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Avatar: The Way of Water

The spectacle of Avatar: The Way of Water is incredible – HFR blah blah, light plot blah blah – it’s an intense feast for eyes and ears, so immersive and with by far the best effects I’ve ever seen in a movie. Never, ever bet against James Cameron. Anyone who didn’t like the first one certainly won’t like it, though. Of course, one of the previous one’s main men isn’t with us any more – the great James Horner, who conjured up one of his most magical creations for it (even if it seems many don’t agree – I’m fairly sure time will be on my side on this one). After much speculation about who would score the many sequels during the long wait for them, the most logical choice was made – Simon Franglen, who worked with Horner for years, got the job.

I suppose it would be natural to suspect that Franglen may end up in a Ken Thorne / Superman II situation, adapting and reusing Horner’s score. (And if you read the lengthy thread at the FSM messageboard – and, if you value your sanity, I strongly suggest you do not – you would perhaps be persuaded into thinking that’s exactly what he did.) He actually went about his business in a way that any composer taking over on a franchise could learn from – injecting just the right amount of material from the original to ensure there’s no doubt you’re in the same musical world, while delivering a completely original score of his own all around it.

Simon Franglen

In an era where few franchises seem to value musical continuity, it’s so refreshing to hear this – we all know all the Marvel sequels where a brand new composer comes on and just starts afresh, and I recently wrote about the aberration that is the approach to scoring the Star Wars tv shows – and it’s also brilliantly bold from Franglen and from Cameron, who is very highly-regarded for his many song productions and his contributions to various film scores over the years, but given he’s never scored anything on remotely this scale before, there must surely have been a temptation to steer far closer to Horner’s score than he actually has.

Two albums have been released – a lengthy soundtrack album and an even lengthier “original score” album (though apart from a song by The Weeknd, the first album is an original score one too) – I’m surprised but my preference in all respects is the latter. It’s 100 minutes long (and even then doesn’t get close to containing the whole score) which is incredibly long, but I think it’s sequenced better, the music breathes better, and so that’s my choice of the two.

His main theme for the film – called “Hometree” on the short album, “Leaving Home” on the long one – is terrific. It’s nothing like any of Horner’s many themes for the first film: it’s very much a traditional, long-lined orchestral theme and is a soaring, emotional piece representing the family of Jake and Neytiri, which has grown considerably since we left them in 2009. Franglen uses it absolutely everywhere – subtly at times in the action, less subtly at others – most notably in “The Songcord” (which closes both albums, but features other variants in the longer one) where Zoe Saldaña sings Na’vi lyrics to it. It’s actually at the very heart of the film itself as well as the score, and the composer does a terrific job of conveying the emotional power Cameron was looking for.

Horner themes do crop up (again, I don’t really understand why the FSM thread I’ve already told you not to read seems to indicate that music from the first film is tracked in all over the place – it isn’t). Of course, the soaring main “I See You” theme is here, though never in its love theme variant, Franglen instead using the “Jake’s First Flight” variant to offer musical continuity for Pandora itself; remnants of “War” can be heard in a couple of the action tracks, most notably “Na’vi Attack” (more on that in a bit); slightly surprisingly, the gorgeous ethereal music Horner wrote for the forest isn’t around much, but we do hear a welcome snippet in “Converging Paths”; and yes, the danger motif is here. (It would have been so absolutely tremendous to hear a powerful blast of those four-notes when Horner’s credit appeared at the end, but I realise that’s a film music nerd moment unlikely to be delivered in a film like this.)

I can’t emphasise enough though that the vast bulk of this score doesn’t sound like James Horner’s. It’s Simon Franglen’s – even though I’ve only heard a handful of his past film scores (primarily because there are only a handful of them), there’s plenty of recognisable style here from them, particularly the wonderful The Curse of Turandot. What he does so well – and why I keep harping on about it being so good as a sequel score – is incorporate little touches, little colours that bring Horner to mind – if you thought after the late composer’s tragic demise that you might never again hear a shakuhachi flute providing rhythmic accompaniment to a massive orchestra blasting out an action sequence – well, no need to worry.

The music for the water and its inhabitants is very beautiful – at times bringing to mind James Newton Howard (and if for whatever reason Franglen hadn’t scored this, then surely Howard would have been the perfect next option) – the electronics, perhaps not surprisingly given the composer’s background, are so elaborate and enhance the orchestra to create a beautiful sound world in which little whisps of texture seem to drift around.

I can’t overemphasise how good the action music is. While he made some concessions to the modern day’s simpler techniques in later years – including in Avatar – it’s hard to imagine James Horner ever resorting to the sort of interchangeable ostinato-based action that has been the order of the day for quite some time now; and, delightfully, Franglen doesn’t either. He writes the action with broad strokes – powerful statements from brass and strings, motifs coming and going – this is basically as close as you’ll get to what many of us consider to be the glory days of the 1990s.

The first standout action track is “A New Star” – a brilliant little motif (which sadly I don’t think is heard again) enters at one point and it’s spine-tingling. “Train Attack” utilises Horner’s main theme in spectacular style, though it’s a bit like a dry run for the later “Na’vi Attack”. “The Hunt” leaves nothing on the table: it’s in the same style as the first score’s “War” without directly reusing material, Franglen allowing various brass solos to shine over the rumbling strings, and eventually the cue’s main motif emerges on a horn solo. The complex percussion running through the whole thing adds real energy, the triumphant fanfare towards the end makes a very satisfying conclusion.

“Na’vi Attack” is the score’s best action cue – bits and pieces of “War” do appear this time, as mentioned earlier, and Franglen combines them with an action version of the first score’s main theme and plenty of new material. I love the way he uses the shrieked vocals from the first score in such a different way. It’s an epic cue. “Bad Parents” isn’t far from being as good – it’s more aggressive, with an angry energy running through it and yet more impressive synth work.

Other tracks worth highlighting include “Sanctuary” – it opens with an almost mournful passage before one of the score’s most soaring variants on the main theme is heard, and then a noble horn solo leads us into some exceptional “tribal” music with layer upon layer of percussion accompanying the choir. Immediately following this is “Into the Water” (the most JNH-iest of the score) – the theme is barely recognisable here as it is sung by gorgeous wordless female vocalists, but is so beautiful. And the electronics add so much to the palette.

“The Way of Water” offers more of the same – those ethereal vocals are stunning. So too is “Payakan” – a simple, rising motif gives an orchestral impression of the majesty of the whale-like creature whose music this is – powerful, gentle, graceful, delightful. An interesting track is “Cove of the Ancestors” – I say it’s interesting, because while it does sound like a James Horner score, the score in question is Living in the Age of Airplanes, which makes you think a bit. In its second half, it does get some of that magical, twinkly piano stuff from Avatar, which is great, and as a special bonus, just for a couple of bars – listen out for Star Trek III (probably coincidental but don’t dash my fanboy excitement).

One of my favourite tracks is “The Tulkun Return”, which features an extremely sprightly rendition of Franglen’s main theme, which in keeping with the sentiments of the day on which I am writing these words, is joyful and triumphant. As I’ve been writing this, I realise I could have picked out just about any track even on the 100-minute album to highlight – the music’s quality is consistent, and high.

With a moving tip of the hat to James Horner, a spectacular new main theme and some big-scale, exciting action material, it’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering a better score for this movie than Simon Franglen. Horner may have been small of stature but the impression he left on those of us taken in by his music could hardly be larger; and it’s impossible to imagine him being anything other than hugely proud and hugely impressed with what his former friend and colleague has been able to do to continue his legacy while building what is sure to be a major and important legacy of his own. Now it’s time to tip the hat to Franglen – this is some achievement.

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  1. Stefan (Reply) on Sunday 25 December, 2022 at 09:03

    Thank you, James, for writing this review, defying those who only want to pour their own frustrations onto a message board which I nevertheless love. This score was a wonderful surprise for me, and it is enlightening and hugely enjoyable to read a review which is not just opinion but full of sensible explanations.

    Prepare for the scorn crowd from the FSM MB, but you have already shown you are made of stronger stuff.

  2. Lars (Reply) on Sunday 25 December, 2022 at 10:07

    Great review. It’s a fantastic score, from start to finish! Not gonna lie, I too had my doubts that a composer I never heard of before was going to succeed Horner (I now know he’s done it before). One thing is getting the sounds of Pandora right, I had no doubts he was able to do that. But writing emotional music, which I think is crucial in an almost 100% CGI driven movie, that’s where he really surprised me. That final scene, I had tears in my eyes (and that doesn’t happen often), and that scene wouldn’t have worked if the music wasn’t good. Also the Songcord theme is absolutely beautiful. So massive respect to Simon Franglen

  3. Peter (Reply) on Sunday 25 December, 2022 at 14:07

    Interesting rating. I thought the music was kinda a disappointment. Not bad per se, good, but built almost exclusively on what Horner estsblished to the point one theme was repeated I felt ad nauseam.

    And I think Franglen didn’t compose much new material to evolve.

    • Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Sunday 25 December, 2022 at 23:12

      Are you saying this based on your experience hearing it in the film or listening on album? If the latter, frankly your assessment is outright incorrect – there is certainly no Horner theme repeated “ad nauseam” there.

  4. Tim (Reply) on Tuesday 3 January, 2023 at 23:35

    I was surprised at the amount of discussion at the FSM Board about this and didn’t know what to expect. I finally saw the movie a few days ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed the score!

    Since then I purchased the 32 track version, and it’s even better to be able to hear it in detail. Wonderful! Can’t wait to see where Franglen takes us next musically in this franchise!