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.


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'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.

Superman is an Immigrant Star-Child (Man of Steel Non-Spoiler Review)

Man of Steel Superman Poster Wide

I ended last week’s psychology of Superman article with the following:

"If [Man of Steel] focuses on Clark’s loneliness as the last son of Krypton, the humanity of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Superman’s sympathy for humans, it’ll be successful in rekindling our empathy for this superhero."

Was Zack Snyder successful in rebooting Superman? Yes, absolutely!

Man of Steel worked because it focused on Kal-El’s science fiction origin and Clark Kent's connection to humanity. Much of the story highlights Krypton, its culture, technology, and downfall. While reviews have criticized the Alien, Dune, Independence Day, and War of the Worlds feel of Man of Steel, I loved its star-child foundation. The geekiness of this film allows for interesting, albeit familiar, threads on cloning, first contact with aliens, and terraforming.

Man of Steel is best when it gets inside Clark Kent's head, specifically his loneliness as the last son of Krypton and his love for his adopted home of Earth. Critics find this part of the story "too dark", "melancholic", and claim it's an inappropriate "Dark Knight-ification of Superman”. I disagree – Superman has always been the story of an immigrant's escape from a doomed civilization. It's a dark origin.

Critics are also comparing Man of Steel to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman. Yes, the original Superman singlehandedly launched the superhero movie genre and everyone loves Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the superhero. But that movie isn’t sacred to me. You have to remember that it’s the film that had Superman reversing the rotation of the Earth in order to travel back in time to save Lois Lane. That might have worked in the 70s but audiences would never buy that today. Man of Steel has its flaws, but no one doubts that this Superman exists in our modern world (unlike 2006’s Superman Returns).

Man of Steel does have issues. The film's MacGuffin is completely disposable compared to the more interesting story of Clark’s transformation into Superman. Krypton looked too much like Avatar's Pandora. The defining moment between Clark and his dad didn't work for me (even though I adored Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent). The 2nd act has some major plot holes that require big leaps of faith (e.g. how Lois and Clark meet, the fortress of solitude, the phantom zone). The fights feel like they're lifted from the recent Injustice video game. While that type of building busting violence is awesome on the Xbox, it’s hard to follow on the big screen. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane was great, but she only worked in service of the male hero (Matt Zoller Seitz describes this disturbing trend in his review).  

Despite that long list of concerns, I deeply enjoyed this film. I don’t demand perfection from cinema, but I expect films to make me feel something and leave me with ideas that live on in my head. As the son of two immigrants, I identified with Clark’s feelings of being alone, different, and yet completely connected to the only home I’ve ever known – America. Will it occupy my thoughts? Not as much as The Dark Knight trilogy, but far more than any previous Superman film.

Rating: 7.5/10

Check out Slate’s review for a great comparison of superhero movies and medieval religious art. For a harsher critique, read AV Club.

Superman's Greatest Power is Empathy


For the past few weeks I’ve been detoxing from a Star Trek overdose by diving into superhero mythology. After reading a bunch of comics and watching cartoons, TV shows, and movies I’ve realized that empathy is the most important part of a superheroes's psychology. And there is no one more empathetic than Superman. 

Empathy Leads to Helping

Superman Helping in Action Comics #1

Empathy helps us understand what others are thinking and feeling. When someone is suffering, empathy leads to sympathy (a concern for others). Combine sympathy with a sense of responsibility to do something, and you get altruistic (helping) behavior. Empathy is so vital to our survival that we have specialized brain cells called mirror neurons that replicate the experiences we see in other people.

Superman uses empathy to understand the frightened face of a Metropolis citizen, realize they're in danger, and feel enough sympathy to come to their rescue. Without empathy, Superman would just ignore people in need of help. 

Humans experience different degrees of empathy. Some struggle to understand the motivations of others and have less mirror neuron activity (like those diagnosed with Autism). So what is it about Superman that allows him to have super-empathy?


Man of Steel Young Clark Kent

Temperament is a big part of empathy. Two important parts of temperament are how strongly you react to your environment and how long it takes you to calm down. Children who can control their emotions are more empathetic and experience more sympathy. Think about the last time you were really angry – being clouded by very strong feelings probably made it very hard to even think about what other people around you were feeling. While genetics heavily influence your temperament, the environment in which you grow up also plays a major role.

A healthy temperament is important to the origin of all superheroes. Clark Kent's adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, taught him the importance of patience, emotional control, diligence, and encouraged him to help others. Superman had the power to hurt others as a child, but he didn't because his genes and his parents helped him develop a calm temperament.

Compare that with the budding supervillian from Looper – the Rainmaker. He was overwhelmed by his emotions, acted immediately without thinking, and couldn't develop empathy for anyone outside of his caregivers. Combine this type of temperament with extraordinary telekinetic powers and you've got a very dangerous situation.

The Developing Teenage Brain

Clark, Jonathan, Martha Kent. 

As adolescence begins, parents play an increasingly important role in shaping the temperament of their children because teenage brains are rapidly changing

After puberty, the teen brain becomes wired to overestimate rewards. As a result, teens respond very quickly to new information in their environment. That's why we learn so quickly as teens and why teens are vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs, video games, and other pleasurable stuff. At the same time, the region responsible for planning, understanding consequences, and controlling emotions is still being built (and isn't complete until our 20s). This explains why teens do stupid things - their brains are wired to have an accelerator but no brake. Too much acceleration, too little braking, and you don’t get much concern for others.

While this type of development helped humans become the smartest species on the planet, it requires supportive parenting during the adolescent years. Teens need opportunities for real-life successes and failures under the protection and supervision of adults. Otherwise, teens never learn how to apply the brake. 

To see how Clark learned to regulate himself and avoided becoming a delinquent, check out the TV show Smallville. I’m not a fan of the monster of the week storylines, but I loved how the Kents epitomize the type of parents teenagers need. They listened to Clark, encouraged him to explore his Kryptonian identity, placed appropriate limits on his powers, implemented consequences when he broke the rules, and expressed their love and concern for him. This helped Clark master his superpowers (accelerator) without getting himself into too much trouble (brake). 

To see what happens when parents of teens with superpowers are too strict, absent, or permissive, check out last year’s Chronicle. This fantastic film accurately depicts the tension between rewards and consequences in teenage brains. The teens became addicted to developing their powers (accelerator) but were grossly underprepared to deal with the repercussions of their actions (brake). I won't ruin the story for you, but let's just say things don't end well. You can't completely blame their moms and dads, but you gotta wonder what would have happened to them if their parents were more like the Kents.

Connection to Humanity

Superman and Lois Lane flying scene.  

One of the biggest criticisms of Superman is that he's too unrealistic, a boring do-gooder with no real personality depth or failures.

Critics point to Watchman's Dr. Manhattan as a more realistic god-like "super-man". Dr. Manhattan has almost no humanity, no empathy, and doesn't worry about killing humans or letting people die. He can manipulate matter (including his own body), has a non-linear perspective of time, sees parallel universes, and is almost devoid of emotions. He doesn't look human, think like a human, and has developed a “callous-unemotional” personality. He's described as "[knowing] how everything in this world fits together except people."

And that's exactly why the comparison doesn't work. Superman spent his whole life developing a connection to humanity. Unlike Dr. Manhattan, Superman looks like one of us (the more something looks like us, the more empathy we have for it). He thinks, feels, and acts like humans. He lost his biological parents because their planet was destroyed and he spends each day of his life ensuring the same thing doesn't happen to the people of Earth. That’s a lot of sympathy!    

Yes, Superman's almost too perfect, but he gives us something to aspire to – the idea that anyone who develops a connection to their community is capable of incredible acts of heroism. 

This is what I'm hoping to see in Man of Steel - a film that recaptures our connection to the Superman (something the past three films failed to do). If the story focuses on Clark’s loneliness as the last son of Krypton, the humanity of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Superman’s sympathy for humans, it’ll be successful in rekindling our empathy for this superhero.