The Top 10 Science Fiction Film & TV Scores from the 1990s

A few months ago I wrote about the psychology of music and started a countdown to the best science fiction music from past decades. Today, I'm continuing this series with the top 10 science fiction scores from the 1990s.

#10: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, John Williams

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Episode I was a disappointment, but John Williams's score is pretty good. There’re some great nods to the original trilogy as well as a breathtaking new Jedi/Sith theme which became the anthem of this new trilogy. Why didn't I rank Episode I higher? There just aren't enough new melodies. Listen to a sample of "Anakin's Theme", "He Is The Chosen One", "Duel of the Fates", and "[REDACTED]'s Noble End" below.

#9: Contact, Alan Silvestri

Contact movie

What I like about Contact is its simple sounds of discovery. However, it's a little too simple and it's very reminiscent of Silvestri's music for Forrest Gump (which is a far superior score). Maybe it's my nostalgia for this film, but I do think it's good enough to be in my top 10. Highlights include "Awful Waste of Space", "Really Confused", "Media Event", and "No Words".  

#8: Starship Troopers, Basil Poledouris


The original Starship Troopers novel has been criticized for promoting militarism, fascism, and racism. The movie maintains these themes but rather than glorifying them it makes fun of them. Basil Poledouris's music perfectly accompanies the movie's satire - it's over the top, militaristic, and sounds like it was ripped out of WWII Hollywood. "Fed Net March", "Destruction Of Roger Young", and "They Will Win" are great examples of the propaganda feel of Starship Troopers.

#7: Stargate, David Arnold


David Arnold's Stargate score is very smooth. It has that classic mix of exploration, excitement, and fear that makes science fiction films so great. While at times it sounds like a John Williams score (specifically Raiders of the Lost Ark), Arnold's use of diverse instruments sets Stargate apart. I really like "Stargate Overture", "The Stargate Opens", "Entering the Stargate", and "Going Home".    

#6: The Truman Show, Philip Glass

The Truman Show

This is a very interesting score. It's the theme to a movie about the world's most popular reality TV show. While it sounds like Philip Glass's music is too emotional, the score is consistent with one of the messages of the movie - TV is produced to make you feel a very specific way about the people onscreen. Listen to the range of emotions in this score with "It's a Life", "Anthem, Pt. 2", "Reunion", "Truman Sleeps", and "Father Kolbe's Preaching".

#5: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Brad Fiedel

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Brad Fiesdel wrote the score to 1984's The Terminator as well as the 1991 sequel. I like the original, but it sounds like it was made on a small budget. With more money and major advances in computer technology, Terminator 2 became one of the best electronic film scores (up there with Blade Runner and Tron: Legacy). What I love most about this score is how it shifts between thunderous action and frightening dissonance. My favorite tracks include "Main Title (Terminator 2 Theme)", "Escape from the Hospital (And T1000)", "Trust Me", and "I'll Be Back".

#4: The Matrix, Don Davis

The Matrix

Like The Dark Knight trilogy and the recent Man of Steel, The Matrix doesn't really have a traditional score. There are some themes that develop over the course of the film, but there isn't anything specific you can hum after watching the movie. Don Davis primarily uses strings and brass instruments to create a frenetic tension during chase scenes and then dramatically extends notes to create a sense of awe as our hero discovers his powers. This gives The Matrix a unique sound and results in a timeless film score. Standouts include "Main Title / Trinity Infinity", "Welcome to the Real World", "The Hotel Ambush", and "Bullet-Time".

I should also mention that the soundtrack is outstanding. I played it nonstop back in the summer of 1999. I especially love Propellerheads's "Spybreak", Rob D's "Clubbed To Death", and Rage Against The Machine's "Wake Up".

#3: Star Trek: First Contact, Jerry Goldsmith

Star Trek First Contact

Jerry Goldsmith’s First Contact score makes me believe that we can actually achieve Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future. The music is tender and has an inspiring melody. It also became a fitting theme to the cinematic adventures of The Next Generation. “Main Title/Locutus” integrates Goldsmith’s old and new Star Trek themes while “Welcome Aboard” and “First Contact” setup the most important event in Star Trek's history – the first meeting between humans and aliens.

#2: Gattaca, Michael Nyman


Gattaca is one of the best science fiction films of the 1990s and Michael Nyman's score is deeply moving. "The Morrow" introduces you to the melancholy world of Gattaca. "God's Hands" is a beautiful theme about familial love. The film's message of triumph over adversity is highlighted in "The One Moment". "Becoming Jerome" is surprisingly playful. "The Departure" takes the story into a fitting end. Most film scores transport you to another time or place. Gattaca is one of the few scores that turns your attention inward, creating a state of personal reflection. 

#1: Jurassic Park, John Williams


Jurassic Park holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I remember watching a movie and completely suspending my disbelief. For those two hours, I felt like I had just visited Jurassic Park. A big part of that was John Williams's score (the other half were the special effects which still hold up to this day). Williams created a score that is very intricate. It seamlessly lifts you up and then slams you down, draws you close for intimate moments and then zooms out for more awesome sights, all while maintaining a cohesive theme that never feels redundant. The whole album is worth the investment but my favorites are "Journey To The Island", "Welcome To Jurassic Park", "Dennis Steals The Embryo", and "High-Wire Stunts".

Honorable Mentions

I liked The Rocketeer and Independence Day, but they didn't have enough variety. Apollo 13 would make my top 3, but it's science fact not science fiction. Batman Return almost made the cut, but it's too dark for my taste.

Notable Exceptions

A TV series! My 2000s list had 2 TV shows, but nothing from the 1990s made the top 10. There were some stellar TV themes from this decade (like seaQuest DSV, The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager), but the shows themselves didn't have enough consistent good music to get onto my list. 

Next time, I'll look at the best science fiction music from the 1980s - the decade home to many of my favorite movies of all time! 

Gattaca Explains the Psychology of Cheating


After a particularly long day of clinical work last week, I came home and watched 1997's Gattaca. Science fiction, whether good, bad, or ugly (I'm looking at you SyFy channel original films) calms me down and helps me unplug from work. I'm sure it was a cognitive bias (availability heuristic?) resulting from Lance Armstrong's widely publicized interview with Oprah, but I realized that Gattaca is actually a story about cheating.

Unfair competition

Gattaca takes place in a word that has perfected genetic engineering. Families (who can afford it) select the genes of their children, optimizing intelligence and physique while eliminating genetic diseases. After being born, the purity of one's genome is quantified and ranked.

Gattaca's genetic ranking classifies individuals as "valid" or "invalid". 

Gattaca's genetic ranking classifies individuals as "valid" or "invalid". 

Though genoism (genetic discrimination) is outlawed, schools, colleges, and employers use genetics in their selection process by sampling saliva from envelopes, skin cells from handshakes, or using an otherwise legal drug screening. The main character, a man born without the aid of genetic engineering, states:

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."

The story follows his quest to impersonate an individual with superior genes and fake his way into Gattaca - an elite space agency.

The culture of competition in Gattaca is the same type of environment that leads to cheating in our world. Environments where students or employees believe that even a small gain will give them a competitive edge cultivates cheating. This is especially true when individuals see little importance in their work (e.g. students aren't focused on learning and think they are doing busy work, employees don't see the harm in fudging numbers). Factor in the belief that everyone around you is cheating (as was the case at Stuyvesant High and Harvard), and you've created an environment where it's hard not to cheat.

What's brilliant about Gattaca is that you end up cheering for a character that breaks all rules and cheats his way into an exclusive institution. Why? Because there is no way to succeed in Gattaca without cheating, which is usually what cheaters say when they get caught

Who's to blame?

Would you give your children genetic enhancements like additional fingers if it helped them become elite musicians? 

Would you give your children genetic enhancements like additional fingers if it helped them become elite musicians? 

Who's responsible for what seems to be an epidemic of cheating? I can't point at any one person - students, parents, schools, universities, athletes, and the private sector are all facing very high expectations for achievement. In every domain of our lives, we've become very good at measuring success and that's created fierce competition. Yes, there are individual reasons why people cheat (like preparation, perspective, and personality) and I've singled out environmental causes here, but we're all at fault, which of course means no one group is responsible.

Fighting cheating

The research is clear - the best way to limit cheating is by:

  1. reducing competition
  2. fostering a culture of integrity and learning
  3. enforcing rules vigilantly and equally
Despite extensive security, "borrowed ladders" allowed non-genetically engineered humans to fake their way through society.

Despite extensive security, "borrowed ladders" allowed non-genetically engineered humans to fake their way through society.

This is all easier said than done. I'm guilty of plagiarizing in middle and high school (and that was before Wikipedia). One of my teachers even caught me red-handed, yet I faced zero consequences. While I never cheated in college or grad school (at that point I cared about what I was learning and feared strict university enforcement), I remained silent when I saw someone cheat in a class because I didn't want to be a "snitch". A friend of mine once confessed to cheating on her engineering tests because of strict curved grading. I've heard similar stories from law students, whose final rankings determine job prospects and salaries. Even as a professor, I was once asked by a colleague not to confront a student for cheating because that student "may start a lawsuit against the university". On both sides, it's very hard to uphold academic integrity.

In my own courses, I've decided to change the way I measure success. Instead of asking for facts, dates, and vocabulary, I test my students' ability to apply and critique information they have learned (something they can't scribble on a cheat sheet). Gattaca suggests a similar solution - assess one's perseverance, dreams, and contributions to society. Perhaps a larger discussion about what success really means is one way we can begin changing our culture of competition and cheating.

What has your experience been with cheating? What do you think can be done to stop it?