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The Martian
  • Composed by Harry Gregson-Williams
  • Columbia / 2015 / 52m

Based on the excellent book by Andy Weir (which he initially self-published before its incredible word-of-mouth success led it to being picked up by a publisher), The Martian stars Matt Damon who is left stranded on Mars after his colleagues incorrectly believe he has been killed.  It follows his attempts first to survive and then to get back home.  At the time of writing this it has only been released for a few days but is already shaping up to be director Ridley Scott’s most successful film both critically and commercially for many years.

After Harry Gregson-Williams provided a fine score for Kingdom of Heaven, Scott’s musical decisions became rather inexplicable, with each of his next five films being scored by Marc Streitenfeld and then a movie each for Daniel Pemberton and Alberto Iglesias.  Gregson-Williams actually provided additional music for two of the films during that period (his contribution to Prometheus being by far the best thing in the score) so it was evident Scott liked working with him, and consequently hard to understand why he didn’t just hire him in the first place.  Finally, for The Martian, he did, and Gregson-Williams provided not only the best score to a Ridley Scott film since Black Hawk Down, but it’s probably the best thing he’s ever written.

Harry Gregson-Williams

Harry Gregson-Williams

The music manages to capture the character perfectly – at times quite playful and fun, often determined, sometimes lonely, and above all there is a calm serenity running through it.  Only occasionally does it truly get big and dramatic – and because it’s occasional, those moments feel earned, part of a very well-plotted dramatic course.  It’s all the more impressive that Gregson-Williams was able to do that given that several key moments in the movie are scored with songs.  It reminds me a bit of Steven Price’s Gravity, without the chaos that entered that one at times; it’s always great to hear a major film like this having a score with so much thought put into it.

With “Mars”, the score opens with a cold, desolate depiction of the planet which gives a rather false impression of the music to follow; but before long the simple main theme appears, heard initially for electric guitar.  It’s quite a Hans Zimmer-like way of giving identity to the main character Mark, a simple idea used in countless different ways through the score.  In this initial appearance it’s slow and lonely, an air of desperation emerging in the strings that come out of it.  “Emergency Launch” is an early action cue – a throbbing heartbeat running through it, clever little string phrases, occasional hits from brass and percussion, it builds impressively but just as you think it’s reaching an explosive conclusion, the composer drops the pace, allows the strings to slowly swell into a grand statement, bringing a distant choir in, providing an ethereal, calm, cold feeling.

“Making Water” is the first time we hear the playful side of the score – it’s a beautiful combination of elements of electronica with harp and other plucked instruments, hints of Thomas Newman (Wall-E in particular).  As the cue develops, Mark’s theme is there again in the background, determined and driven now.  “Spotting Movement” is a delicate little cue, the theme just hinted at, but then another of the score’s sounds comes out in “Science the Shit Out of It” with distinctive use of percussion and electronics giving it a “scientific” feel, the ticking beat used as it was in Interstellar.  In “Messages from Hermes” there’s an interesting duality, the warmest arrangement yet of the main theme being set against quietly abrasive electronic sounds.  When the piano appears, Mark’s loneliness is really emphasised but the orchestration grows bigger and with it, that determination grows again.

A calm and soothing atmosphere dominates “Sprouting Potatoes”, again with a lightness of touch that is very impressive; it’s a beautiful cue.  Then, “Watney’s Alive!” isn’t quite the big cue you might infer from the track title: rather, it’s something of a slow burner, little phrases expressed over an ambient backdrop before it becomes a bit more urgent and decisive towards the end.  “Pathfinder” is very electronics-heavy, a bit of Tron Legacy about it perhaps, elements of dance music but it remains laid back.  The “science stuff” style returns in “Hexadecimals”, the feeling slightly trippy now; very entertaining.

The dramatic high point is “Crossing Mars”.  The theme – with the now-familiar pauses between phrases, emphasising the emptiness – opens the cue, strings layered beneath the processed guitar, but this gradually gives way to a soaring, somewhat Goldsmithian passage for orchestra and choir.  It’s heroic music, emotionally unrestrained, seriously good.  After that there’s a beautiful cello solo in “Reap and Sow”, a new dramatic impetus and feeling of forward motion (albeit with an undoubted tension) before a truly haunting sadness (courtesy primarily of a beautiful boy soprano solo) in “Crops are Dead”, which actually sounds at times a bit like John Powell’s Bourne scores (but not the bit of those scores that so many other things sound like).  It’s a pretty harrowing track and then some pretty dark, dirty electronics dominate the subsequent “Work the Problem”.

The score’s three longest cues are the last three, and Gregson-Williams packs quite a punch in them.  “See You in a Few” offers a number of variations on the main theme and some twinges of emotion, with particular emphasis on simple relief but the way the choir is used particularly later in the cue adds complexity, a little confusion and a lot of tension.  Then in “Build a Bomb” the music gains momentum, the tension grows further, just waiting for that cathartic release, which arrives of course in the final cue, “Fly Like Iron Man” (which – unusually – was retitled shortly after the album was released; for the first few days it was available it was called “I Got Him!”)  Even within that cue it takes a while to arrive but then, in the last couple of minutes, it does; and there’s musical joy unconfined.

The Martian is smart music, cleverly conceived and like all good film music there’s a great dramatic impetus to it on the album, a clear course being travelled.  Gregson-Williams blends the orchestra with the electronics brilliantly, keeps things impressively subtle (but never dull) for long periods and when the big moments come, they really have impact.  It’s interesting how scores for “space movies” have changed in the last few years and this one certainly inhabits the same world as Gravity and Interstellar, which are scores which provoked genuinely mixed responses.  I loved both of them and while I don’t think this is quite at the same level, it’s not far off and anyone who enjoyed them as much as I did will surely enjoy this one too.

Rating: **** 1/2 | |

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  1. Elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Tuesday 13 October, 2015 at 21:23

    I think you meant Alberto Iglesias, not Roque Banos.
    (feel free to delete my comment afterwards, only meant to point out the erratum)

  2. Pepper Skyberry (Reply) on Wednesday 14 October, 2015 at 03:00

    Hmm. I’ll give it a listen for old times’ sake, but I really don’t like scores like Interstellar or Inception (scores where the appeal is in “sound” design rather than actual “music,” in my opinion). Nice review though 🙂

  3. Ian Smith (Reply) on Wednesday 11 November, 2015 at 19:33

    I think the combination of electronics and orchestra is really well done here. Its very effective. And the album presentation is fine too.