The Best Science Fiction Music From 2013

Before moving forward with 2014, I want to look back one last time at 2013. 

I'm not going to list 2013's scifi winners and losers (Blastr already did that), rank its coolest fandom moments (I agree with Tony "Crazy 4 Comic Con" Kim's list), or the describe the best psychological studies from the past year. 

Since I've already started counting down the best science fiction film and TV scores of all time, I thought it would be fun to recap 2013's coolest scifi music. 

Here we go!

#7: Doctor Who - Series 7, Murray Gold

Doctor Who

2013 was the year I made first contact with Doctor Who. While Doctor Who's 7th season received mixed reviews, Murray Gold's score remained solid and continued to be some of the best music composed for TV. The music blends in some older themes Gold developed for previous seasons and introduces new darker themes which setup the events of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary and the departure of Math Smith's 11th Doctor. My favorite tracks include "Clara?", "Infinite Potential", "A Secret He Will Take to His Grave", and "Remember Me". I know "Clara?" technically came out during the 2012 Christmas Special, but hey time is all wibbly wobbly, right? If you're a Whovian, check out the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection Soundtrack.

Europa Report

I'm a big fan of Bear McCreary! His score for Battlestar Galactica topped my list of the best scifi music from the 2000s and I love what he's done with The Walking Dead. Europa Report's score combines some of the somber tones McCreary developed for Battlestar with the dread of Walking Dead. The film isn't long, so there isn't much variety to its score, but I enjoyed hearing the different ways McCreary played with a singular theme in "Lift Off", "Landing on Europa", "Mausoleum", "Europa Report (For Solo Piano)", and "A World Other Than Our Own".

Pacific Rim

I had a lot of fun watching Pacific Rim and a big part of that was Ramin Djawadi's awesome score. I've really enjoyed what Djawadi's did with the Game of Thrones score and was surprised by the variety of music he created for Pacific Rim. From the rock and roll theme (featuring Tom Morello's killer riffs), to the optimistic "Gipsy Danger", the spacey "Shatterdome", the tragic "Mako" theme, the competitive "Physical Compatibility", and the pure popcorn fun of "Kaiju Groupie", the music of Pacific Rim has something for everyone.

Gravity

A big part of why Gravity was such an awe-inspiring experience was Steven Prince's score. Since director Alfonso Cuarón remained true to the fact that sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space, the only sounds we heard in Gravity (beyond the actor's voices) were Prince's music. There's a lot of similarity between Gravity and Europa Report's scores, particularly in how synthesized sounds are used to intensify suspense. What's interesting about Gravity is how quickly the music transitions between horror and tranquillity, and then back again. Sometimes the score is a little distressing to hear, but there's something about it that keeps me coming back. Check out "Debris", "Don't Let Go", "I.S.S.", "Parachute", and "Gravity".

Oblivion

Oblivion's score is somewhat of a decedent of Tron: Legacy. Both films were directed by Joseph Kosinski, who tapped electronic bands to write each score (M83 with Joseph Trapanese for Oblivion and Daft Punk for Tron: Legacy). I love the integration of electric and traditional instruments, the variety of music on the score, and just how clean everything sounds. My favorite tracks include "Jack's Dream", "Waking Up", "StarWaves", "Earth 2077", and "I'm Sending You Away". I probably won't watch the film again, but I listen to the score all the time.

Man of Steel

#2: Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer

The most controversial film score of 2013 was Hans Zimmer's music for Man of Steel. It was criticized as being too moody, too light on themes, and too heavy on percussion. A lot of the controversy was the result of Zimmer following John William's original Superman score, which is one of the greatest themes of all time. /Film's David Chen perfectly captured the differences in the scores in his comparison of the original and new Superman themes:

"If Superman: The Movie is about arriving, about this guy coming to Earth, sharing his amazing powers with us, and saving us…[then] Man of Steel is about yearning, longing, the desire to fit in, an unrequited love of a people."

Zimmer's Man of Steel score fits this version of Superman and sets a bold standard for the DC cinematic universe to come (something we've all been yearning for). Listen to samples including "Elegy from Man of Steel trailer" by L'Orchestra Cinematique's and Zimmer's "Look to the stars", "This is Clark Kent", and "What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?". I can't wait to hear how (presumably) Zimmer integrates this score with Batman's for the upcoming movie.

#1: Her, Arcade Fire, William Butler, Owen Pallett

Spike Jonze's Her

Her was my favorite scifi film of 2013. The score, a collaboration between Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett (featuring a song by Karen O) is beautifully simple. It features instrumental variations on many of Arcade Fire's recent songs including "Porno" and “Supersymmetry”. 

The problem is Her's score isn't' available for purchase ANYWHERE! I kept postponing this article until I had the chance to listen to the score again, but for some dumb reason Warner Brothers hasn't released it. Until they do, you'll have to do with the video below which was posted by Arcade Fire this week.

Even though I've only heard it once, the music of Her left a big impression on me, enough for me to rank it the best of 2013.

Honorable Mentions

James Newton Howard's score for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire almost made my list, but many of the themes were extensions of what he did for the first film. I liked Ryan Amon's Elysium score, but it lacked a a cohesive theme. I've been very critical of Marvel for neglecting to connect themes across their Avengers films, but Brian Tyler created some fun music for both Thor 2 and Iron Man 3.  

Notable Exceptions

Along with Bear McCreary, Michael Giacchino is one of my favorite modern composers. His score for 2009's Star Trek set the right tone for the relaunch of the franchise. But there's something missing from his Star Trek Into Darkness score. It does extend Kirk's theme from the first J. J. Abrams film and I really dig the "London Calling" theme for the villain (along with a fantastic nod to The Original Series in "The San Fran Hustle"), but the heart of 2009's score is gone. Maybe the problem is the frenetic pace of the movie. Like the film, I have a lot of fun with the score but it's doesn't live on in my mind like its predecessor. 

What were some of your favorite scores from 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

Spike Jonze’s Her Is a Piercing Commentary on Our Immediate, Online, Artificial Lives (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

Her    is now playing in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Starts everywhere January 10th.

Her  is now playing in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Starts everywhere January 10th.

A few weeks ago I started developing my list of 2013's best science fiction film scores. I sent out a tweet asking for recommendations and got these responses:

I didn't know anything about Her. A quick Google search revealed it's the new film from Spike Jonze. I love his previous work, especially Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. I still get emotional thinking about those movies. I also trust Aaron's and Andrea's opinions. If they both recommended Her, I needed to see it.

I’m glad I did. Her is without exception the best science fiction film of 2013 for 3 simple reasons it’s set in a familiar world, has piercing social commentary, and is built on real findings from psychology.

A Familiar World

Spike Jonze Her

Her is set in a near future Los Angeles where technology is everywhere. But unlike many futuristic films, you don't have to suspend your disbelief too much. Her just extends from where we are right now – Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly uses Siri-like voice recognition to interact with his smartphone; apps anticipate his needs much like Google Now; and he spends his evenings playing Xbox Kinetic-style video games.

The science fiction begins when Theodore purchases OS1 the world's first artificial intelligence. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, evolves from being Theodore's AI personal assistant into a companion and then something else.

Piercing Social Commentary

Spike Jonze Her

I was deeply affected by this film. It felt like Jonze made Her specifically to comment on the way I was living my life. The film speaks not only to our comfort with technology but also the reality of living in a world where you can immediately connect with anyone (or anything).

The New Yorker's Richard Brody dismisses the film's social commentary as "a cautionary tale that offers warning where none is needed, a diffuse and sentimental admonition to put the smartphone down, push away from the computer, turn off the TV, unplug the game controller, and connect with people." That's not what Her is about. Jonze forces us to question what happens when we can simultaneously connect with the people near us and others who are far away.

Humans have never been able to do this in the way we can now. It’s something all of us encounter each time we’re sitting with loved ones and continue to receive text messages and social media alerts. We can't just put our smartphones away it's too late for that and technology is becoming even more integrated into our lives (e.g. Google Glass).

Accurate Psychology

Spike Jonze Her

Technology is interacting with our psychology in interesting ways. It's likely that we no longer memorize information that can be easily found on the internet. What's most important in the 21st century is remembering where to find information (Google) and knowing how to analyze what you find (determining the legitimacy of sources). We see this throughout Her, mainly in how dependent Theodore is on Samantha to remember everything he needs to get done during the day.

Samantha is a metaphor for social media. There’s a lot of interest in how social media is impacting psychology. Some believe that people act differently online and exaggerate their best qualities. One study concluded that how we act on Facebook is similar to how we respond to a personality test (e.g. extroverted people on a test were extroverted on Facebook). Another study found similar results. The most striking finding came from a study of 58,000 participants. Researchers were able to use Facebook profiles to accurately predict political views, intelligence, and even sexual orientation. Sure, Facebook might not be the most realistic social situation since it’s biased towards only sharing positive stuff, but the growing consensus is online behavior is similar to offline behavior. This helps us understand why it’s easy for Theodore to be himself with Samantha we act like ourselves in a variety of situations, even if the social experience is based in technology. Sometimes the lack of eye contact on the internet might lead to “crazy online troll behavior”, but for the most part we’re the same people on and offline.

Siri knows about the uncanny valley. That's why she doesn't have a human avatar.

Siri knows about the uncanny valley. That's why she doesn't have a human avatar.

Samantha is also built in a way that makes it easy for humans to interact with it. Masahiro Mori, a pioneer in the field of robotics, discovered something called the uncanny valley a feeling of disgust when robots get close to human appearance but fail to achieve it. Remember the creepy feeling you got when you watched the CGI Tom Hanks in The Polar Express? That’s the uncanny valley. Why do we experience this? Probably to protect us from illnesses that can come from corpses (which is why zombies are so scary). Even though there is some debate about the degree to which the uncanny valley still exists, most engineers have followed Mori’s original advice avoid the uncanny valley altogether and go for non-humanoid designs.That’s why Samantha doesn’t have a human avatar face. Same is true for Siri and Google Now both avoid the uncanny valley.

I see a big market for a product like OS1. Regardless of where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, the brain is wired for social interaction. Social psychologist Matthew Lieberman describes it like this: “Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.” That's one reason why interacting with others is so rewarding and why we keep responding to texts and checking Facebook. Not only is engaging in social interaction important, but feeling isolated has major consequences for our health. People who are struggling with loneliness feel threatened for long periods of time, which triggers the flight or fight system and shuts down the immune system. Loneliness can lead to depressive symptoms, increased blood pressure, longer recovery from diseases, and even mortality. An artificial intelligence like we see in Her could help people with loneliness learn how to better interact with others (sorta like what happens to Theodore). It could also help astronauts, similar to Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey (except not scary).

My only criticism of the film (besides the fact that future LA has lost all of its Latino community) is Her doesn’t deal with any of the societal implications of true artificial intelligence. Intelligence explosion begins humans create software that can independently develop new generations of improved software. The technological singularity occurs and artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Scientists and science fiction authors have both theorized that a singularity event could be one of the most important events in human history. But in Her, nothing happens. No one’s celebrating the achievement of OS1, protesting its release, or debating the ethics of creating sentient artificial life. Maybe Jonze believes we're so desensitized to technology that the development of artificial intelligence will be as expected as the release of a new iPhone, or perhaps he just wanted to tell a more intimate story.

I saw a lot of science fiction movies in 2013. Most were fun, some thought-provoking, but none as approachable, relevant, and psychologically complex as Her. The acting, score, cinematography, and direction are as close to flawless as you can get. There's much more I want to say about Her, especially how it relates to the psychology of love, but I need to see it again because I'm still sitting with the emotions it generated on my first viewing.  

Rating: 9/10

I like what AV Club had to say about Her and also enjoyed The Atlantic’s breakdown of the film’s aesthetics. Slate was right on with their criticisms. The Mary Sue has an interesting critique of the Samantha's gender.