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Human beings are fickle creatures – I should know, I am one! Our opinions can be fluid, change over time. Being a hobbyist reviewer of film music, I occasionally look back at old reviews I wrote (usually to remind myself whether I liked something or not as I consider listening to it again) – sometimes with the more extreme ones, I wonder what the hell I was thinking when I wrote them. Something I hated – often it doesn’t seem nearly so bad in retrospect; something I raved about – was I imagining some masterpiece when the reality was far more moderate? Not always of course – but I have to say it’s very rare when I look back at a rave review I gave something and think to myself that I could actually have gone even further. You can guess where this train of thought is leading.

I don’t remember James Horner’s Avatar getting much of a great reception at the time. Some people – friends, I like to think – still rib me about liking it so much even after all these years. “How did he spend a year writing something and then just write that?” Et cetera. I loved it at the time. I love it still. A long time had passed since Titanic – and just as with that previous film, the pre-release consensus seemed to be that James Cameron had lost his mind and was about to lose the studio hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, just as with that previous film, audiences (if not critics) loved it and it became the most successful film of all time. I know why not everyone loves the film – narratively, it’s a simple re-telling of the Dances With Wolves story – but film can be about more than its narrative. Films can have depths to them that prompt some deeper thought – and Avatar doesn’t do that – what it does do, extraordinarily well, is present a genuine audio-visual feast. It is just a stunning, sometimes visceral feast for the senses – fuelled by the seemingly endless imagination of its creators – pure cinema, a genuine blockbuster that – almost uniquely for 21st century cinema – does not come from some existing intellectual property.

James Cameron and James Horner at the Avatar scoring session

There are a few film scores which can be identified as being real turning points, having great influence over what was to follow. Nobody can deny that Hans Zimmer has written more of them than most. One that I feel really did change just about everything was Gladiator – not just musically, I have to say, but also in terms of the process and the way filmmakers viewed the possible ways of people writing music for their films – but here I do want to think about its musical influence. Its combination of some traditional orchestral storytelling formed just one part of its overall mix of styles, with all sorts of world music, “ethnic” styles coming together into one big blend, regardless of whether there was anything specific tying them literally to the film – they were there just because it seemed to work to the people doing it. Finally, add to the mix modern sounds – rhythms from pop and rock music, simpler constructions of musical ideas than the traditional romantic classical approach which had been in favour for the previous decades. I think Gladiator changed it all, really – and of all the scores that followed in its wake, none captured all those elements together as well as Avatar – lightning in a bottle, this one, the ultimate expression of that 21st century film music style, the shining beacon against which every other attempt falls short to some degree or other.

Ironically another thing that Gladiator did was (not deliberately, of course) change the reception of the more traditional film composers – very much including James Horner. Read reviews of just about any film scored by him, or indeed John Williams, after Gladiator and if the music is mentioned at all then it is likely to be mentioned in a negative light – schmaltzy, “all over the film”, you know all this already. Horner went way outside his comfort zone for Avatar – none of the reviews of this film say anything like that.

The one thing that sets it apart is that – while one of the ingredients I mentioned, simplicity, is very much there – Horner does use various simple ideas but the way he weaves them all together is breathtakingly rich and intricate. There are so many themes making up this score – at least a dozen, maybe as many as double that – and he plates them up together in different ways to produce a veritable smorgasbord.

The opening “You Don’t Dream in Cryo” is in some ways a misleading introduction to the score – very early on we get the danger motif (one of the very first sounds you hear in the film, to my great delight but no doubt to others’ chagrin) but then the piece turns into this vaguely militaristic, slightly mechanical one, with this classic epic-sounding rising theme underpinning it but in these early moments presented in a more subtle way – a steady if unspectacular introduction to the score.

Not long later we’re introduced to Horner’s magical creations for the planet of Pandora – so vibrant, colourful, orchestral and electronic twinkles and stars, a wide range of vocal styles which range from native American to more Asian-like influences. I just love the style – all over “Jake Enters His Avatar World” and “Pure Spirits of the Forest” – and the latter combines it with a far grander reprise of the theme from the opening cue.

The love theme (or main theme depending on your point of view) comes in in “Becoming One of the People / Becoming One with Neytiri” – melodically it’s a classic Horner creation, but what he does with it is not – combining it with tribal drums, ethnic flutes, both massed and solo voices – it’s really beautiful, and forms the basis of the film’s song (which never took off like the previous Cameron/Horner film’s did) “I See You”, belted out by Leona Lewis. The piano-and-flute combination late in the cue is so beautiful.

James Cameron, Leona Lewis and James Horner at the Avatar premiere

In “The Bioluminescence of the Night” Horner combines the Pandora style with fragments of his love theme and it’s a magical experience – the mid-section of the cue, with the piano, chimes, electronics and soothing, wordless female voices – gives me goosebumps every time.

The pair of tracks “Climbing Up Iknimaya – the Path to Heaven” and “Jake’s First Flight” are soaring and spectacular. At the time, the only thing anyone seemed to say about the former is that the choir sounded like Glory (and I suppose it does, in that it has a choir and Glory also had a choir) – nobody seemed to notice the genuinely majestic sense Horner conjured up with his repeated, rising melody, the extraordinary impact of the sort of “shouted whisper” vocal effect, the amazing way he ultimately resolves all the repetition of the melody with the brass chorale – absolutely it is one of the top pieces of music he ever wrote. I’ve never quite decided whether it or “Jake’s First Flight” is my favourite – perhaps I am allowed to have joint favourites (I will check with the authorities) – from a similar melodic base, for the latter cue Horner writes one of his most stunning musical portraits of pure, unbridled joy – exuberant and unrestrained, emotion seeping from its every pore. (As a little aside – I am about to write some words which I have never before written in my 25 years of writing about film music, and I doubt I will ever write again – in the case of “Jake’s First Flight” I actually prefer the film version of the cue to the album version, its slightly larger crescendo seems to just give a little extra special something to the cue.)

After this, the film movies to the conflict between the natives and the invaders, and Horner’s score takes on a different tone – he still plays with all the material he’s introduced to this point, but action and suspense become more dominant. This starts in the thrilling “Quaritch”, in which the composer introduces us to the score’s primary action theme (though there are several of them) and also to a kind of Orffian chanting that packs quite the punch; then in the dark “Scorched Earth”, a flurry of percussion, angry (and slightly dissonant) brass clusters starting to burst forth over furious string runs; “The Destruction of Hometree” is brilliant, absolutely desperate emotion coming through over the thunderous action music.

The one time the score does actually sound like Hans Zimmer music (though it is only superficial) rather than sounding like a James Horner exploration into the possibilities of Zimmer’s musical sensibilities comes in “Gathering All the Na’vi Clans for Battle” which – as every man and his dog said at the time – does feature a few bars which sound a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s amazing how powerful Horner makes it sound though, with the crisp trumpet triplets blasting away over the melodic base (and I should say how wonderfully well-recorded this score is by Simon Rhodes, ensuring all the many ingredients thrown into the mix get their due attention). In truth, that bit’s a fairly minor part of the cue, which provides a rare break from the action material in the second half of the album – it’s an uplifting piece, a musical call to arms that packs a mighty punch.

Everything leads up to the eleven-minute “War”, a breathtaking piece of action music that’s brilliantly edited-together from various different cues Horner wrote for the film’s final act, all the various action themes and motifs battling against each other for attention. There’s so much going on in the piece, there’s no point me talking about it all – everyone reading these words will be very familiar with it – but I would draw attention to one section where what I can only describe as “duelling trumpets” go off against each other – it’s so brilliant, and actually (like various other elements of this score, a point not noted by many others) quite unique in the Horner canon.

At the time, as was his custom, Horner assembled a soundtrack album that pushed the capacity of what could be held on a single CD; but this is a very, very long score and some great material had to be left off. A later official “deluxe edition” added four more cues, but perhaps not the four you’d really want; extraordinarily (given some of the stuff that does get released) the rest of the score remains unavailable on album. It was however released on various “promos” (one of which was for awards consideration, but there have been others) over the years. I’ve no interest, nor indeed the literal capacity, to listen to these four-hour albums in their entirety, but they do feature a plethora of material that I’d add to my own “deluxe edition” of Avatar.

I love the extension of the Pandora sound in “Floating Mountains”; later, “The Hunt” is an absolutely brilliant piece of action music – not so long but so powerful. The glorious low-end piano that opens “Escape from Hellgate” is a blast from Horner’s past and great to hear, the furious material for the whole orchestra later in the cue genuinely spectacular. “Great Leonoptryx” opens with a lovely solo for choirboy before the fireworks start – an unusually tender version of the score’s main action theme leads into grand material for the brass section and then the most thunderous percussion closes things out.

As great a job was done at editing together “War”, there are parts of some of the cues that make it up that were left off that are arguably even better than what was put in – in particular “Quaritch Down”, which has the grandest orchestral action music in its beginning, sounding like it could come from Krull or something; and then “The Death of Quaritch”, which includes material lifted from the composer’s first score for this director, Aliens – perhaps it sticks out a bit compared with what’s around it, but it’s so exciting.

My favourite unreleased cue is the slightly mysterious “Into the Na’vi World” – mysterious in the sense that nobody seems quite sure what it is for. It isn’t in the film, but it was (so I am told) heard on the website that was up briefly in 2009 to promote the soundtrack album, even though it isn’t actually on the soundtrack album. Melodically it is unrelated to the rest of the score, but in every other way it seems like a fundamental component of it – like a ninety-second summary of the film in musical form. (On some of the “promos” there is a completely different cue which was given the same name; so if you hear it and wonder what the hell I’m on about, possibly you’re listening to one of them, or possibly I’m just a moron.)

In some ways James Cameron and James Horner seemed the unlikeliest of bedfellows – the former so brash and forthright, the latter so mild-mannered and shy – and yet they were evidently in perfect sympatico by the time they got to Avatar. I may be ridiculed for holding this view, but I do hold it – I don’t just think Avatar is the finest film score of the 21st century, I think it is that by quite a wide margin. No blockbuster has received as spectacular score as this since Jurassic Park. The theatrics, the sturm-und-drang – that’s all done with aplomb. But on top of that you’ve got beautiful melodies, the exceptional “organic” sound created to represent Pandora – it’s just exceptional music, it is so intricate, deceptive hiding so many details under the veil of simplicity and emotional directness. Simon Franglen – a key part of Horner’s musical team for many years – is about to take up the reigns for the sequels – what an act he has to follow. I can’t wait to hear what he does.

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  1. Random Name (Reply) on Friday 17 June, 2011 at 07:39

    You’re right, this is the type of score that will get people into film music. I’m example number one.

    It made me realize that all of the excellence of the greats of orchestral music from hundreds of years ago could be translated into a film score. It’s far more subtle than almost anything else being churned out today, without any loss of emotional content or clarity. It really is a shame it didn’t get the credit it deserved, but at least it converted me. Bravo.

  2. Nate Elias (Reply) on Monday 12 November, 2012 at 00:55

    Well put James, it was the work James Horner & John Williams that got me interested in Film Music in the First place. Horner’s work on The Films The Land Before Time, The Mask of Zorro, Titanic, Balto and Braveheart are some of my Favorites! 🙂

  3. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 10 December, 2022 at 10:23

    Nice rewrite. As a younger film music fan (and, much to my chagrin, a shameless Hans Zimmer fanboy) I initially struggled to get into the film music of James Horner. A few I loved right away, such as Glory and The Rocketeer, but a number of his scores hailed by most as classics – from Star Trek II to Willow and especially the first one I tried, Titanic – seemed to bounce right off my back for some reason. Then Avatar came along and it was like the key that unlocked everything for me. I think it was that little dash of Zimmeresque sensibility which you mention – the subtle electronics, the more anthemic approach to the themes and action music, the eclectic blending of styles, the generous use of choir – that did it for me. It was like Horner was coming into my then-comfort-zone a bit, meeting me halfway in order to lead me back into his world, and it must have worked because suddenly I was enjoying all those other scores of his MUCH more.

    For that reason I still name this as my favorite James Horner score and one of the most significant ones in my own film music journey (as trite as that may sound). Some might balk at that because it’s not necessarily the purest example of his style, or because they resent it for not being the original and far more radical conception of the score that was to be much more challenging and world-music-based, but if it was either of those things then it might not have had the impact it had on me back then.

    Anyways I was wondering if you’d consider archiving the older versions of your reviews when you do this. Just have a link to it as a footnote at the bottom of the rewrite. Up to you of course but the data hoarder in me is always a bit sad when something disappears from the Internet forever haha

  4. Jack Lindon (Reply) on Sunday 11 December, 2022 at 02:10

    Crazy that this sort of praise for this score – and indeed for anything connected to this film – has become so rare, and feels so novel.

    I’ll go further than Edmund, being slightly younger: this was the score that made me a film score fan, full stop. I had been aware of John Williams in Star Wars films, and would love singing the tunes, but hearing Avatar in film compelled me to seek out the album, ask for it for my birthday (my first score cd!) and listen to it endlessly, and then to explore Horner and other composers. To this day I find it a stunningly rich, propulsive and powerful experience – and I appreciate the analyses of the Gladiator connection, very well put. In fact, this may be one of your best reviews, and certainly my favourite bit of film music writing for quite a while.

  5. MPC (Reply) on Sunday 11 December, 2022 at 02:24

    Franglen did an impressive job incorporating and building upon Horner’s motifs for the Disney World Avatar attraction music.

    Should be interesting how he builds upon that in the next two Avatar movies.

  6. Jostein (Reply) on Thursday 15 December, 2022 at 12:40

    This score continues to blow me away!