotifs on offer, however insanely sparse, are all relatively well composed, and whilst one could consider their inspiration a little too obvious, they're still all quite enjoyable to listen to and take note of. Whilst writing this summary, I've come to the conclusion that there is certainly more good than bad here, and whilst portions of the album adhere to commonplace, generic conventions seen within action scoring (most notably some instances of Horn of Doom; though one should not fear too much, considering their limited use), it's a generally well planned and conceived score of impressive intelligence. I look forward to seeing more of Paesano in the future, though I hope for the sake of my sanity that he learns to suppress his fake-climactic tendencies. You can purchase The Maze Runner on iTunes or Amazon, here and here.  

6.1