As space is a void, no sound travels there. This is why Alien proclaims “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It is also why astrophysicists are physically incapable of watching the pew! pew! pew! of Star Wars space battles without breaking out into hives. And yet, in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, space films have featured some of the most iconic and influential scores in movie history.
Maybe since space is this seemingly infinite silence—a vast emptiness occasionally punctuated by mind-bendingly huge visuals—filmmakers and composers feel compelled to come up with the biggest and best sounds they can to fill it. Or maybe since no filmmaker or composer has ever actually been to space, the final frontier represents a blank slate allowing for maximum creativity. Or maybe it all has something to do with how Aristotle referred to the ear, that thing that hears music, as a “void,” and outer space is the biggest void of all. Ok, admittedly even I’m not convinced by this last argument, but I do think it’s an interesting coincidence.
Anyway, the following are nine of the greatest scores from films that are, quite literally, out of this world. For the sake of my sanity, series and franchises have been grouped together.
The Gold Standard
Best Tracks: “Main Title” (A New Hope), “The Imperial March” (The Empire Strikes Back), “Duel of the Fates” (The Phantom Menace), “Across the Stars” (Attack of the Clones)
When it comes to film scores, there’s iconic, and then there’s Star Wars. That main theme that sounds like your childhood. “The Imperial March,” which also sounds like your childhood. Okay, so maybe the music of Star Wars just makes me gleefully nostalgic, but I really don’t think I’m alone in that. From space cantina jazz to villain themes, Star Wars remains the gold standard for out-of-this-world music. It’s the exemplar to which all other space adventures will forever and always be compared.
With the original trilogy, John Williams is credited with more or less singlehandedly saving the film score from falling into the clutches of the synthesizer by revitalizing the orchestral score. As Kathryn Marie Kalinak addresses in her book Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film, “[t]hrough Williams’ example, the epic sound established in the thirties once again became a viable choice for composers in contemporary Hollywood.” The soundtrack to A New Hope took home the Oscar for Best Original Score, and has since been voted the greatest American film score of all time by the American Film Institute in addition to being selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun-DA-dun Dun-DA-dun. (It’s stuck in your head now. You’re welcome.)
But the reason the music of Star Wars remains so iconic isn’t just about it being epic, or catchy, but because it is astoundingly good at its job. At the end of the day, film scores are a little like voiceovers in the sense that they are supposed to add something to the visuals: music can set the emotional tone of a scene, or add structure—providing the basis of the timing in a montage, for example. John Williams’ score plays a crucial role in making Star Wars work. In this day and age when Star Wars has saturated popular culture, it can be difficult to imagine a moviegoer entering one of the films completely clueless about Skywalkers and Jedi and “no, I am your father.” And yeah, I know there’s the whole explanatory opening crawl, but it’s still a whole lot of information in a short amount of time. Especially in those early scenes, when it’s not entirely clear who everybody is or what’s going on, it’s Williams’ score that gives you all the information you need to connect with what you’re seeing on screen—and therefore enables you to care. It lets you know that when Luke is staring wistfully out across the sands of Tatooine that he’s yearning to go on a great adventure; tells you which ships are the good guys and which ships are the bad guys even if you don’t know the difference between a TIE fighter and an X-wing.
While the prequels are unfortunate on the whole, the music is one of the few elements to live up to the original trilogy. Taken out of context, “Duel of the Fates” and the corresponding Darth Maul/Obi-Wan showdown in The Phantom Menace is actually a pretty good scene. Unfortunately, it’s 4 minutes and 40 seconds of a film that’s 2 hours and 16 minutes long. Similarly, the one and only thing that makes Anakin and Padmé’s romance any bit convincing is “Across the Stars,” a sweeping romantic ballad that really deserves a much more compelling romance to go with it.
Music-wise, the sequel trilogy and spin-offs have been consistently commendable. They may not be on quite on the same level as the original trilogy—to be fair, few film scores are—but they’re still pretty damn good. (That said, I think the one thing that everyone who’s not a Russian bot can agree on regarding The Last Jedi is that the destruction of the Supremacy scene features the best use of silence in a Star Wars movie to date.)
And all of this is even before getting into the music the fans have made. For beginners, I recommend the iconic “SEAGULLS! (Stop It Now)” and Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans, a song-by-song reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as an A New Hope rock opera. As far as music is concerned, Star Wars is a gift that keeps on giving.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Classic Mixtape
Best Tracks: “The Blue Danube,” “Also sprach Zarathustra,” “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra”
A book on the use of music in Stanley Kubrick’s films refers to 2001 as “a watershed” for film scores. The film makes its musical brilliance known right off the bat, as FSR’s own Charlie Brigden noted in his recent analysis of 2001‘s opening scene, which he calls “possibly the ultimate example of using music to tell a story in an opening title sequence.”
Infamously, composer Alex North wrote and recorded an entire score for the film, only for Kurbrick to use absolutely none of it, making use of pre-existing classical music instead. This was something of a hot take. Film composer Jerry Goldsmith, featured elsewhere in this article for his work on Alien, once claimed that 2001 is “ruined” by Kubrick’s use of existing classical works, because “the pieces could not comment on the film because they were not part of it,” concluding that a film score “is a fabric which must be tailored to the film.” The general public has largely disagreed with Goldsmith. In addition to becoming one of the most admired films of all time, the soundtrack sold like hotcakes. It did so well that MGM even released a second album of music “inspired by” the film.
To be fair, though, part of Goldsmith’s complaint is that all the music has existing significance which might have been true for him, but not so much for plebs like me who never would have heard the work of avant-garde composer György Ligeti—or probably any other avant-garde composer for that matter—if they weren’t carefully hidden in my movie diet the way some parents sneak pureed vegetables into their kids’ food to get them to eat better. For those in the world who are like me, Ligeti’s “Requiem” is “that creepy monolith music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Classic Rock Mixtape
Best Tracks: As the soundtracks are literal mixtapes, it would be sacrilegious to cherry-pick. The whole point of mixtapes is that they are curated, cohesive selections not meant to be dismembered.
Prior to Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, there was exactly one lineage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the music wasn’t a yawn: Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, the original scoring in both Guardians films is pretty whatever, because as that one hugely popular video essay laid out, the MCU has a problem, but thanks to Peter Quill’s killer mixtapes, it doesn’t really matter. The first installment’s soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is certified Platinum and became the first soundtrack album consisting entirely of pre-recorded music to top the Billboard 200 chart. Ironically enough, it was only the second bestselling film soundtrack of the year—because that year was 2014, the same year as Frozen. Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 2 also did very well, and was certified Gold. According to Wikipedia, both also sold well as cassette tapes, which I did not realize was a thing music still did.
Anyway, If you like piña coladas, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Cat Stevens, Redbone, or Fleetwood Mac, the Guardians of Galaxy soundtracks are hard to resist. And if you don’t like any of those things, I’m sorry to hear you are physically incapable of feeling joy. That must be hard.
The One You’ve Heard in a Million Trailers
Best Tracks: “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor),” “Kanada’s Death, Pt. 2 (Adagio in D Minor)”
Arguably one of the lesser known films on this list—though I do feel like I’ve been seeing more and more references to it in the past few years, suggesting it might be well on its way to cult film status—Sunshine, a space mission movie where the destination is the sun, has a rather polarizing third act genre switch. But regardless of how you end up feeling about Mark Strong’s character, you have to admit: John Murphy’s score is a treat.
While there are plenty of electronic film scores out there, and even eerie electronic film scores, there’s something about Sunshine that feels like a fever dream, and the score and sound design play a huge role in that. Perhaps it’s because the film moves towards the sun where most other space exploration films head in the opposite direction, but there’s something about Sunshine that is uniquely unsettling and unlike any other space film I’ve encountered.
The big standout in the score is “Adagio in D Minor,” which is featured in two slightly different variations within the film. Even if you haven’t seen Sunshine, if you have spent any time around a television or a film screen in the last ten years you have almost certainly heard “Adagio in D Minor” before—it’s been used in trailers for everything from Ready Player One to Star Trek Into Darkness to X-Men: Days of Future Past. John Murphy himself heavily reused it in Kick-Ass, and it was also featured in The Lovely Bones. Long story short, it’s gotten around.
A Sonic Sample Platter
Best Tracks: “Gravity,” “Shenzhou”
Considering that practically the entire movie is Sandra Bullock alone in space trying not to die, there’s very little dialogue in Gravity, which leaves composer Steven Price a whole lot of room to work with—and boy does he find some good ways to fill the space. Cleverly mixing electronic and orchestral instrumentation and even the occasional vocal, Price’s score often seems on the verge of sounding familiar before taking delightfully unexpected turns.
Unlike some of the scores on this list, where certain star players immediately stand out—the organ in Interstellar, the theremin in First Man—the score of Gravity is a sonic sample platter, with a little bit of everything. Emotionally it’s equally versatile, frequently cycling between fear, hope, lonelinesses, anger, and back again. And while it can often shift and metamorphose quite fast, its also not afraid to sometimes take things a little bit slower. Instead of ramping things up to full blast right away, Price often takes his time to let things slowly but surely build to towering crescendos, and it’s always worth the wait.
Also, it won the Oscar.
Electronic Before It Was Cool
With Forbidden Planet, husband-and-wife couple Bebe and Louis Barron scored a film that went where no film had gone before, though countless films would follow after—it went totally electronic, more than a decade before the introduction of the first synthesizer. That said, debates ensued as to whether or not the score, which the Barrons put together using “unpredictable noise emissions from purpose-built instrumental circuit boards,” as reported in Paul Tonks’ Film Music, actually qualified as music. To be fair, listening to it now more than sixty years later, I’m not so sure myself. Take a listen by clicking above and come to your own conclusion. Either way, when the film came out in 1956, it’s safe to say no one had ever heard anything like it before. A trailblazer in the truest sense of the word.
Take Me To Space Church
Best Tracks: “Cornfield Chase,” “Mountains,” “S.T.A.Y”
Han Zimmer’s general scoring strategy seems to be “go big or go bigger,” but to be fair he does do bigger better than just about anybody else. Just think of the contrast between the wow factor of the first time you heard the bass drop in Inception and the mounting irritation of encountering the five billion imitators that followed.
Some people say he went a little too big with Interstellar (especially during the film’s theatrical run, where the music was often accused of drowning everything else out), but I say the organ has never sounded cooler. To be fair, prior to Interstellar I had never considered putting “organ” and “cool” in the same sentence. As a whole, Nolan’s space odyssey presents the future as, for lack of a better, older-looking than most films are wont to do. From the boxy but functional (instead of anthropomorphic) design of robot sidekick T.A.R.S. to the Dust Bowl aesthetic of future Earth, there’s a sense of age in the visuals of the film that the use of the organ pairs with nicely.
While I understand why people often compare Interstellar to 2001: A Space Odyssey—or, at least say they consider the film to be Nolan’s attempt at making his own 2001—the films differ significantly in their approach to one key element: emotion. As in, Kubrick’s film is quite intentionally cold and sterile—the malfunctioning HAL 9000 ironically displays the greatest sign of humanity throughout the film—but Nolan’s at the very least attempts to emphasize human connection. Admittedly, he does not always succeed in this venture. One largely unprompted monologue from Anne Hathaway on the power of love is especially cringe-worthy. But the way the score is used, and especially the use of the organ, which through its spiritual associations possesses a certain earnest hopefulness about it, is far more successful in this regard. Just as the music might overwhelm the actors’ words occasionally, much to the annoyance of some viewers, the emotional strength of Zimmer’s score is enough to compensate for when the dialogue falls a little flat.
The Black Hole
A Great Score Sunk By A Bad Movie
Best Tracks: “Main Title,” “Zero Gravity”
On the surface, it seems like Disney has tried to forget The Black Hole, the most expensive film the company had ever made when it was released in 1979, as well as their first film to receive a PG rating—and a box office flop. Closer inspection reveals that as recently as a few years ago, Disney was planning on doing a remake, and even got Jon Spaihts to write a screenplay, only for it to be promptly shelved for being “too dark.” Which is kind of funny, considering that’s one of the most frequent complaints about the first one, as the kid-marketed space adventure ends up basically turning into Dante’s Inferno. Well, at least that’s what most people complain about. Neil deGrasse Tyson complains about it being the “most scientifically inaccurate movie ever.”
Anyway, while the film itself is of lamentable quality—just check out vaguely horrifying R2-D2 wannabe V.I.N.CENT, pictured above—the score is seriously good. Composed by five-time Oscar winner John Barry, best known for scoring 11 James Bond films (including Dr. No), the score of The Black Hole kind of whirling sensation to it, like an orchestral rendition of vertigo (in a good way). With its particular balance of strings and horns, it actually has a sort of “James Bond in space” feel to it, and that’s definitely a movie I’d pay money to watch.
Theremin and Back Again
Best Tracks: “Crater,” “The Landing,” “The Armstrongs”
Neil Armstrong biopic First Man might star Ryan Gosling, but the hauntingly pretty score stars the theremin, an electronic instrument played by waving your hands around next to it. The instrument was accidentally invented in the 1920s by a young Russian physicist trying to develop a proximity sensor and sounds just as weird as you would expect it to sound, like a cross between a choir of ghosts and what E.T. might hear if he phoned home and the line was busy. Done on the theremin, “Over the Rainbow” sounds like something that would be played at Doctor Who’s funeral.
First Man director Damien Chazelle told Variety that he chose the theremin for its “sort of wailing,” “mournful” qualities, as well as the instrument’s connection to Neil Armstrong—he was a fan of theremin music and even took some of it along on his moon voyage—and it turns out to be a fantastic choice. It might take most of the film to make it to the moon, but the score is out of this world from the get-go.