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

starship-troopers.jpg

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

stargate-movie.jpg

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

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.jpg

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! 

The Top 10 Science Fiction Film & TV Scores from the 2000s

Just a couple of psychologists celebrating science fiction and music at the  Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum .

Just a couple of psychologists celebrating science fiction and music at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum.

A few days ago I wrote about how music changes the way we act, think, and feel. What I didn't mention is how much I'm obsessed with film and TV scores - they suck me in, focus my mind, and make the rest of the world disappear.

While some write off Hollywood composers as "sell outs", the genre is essentially the same as the romantic era of music (you know, the time period that gave us Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9", Strauss's "Blue Danube", and Holst's "Mars") - both use music to tell a story that produces very specific feelings.

Science fiction is home to some of the best film and TV scores. To celebrate the musical contributions of science fiction, I'm starting a series highlighting the 10 best scifi scores of each decade, beginning with the 2000s (2001 - 2010). Check back for updates or save this link to view the whole series.

Here we go...

#10: Wall-E, Thomas Newman

wall-e.jpg

Since Wall-E rarely speaks, the film relies on Thomas Newman's score to communicate how the robot is thinking and feeling. This is done effortlessly. I also love how fun the score is. While things start seriously with "2815 A.D.", there's goofiness to "Wall-E", a sense of wonder to "Bubble Wrap", and playfulness to "First Date". Listen to samples of these tracks below.

If you like this score, check out Newman's scores to Skyfall, Finding Nemo, and American Beauty.

#9: District 9, Clinton Shorter

District 9.jpg

It was great to see a science fiction film that doesn't revolve around the United States. That's also what I enjoyed about Clinton Shorter's score to District 9 - South African vocals are integrated throughout resulting in a unique sound. Highlights include “District 9”, “Exosuit”, and “Heading Home”.

I listen to District 9 during my morning subway commute. It gets me fired up to take on the hoards of New York City pedestrians.

#8: Moon, Clint Mansell

MOON_Poster.jpg

Moon is one of the best science fiction films that no one has seen. The score is clean and delicate. It makes you feel the loneliness of being stuck on the moon. Just listen to "Welcome to Lunar Industries", "Memories (Someone We'll Never Know)", and "The Nursery" to get an idea of what I mean.

To hear more from Mansell, try his scores to Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan.

#7: Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk

Tron_Daft_Punk.jpg

Tron: Legacy was a letdown, but the score exceeded all of my expectations. Daft Punk created a true synthesis of electronic and orchestral music that has yet to be replicated. Standouts include "The Game Has Changed", “Fall”, and “TRON Legacy (End Titles)”.

I listen to this album anytime I need an extra boost of motivation - at the gym, during chores, and when I'm behind on paperwork. Tron: Legacy just makes me want to get things done.

#6: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jon Brion

Eternal_Sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind.jpg

Like Moon, Eternal Sunshine's score is razor sharp. Here, the focus is on a man desperately trying to hold on to fading memories and the music highlights the fuzziness of that process. Favorites include "Peer Pressure", "Row", and "Elephant parade".

I use this score for short bursts of contemplation, usually when I'm planning something new.

#5. The Dark Knight, Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard

Dark_Knight_Joker.jpg

Both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard did the right thing when Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman - instead of competing with Danny Elfman's heroic original theme, they created a murkier score. While elements of Batman’s theme were teased in Batman Begins, they weren't fully fleshed out until The Dark Knight. For a sample, listen to “A Watchful Guardian” (Batman), “Why So Serious” (Joker), and “Harvey Two-Face” (Harvey Dent). 

While The Dark Knight Rises's score has some nice moments (I love the chaos in "Gotham's Reckoning"), it lacks the subtly of the first two movies (probably because Howard wasn't involved). The Dark Knight remains the best film and score of the trilogy.

#4: Children of Men, John Tavener

children_of_men.jpg

Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men has been compared to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The score is more similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, both in style and gravitas. Unlike 2001, John Tavener composed original music for the film in addition to using existing orchestral music. "Fragments of a Prayer, "Eternity's Sunrise", and "Mother of God, Here I Stand (For String Orchestra)" are all powerful examples of the film’s style.

Star_Trek_2009_Warp.jpg

Like the movie, the score feels fresh and modern. Spock's theme is reflective and tragic ("Head To Heart Conversation") while Kirk's is searching for a purpose ("Hella Bar Talk"). The best part is Giacchino's take on the original 1966 Star Trek theme ("End Credits") - it honors the past while boldly moving the franchise forward.

When JJ Abrams picks a composer for Star Wars Episode VII, I hope he selects Giacchino – I’d love to see what he can do with that universe.

#2: LOST, Michael Giacchino

LOST_tv_poster.jpg

This decade witnessed the rise of Giacchino. Along with Star Trek, he composed Alias, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible 3, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Super 8, and Up (for which he won an Oscar). He also did the music for Disneyland’s revamped Space Mountain and Star Tours rides and a bunch of video games. His most creative work remains the score to TV’s LOST. Throughout the series, Giacchino expresses complex emotion with a few simple notes and uses silence as a way of building or releasing tension. He even used pieces of an airplane fuselage to create some of the show’s strange sounds. Below are some of the best moments from LOST's six seasons including "Oceanic 815", "Hurley's Handouts", "Claire-A Culpa", "The Constant", "Sawyer Jones and the Temple of Boom", "The Tangled Web", and "Closure".

battlestar-galactica-last-supper.jpg

To keep Battlestar Galactica from sounding like just another space opera, McCreary used non-traditional orchestral instruments like the duduk, taiko drums, an erhu, sitars, gamelans, and bagpipes. Their synthesis results in a score that transcends all genres and is just really beautiful music.

I could go on and on about McCreary's score, but I'll just touch on some of my favorite themes of the series. The Adama theme ("Wander My Friends") highlights the role of family in the show. "Roslin and Adama" is rich and soothing while "The Sense of Six" is cold and unnerving. "Prelude to War" combines strings and percussion to create a dramatic standoff. "Heeding The Call" sets up the biggest reveal of the show and "Diaspora Oratorio" takes the series into its final act.

If you haven't heard of Battlestar Galactica, go to Netflix right now and watch the pilot. It’s that good. You won't be disappointed. 

Honorable Mentions

Inception, X2, The Island, Firefly, and Halo (yes, the video game) came close to making the list, but beyond the signature themes the scores weren't that memorable.

Notable Exceptions

Nothing from the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers) came close to reaching the top 10. None of the music from these movies is memorable.

We didn't get anything fresh from John Williams. I liked his Minority Report theme, but the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Artificial Intelligence scores sounded A LOT like his previous work. Similarly, James Horner's score to Avatar reminded me of James Horner's score to Titanic

The 2000s saw the passing of Jerry Goldsmith, one of the greatest science fiction composers (Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien). I really miss hearing his music.

That's it for now. Let me know what you think. What did I get right or wrong? What would you put on your list? And don't forget to come back for my list of the top scifi scores from the 1990s.