Reviews - Mars Attacks!

Review #1 by Ian Davis

There must have been some kind of expectation to those who were aware that Danny Elfman was returning to the Burton fold for a megabucks sci-fi movie. The resulting music in my view is spot on, and Elfman sounds like he just couldn't hold back showing how much he's learnt and how much Burton needs him. Every relevant sci-fi trick in the book is plundered with unerring deftness, but the result is neither recycled nor uninspired, and the composer's unmistakable style is never compromised.
Like Tim Burton, the composer sets about rubbishing the expectations of recent sci-fi: This is no John Williams (ET/Star Wars) or Jerry Goldsmith (Alien/Star Trek) or David Arnold (StarGate/Independence Day)—and no matter how much we may admire their talents, we have to admire still more the way in which Danny Elfman cheekily goes in the opposite direction.
This is antidote stuff. A concentrated medicine of camp '50-60's pastiche to offset decades of visionary or patriotic (and therefore dolefully serious) sci-fi soundtracks. Pastiche? In what way? To be frank I could go on for pages, but I shall try to outline the most significant features as briefly as I can (—not counting Tom Jones, whose cut music so obviously fits Burton's intent in this film, and covers for some interesting peculiarities in Danny Elfman's score...).
Before launching into detail, perhaps a short word on overall atmosphere should be made: The Elfman team (including the always-present Steve Bartek) have returned to the darkly comic textures which characterized many earlier Burton projects (especially Beetlejuice and Batman Returns) and infused a subtle,almost imperceptible maturity. The maturity is in the wider, kaleidoscopic palate of orchestral colour, the subtlety is evident in that this is never allowed to complicate the faux-naif thematic material which makes an Elfman score so accessible.
The "Main Titles" (track 2) are a case in point: the chugging war theme provides an entertaining tunefulness which anchors the more experimental use of '50-60s horror/sci-fi staple, the theramin (in a weird "octave+semitone" leap characterized motif), and menacing chorus of voices (men and women rather than boys choir). The use of electronic sounds, mainly as colour rather than as tune-making voices, blends wonderfully with the orchestra and adds that extra touch of strange-but-fun alien atmosphere.
The rest of the cd, as with the film continues as it has started: reveling in its strangeness and in the chance to explore any cliché. The "Introduction", however, shows the other side to this madness: there is again the use of synths, and of dissonance (as the herd of flaming cows stampede past) which outdoes anything Elfman had attempted in earlier scores such as Dolores Claiborne.
The beginning of track 4 is perfectly aimed "solid-as-a-rock" military music with plenty of snarling brass and tinny snare drum. This is incongruously followed by the ethnic/exotic sitar-inflected stuff of Annette Bening's character, the awe of the first alien entrance (complete with eerie chorus, church bell and theramin), and the beautiful full chorus/orchestra slush which precedes the glorious slaughter in the film.
For the very best music (and scene) of the film, we can't ignore the Martian Madame and Martian Lounge (inexplicably given separate tracks: 7 and 8). What makes this scene work so well in the film is the oil provided in the soundtrack. This is music which balances on the corner of sensuality, decadence, and outright tackiness. You just want to take off your shoes and paddle in this music. It comes thick with multi-layered, ultra-cool textures and rhythms. Exotic drum beats (tabla?) vie with a beautiful wordless female voice (like something out of the original Star Trek series), more sitar, '60s organ sounds, sinuous strings (echoing the devious-yet-masked femininity of Catwoman in Batman Returns) and any other subversive sound in the book.
Track 8 dutifully finds plenty of these: "zu-bop" female voices, ethnic children's voices, a hint of saxophone... And it only makes the violence with which the track moves onto all the more cold and genuinely disturbing. Maybe it is this feature which helps most to make the scene (in my view) the most memorable of the film—the atmosphere is briefly bereft of its comic-grotesque balance.
The CD continues as it had been before (alternating silly with shock dissonance and with puffed-up grandeur), but a current of seriousness remains somewhere, perhaps at a psychological level. The "Loving Heads" track certainly has nothing other than plain gooey sentiment--but isn't there a feeling of more overt cynicism here now? Whereas he was cheeky before, Elfman has veered (imperceptibly?) towards a mocking irony. This is not a change which I am aware of in the film scenario or script, but entirely a result of the music.
In the track "Ritchie's Speech" I can hear a second shift. This has much in common with what could be called the "American sound of wide open spaces": slow moving, almost hymn-like strings, plus mostly brass solos characterized by large initial leaps. There's little else I can say to describe it, except that it conjures up a slightly mystical, slightly Wild-West, very patriotic sound which I find unmistakable. (For good examples of these features you can look at Arnold's music at the beginning of the moon sequence in Independence Day, and at Elfman's music for Sommersby).
What I am saying is that while the film appears to remain light and one-dimensional, there is an emerging, at first awkward, seriousness in the music. This is of course shattered in the film with the emergence of Tom Jones and his very funnily choreographed rendition of "It's Not Unusual"; however, the soundtrack cuts straight from "Ritchie's Speech" (track 16) to the "End Credits".
This track outdoes anything which I could have thought disturbing earlier: The return of the martian march theme sounds much the same, but somehow it "feels" different, affected by the shift of mood since the "Main Titles". Instead of ending with glitzy pizzazz, it mysteriously draws back into itself. Low bass voices, cool beats and menacing low brass provide the atmosphere, but it is the "octave+semitone"-type leaping motif which emerges into the foreground—with echoes in various voices. As the music folds into itself these "voices" melt into the octave leaps of the "Indian Love Call" ((somehow this has a sinister, enigmatic edge to it))—which themselves die away in a very unsettling way.
Here's my view: Danny Elfman perhaps had a slightly different slant to Tim Burton on this film. The difference is that the music, at least its CD format, begins to betray serious intent behind the colourful cartoon camouflage of its themes. There is very little material evidence to back up this feeling, and to pinpoint its emergence seems impossible. And all the above leads me to the conclusion that Elfman's music has gained a great deal of subtlety and complexity since his last collaboration with Burton—and in this film he's determined to prove it!
There are countless priceless moments in this soundtrack which make it one of Elfman's most consistently entertaining. It has surface fun but reveals more and more as you listen again and again—which means that watching the film a few times just isn't enough. If you get any Danny Elfman CD, I'd recommend this one for quality value (though not for its playing time)—you certainly get your money's worth in the long run.
I have just heard the recording of the Introduction and Main Title made by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nic Raine, for the double CD release, Alien Invasion: Space and Beyond II. Truth? It was on a freebie sampler with SFX Magazine (UK). I don't know how wide this release is but the Mars Attacks recording is a remarkably interesting insight for all hard-bitten Elfman fans. For a start it is the first non-direct movie soundtrack recording—what I mean to say is that it comes just one small step closer to the current semi-concert hall status of the likes of John Williams and Bernard Herrmann. To be divorced from the context of composition (i.e.. the film itself) is for the most part illusion: if you heard the Jaws motif in a concert hall, wouldn't you still see that shark fin racing towards you?
Back to Mars Attacks. To hear this score played by different performers and presumably without direction from Elfman or his associates is quite a revelation. Indeed it is an excellent opportunity to assess the complexity which is endemic in Elfman's recent scores—from pre-echoes in the gothicity (if there is such a word) of Batman to later emergences especially in Mission: Impossible (MIDI programming techniques opening new avenues?) and Flubber. The complexity lies less in melody, more in texture, rhythm, orchestration and harmony—that of the latter shown in its ambiguities and ever more flagrant dissonances.
What the present recording proves is how much Elfman and co. have come to rely on careful recording technique and balance in getting the score "just right". The Goldilocks approach is a far from easy one and it is a marvel that we can detect so much of the subtleties of the scoring in these "complex" CDs.
The Prague Philharmonic perform with some zest, though falling short of the playing of what ever unnamed or stitched-together orchestra was used for the Warner Bros. recording. I've heard nice things said about this compilation, but regarding the Elfman track, it shows all too well the pit-falls of attempting to recreate a highly volatile texture. What was needed was more thought—perhaps on a level of how one would approach a score such as Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony (or a comparable work which uses vast forces and is prone to tripping up on its own rich tresses). The "exotic" instrumentation in particular has a disproportionately high volume, as does much of the brass section (which outdoes the official M.A. recording in terms of raucous blasts). The result is that strings and woodwind especially are often lost—and as they often have the march theme, the outcome is sometimes VERY clouded. (The resonant acoustics cannot have helped). However, some revelatory insights are gained such as the eeriness of both theramin and (especially) the choir give the music an altogether more serious and disturbing aspect at the expense of the darkly comic march. The disadvantages however out-weigh the advantages of the recording; I'd rather listen to the official soudtrack anyday, and I think that probably goes for most of the other tracks too.
I'd recommend Alien Invasion: Space and Beyond II to those interested in sci-fi music themes but who don't want/can't afford the whole caboodle, or to those who want yet another recording of 2001 viz. the Introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss), OR, of course, to those who have found the comments above at least intriguing.
Rating: * * * *

Review #2 by the Texas Ranger

Mars Attacks is the kind of screwy film only Tim Burton and Danny Elfman could tackle. I guess thatís both its curse and its blessing. This film started Burtonís strange obsession with remaking every B-movie genre known to man, indicating that perhaps Ed Wood rubbed off on Tim in more ways than one. Typical of most Burton films, Mars Attacks contains a ton of off-beat dark humor, colorful production design, and a stellar cast. It also suffers from a lack of direction, thirteen separate climaxes, and a waste of talent. Yet, who can truly hate a film in which Tom Jones saves the world? Not me. Still, the scores of problems that dog the film inevitably spill over into the score itself—which contains some awesome stuff mixed in with lesser material.
The Introduction (Track 1) demonstrates this mix perfectly. Hijacking the Warner Brothers logo again, Elfman opens up with a signature three note motif (often heard as two ascending notes answered by three) played by theremin and woodwinds. From the very beginning, this motif becomes the instant identification for the Martians, appearing during introductory, exiting, and short sting sequences. From there, a brief snippet of what will become Ritchieís theme briefly fades in and out during a brief dialogue between two farmers. Thus, from the start of the film, Ritchieís theme seems to represent most of the "good guys" (I use this term very loosely, since Ritchieís family canít be classified as anything but pond slime— but in this world, there are only two sides: the evil Martians and the not-so-evil Humans). Moving on, the music quickly turns dissonant with screeching brass, hollow woodwinds, and clanging percussion. My problems with this score begin right at that 0:54 second mark. Of course, the music should reflect the horror of a flaming herd of cattle, but something just doesnít work. For one thing, the abysmal mixing in the film simply lets Elfmanís music drown in a sea of sound effects. In addition, the percussion, brass, and wind sections all sound like theyíre in some sort of competition to determine which group can play the loudest.
Elfman once admitted he couldnít stand scoring against a wall a sound, and this score seems like a desperate cry for help. Itís as if he hoped that, by sheer volume alone, something would crash through the sound barrier. Thus, his use of dissonance goes overboard with clanging percussion, a lack of bass, and an absence of thematic material during many key action sequences. Dissonance has its place if it helps the film (as it did in Dolores Claiborne, A Simple Plan, etc.). Unfortunately, it doesnít this time around. Despite my love of bizarre orchestrations, the fact remains that most of the effect Elfman hoped to achieve came to nothing. So the result is simply just useless, buried noise.
However, despite these flaws which surface even in the first track, Mars Attacks still has a lot to offer. The best sequences occur when the action and sound effects give way to the great visuals. Again, this occurs during the second half of the Introduction track, as the score returns back to a more balanced, electronic ensemble piece. While a UFO darts across outer space, Elfman employs theremin, harp, brass, synth, and crashing electronics to deliver a more bass heavy, awe inspiring, sci-fi moment.
The Main Titles (Track 2) showcases the full theme in all its conniving, militaristic glory. Of course, there are definite nods to Herrmannís The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its abundance of organs, theremin, stinging brass, and that 3 note motif (which sounds similar to the ascending and descending swells Herrmann employed). Yet, the overall feel of this piece has less in common the murky Herrmann, and more with the mischievous nature of Griegís In the Hall of the Mountain King. The march starts of slowly with hints of adult choir and plenty of wild synth effects that could give Jerry Goldsmith a run for his money. Still, itís the slow, almost sneaky way, Elfman uses the woodwinds and strings in the first minute that hints of Orff and Grieg. Like their crowd pleasing works, Elfmanís starts of slow, and builds, and Builds, and BUILDS until the music explodes with pure aggression.
The full theme is a combination of three smaller themes: the 3 note motif, the Martians March theme, and an interesting organ saturated motif with trilling brass (1:20 - 1:32). Thereís even a brief, string laden ode to Holstís Mars during the bridge from the 3 note motif to the above mentioned organ sub-theme (1:17 - 1:20). The basic melody comes from a quick woodwind/string motif from Batman Returnsí Main Title sequence (which has its roots in the opening piano riff from Batmanís Descent into Mystery). Finally, the piece ends with a massive cadence straight out of the end titles to Herrmannís The Day the Earth Stood Still, as the theremin spirals completely out of control while the brass and the organs rumble on. Altogether, Elfman found the perfect way to emphasize the growing sense of menace surrounding the Martian invasion, but also maintained the campy sci-fi aspect -- think John Williamsí Imperial March if it was scored as a comedy.
The rest of the CD follows a mixed pattern. Much like the film, the best material comes during the first half. In First Sighting (Track 3), Elfman shows off his flair for electronic scoring by coloring the Martiansí televised speech with dozens of synth effects punctuated by adult choir and organ. These computerized sounds add real atmosphere to a scene that canít even rely on dialogue (since the Martiansí only quack), and succeeds in creating a feeling of awe, menace, and technology. The Landing (Track 4) flip flops between stock militaristic Americana (the Mars Attacks March with plenty of brass and snare), New Age weirdness (sitars, bongos, la-la choirs, and other Edward Scissorhands Suburbia leftovers), the three note motif in all its awe inspiring glory (richly textured with choir, spinning synth effects, and brass), and a finale so cheesy in its optimism (with sweet strings, angelic choir, and heavenly brass) that it puts David Arnoldís equally ridiculous Independence Day to shame. Other highlights include: the darker, almost tribal choir and synth for Ungodly Experiments (Track 5); the pomp, circumstance, and unearthly moan that accompanies the Martians wiping out Congress in State Address (Track 6); Return Messageís (Track 9) brilliant use of the brooding Mars Attacks March with a much more subdued, disturbing use of heavy strings and droning choir; and The Martian Madame/Martian Lounge themes (Tracks 7,8) -- which contain satirical "sixties suave music" thatís so outrageous, so refreshingly groovy, and so downright bizarre, it has to be heard to be believed.
However, somewhere around Destructo X (Track 10), the score starts to fall apart. This track (thankfully not used in the film) starts off with warbling brass straight out of a stereotypical B-movie score. Unfortunately, while most B-movie scores rely on smaller ensembles to establish tone, Elfman seems content to just throw in anything he can get his hands on. The result is the Mars Attacks March simply drowned out in flashy, dissonant, salad dressing. Pursuit, The War Room, and Airfield Dilemma (Tracks 12,13,14) all sound like a collection of haphazard musical stings. These tracks lack any sense of structure, theme, or orchestral balance. Looking back, itís understandable that this first major effort to go dissonant and athematic in a Burton film would be rocky. These tracks have an experimental quality to them and, not surprisingly, a lot of this material resurfaces in later Elfman scores. For example, the Pursuit track contains the same brassy two note motif used to emphasize a determined Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow (0:30 - 0:42, 1:32 - 1:50), as well as a piano and wind riff later incorporated into A Simple Planís thrilling suspense cues (0:43 - 1:20). However, A Simple Plan contained a far better use of effective athematic action scoring, and Sleepy Hollowís action sequences (for the most part) used a more organized mini-leitmotif structure. Mars Attacks is like a musical free for all that, following Burtonís film, decays into a series of sloppy sketches between the halfway point and the finale.
The finale nearly makes up for all the ear bleeding. Although New World (Track 15) has a hilarious cheesy factor to it, itís the shockingly sincere Ritchieís Speech (Track 16) that steals the show. Ironically, this little cue is one of the best pieces Elfman has ever written! Although the melody was alluded to more in the film, the CDís full rendition of the theme almost sounds like it came from a different score altogether. With warm brass, soothing strings, and peaceful woodwinds, Elfman captures a serene spirit that could easily double as an homage to Brahms. It was a brilliant move to score the speech straight, since it made Ritchieís lame address doubly hilarious -- "And we should all live in teepees, because itís better in many ways." In addition, the soft moment was a well needed rest for both the viewers and the listeners. After the break, Elfman closes with another classic finale filled with triumphant brass, crashing cymbals, pounding timpani, and rousing choir. Finally, a more subdued end credits suite wraps everything up.
Listening to the whole CD from beginning to end is both moving and maddening. The sad part is it didnít have to be that way, since itís only when the movie decays into poorly choreographed firefights that the score begins to suffer. The amount of great material missing from this release is criminal. Had Elfman and Atlantic Recordings actually taken out lesser tracks (like 12,13,14) and replaced them with the superior action cues from the more visually oriented scenes (such as the "Dove" incident, the Martians suiting up for battle, the invasion of Washington, etc.), then this could have been one spectacular release. However, as it stands, the CD occasionally becomes choppy, inconsistent, and downright dull at times. And I donít care how funny it was in the film, nothing good can come from including Slim Whitmanís hellish Indian Love Call. That is something no one should ever have to hear. Seriously, I thought the Geneva Accords were in place to prevent such crimes against humanity! Whatever the case, those whoíve already paid for the Atlantic Record release really need to get their hands on the far superior bootleg.
Sadly, Mars Attacks isnít quite the perfect masterpiece itís been made out to be. Yet, it shouldnít be easily dismissed, either. Mars Attacks represents an experimental transition from the older thematic Elfman/Burton collaboration, to the more daring, unrelentless sounds of Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes. Yes, sometimes experiments falter. Those who want the PERFECT action sci-fi score are setting themselves up for disappointment. Still, Elfman fans who delight in hearing the composerís musical evolution should not let this score fall through the cracks. Love it or hate it, this score remains an important one in the composerís canon. At its worst, Elfmanís experimentation might make this score more of a novelty than a genuine ACTION masterpiece, but at its best, itís pure SCI-FI perfection.
Still, despite all the setbacks, perhaps Elfman had the last laugh. 1996 saw both David Arnoldís decent (though hardly groundbreaking) work for Independence Day, along with Jerry Goldsmithís well rounded First Contact. Ironically, though, Mars Attacks somehow beat out the big names and became the most remembered and influential. Walk through any Six Flags park around Halloween, or any sci-fi convention, or any movie theater, and chances are Mars Attacks will be echoing in the background somewhere. Can it be that Elfmanís satire of sci-fi scores outshined the straightfoward efforts of Arnold and Goldsmith? Has Elfmanís flawed masterpiece evolved beyond a joke? Did clever ingenuity outwit the unassuming mainstream? In the end, perhaps it wasnít Arnold and his giant, city sized ships that took over the world, but Elfman and his sneaky little green men. "Donít run! We are your friends!"
SPECIAL NOTE: I finally heard the infamous Alien Invasion: Space and Beyond II version of the Mars Attacks theme as played by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Nic Raine). My only comment is this: someone should have told them it was a comedy! What a disturbing, drab performance of a (to quote my insightful co-reviewer) "chugging" war piece thatís meant to satirize, not scare.
Music as heard on the CD: * * 1/2
Music as heard in the Film: * * * 1/2
Amount of music on the CD: * *

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