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Sphere's Elliot

by Doug Adams

Writer Michael Crichton has found a pretty reliable formula for his science fiction work--take an outlandish notion and surround it with just enough appropriated techno jargon and intellectual buzz words that it rationalizes it. It's justified magic. Some of his sci-fi books are better than others, but they all face similar challenges when being adapted for the screen. What's the proper balance of science to fiction? How do you balance talking heads with exploding heads? Unfortunately, Barry Levinson doesn't quite get it right on Sphere. On this project, the filmmakers go out of their ways to provide us with as much scientific and military verisimilitude as they can, but hollow it all out by underlining the film's constructed nature with chapter title cards right out of TV's "Frasier." The pacing is so random (some scenes drag on endlessly while others happen so fast that we can't even tell what certain characters are supposed to be aware of), that again, we're constantly reminded that we're watching sets, actors, effects, and bad editing. And nothing says "movie contrivance" like pointlessly repeating of an effects shot simply because the concluding dialogue wasn't snappy enough.

Elliot Goldenthal's score for Sphere does a considerably better job of balancing the inherent wondrousness of the sci-fi concepts and the techno-thriller edge of the plot. That's not really too surprising since Goldenthal has based a good bit of his career on his ability to find the varying musical implications in drama, then combine them into a unique whole. Look at scores like Cobb where pastoral Americana meets violent madness meets clubby jazz. Or look at Alien3 where ancient religious chants meet snarling electronic soundscapes meet Romantic yearning. In Sphere, he seems to be coming from three different dramatic angles: the ambience of the underwater setting, the beauty of the downed alien/future space ship, and the rawness of the action. It's not as contructivist in nature as much of his output, but it's certainly colored by his modus operandi.

Actually, what's most noteworthy in Sphere is the thread that runs through each of the components. Almost all of the music is flavored by fluid, water-inspired writing meant to evoke the undersea setting. Cleverly, Goldenthal opts to mostly use minimalistic music rather than aleatoric music to represent this aspect. Aleatoric music--which allows the musicians to improvise with a handful of pitches or a repeated phrase--can be very effective at portraying tension spun out of control, but it also has a very free, bottomless sense to it. It's essentially non-metered, but it's drifting essence is more expansive than minimalism. Minimalism is more obsessive, more closely knit and controlled. So while aleatoric effects certainly could have built up an appropriate tension for the stuck-under-the-sea or whodunit side of the story, the use of minimalism makes it that much more constricting and effective. Most of it's usage in this score is tightly reigned and somewhat terse which helps both in reinforcing the claustrophobia of living in a bubble at the bottom of the ocean, and in contrasting the very expressive "wonderment" music. It's a small choice, but ultimately a very clever one.

Water Music

The underwater-style music is first heard in the film during the opening credits, which is both an smart choice and a slightly frustrating one. By starting with this music, Goldenthal wisely sets up the mysterious drifting mood of the submerged setting a good 15 to 20 minutes before the characters take the plunge. It also keeps a nice lid on things so that when we cut directly to the punchier cues under the helicopter trip, there's a notable shift in moods. I'd imagine that the temptation to dole out some sort of screaming overture during this essentially silent sequence had to have been pretty great, and it's impressively sidestepped. My small complaint, however, is that this music, which features Goldenthal at the most minimalistic he's been since Heat, doesn't ever develop into anything more than a kind of burbling pad of repeated thirds and pedal tones. So its extensive use in the score is a bit wearying after a while. It's pretty obvious that Goldenthal was required to fill in the atmosphere that the direction was so sorely lacking, but he has to do it in an entirely non-dramatic way--the music has to be a directionless mood. He does his best to provide this, and it does help some scenes, but by its nature, this is only interesting for so long. To Goldenthal's credit, he does come up with some other music-as-immersion ideas that are more interesting, most noticeably a nervous pizzicato figure in the low strings that provides a welcome reprieve in styles.

Spaceship Music

The music for the ship places high arpeggiating strings and upper woodwinds over a powerful brass hymn (using Goldenthal's trademark I-iii chord progression--one of the reasons people are probably going to say it sounds like the similarly harmonized Edward Scissorhands.) If anything, it sounds slightly reminiscent of the tonal writing in Goldenthal's Demolition Man, though far less sarcastic. There's still a minimalistic sheen to the upper figurations, which combine nicely with the thick religioso brass chords to evoke both mass and watery repose. This chorale like theme is appropriately varied throughout the score, and used with well thought-out sparsity. We thankfully don't hear it every single time we see the ship. Still, there are a couple of times where it feels like it comes out of nowhere--such as the characters' first glimpse of the vessel's fin as seen through a sub window--but that can be mostly chalked up to the awkward pacing in the film. Unfortunately, even though the music is obviously designed to carry these dialogue-free scenes, it's still been dialled down in the mix to the point where it sounds like it's coming out of the next room. I hope that the theater I was in had particularly lousy sound, because my heart bleeds for Goldenthal if he had the endure the subliminal level most of his score was dubbed at.

Action Music

The third leg of Sphere consists of some of the most violently contrapuntal action music Goldenthal has done in years. It's also some of the least conceptual--certainly it's the east conceptual element of the Sphere score. That doesn't make it any less a contribution, but it does follow a relatively straight path. People run: music goes fast. Fortunately, Goldenthal is far too good a composer to let anything slip by him that easily, so there is truly some interesting and complex musical material to be found here. Those quarter tone bending French horns are back, but this time they're layered under overlapping multi-metered ostinati in high bass, woodwinds, and strings. And once again, some minimalistic flute/piccolo writing is present during the jellyfish attack which finishes off Queen Latifa's ten minutes or so on screen. There's also one cue which features what sounds like timpani being played with bare hands instead of mallets. Unfortunately, like the other music, some of the action scoring is undermined by the flaccid scenes it accompanies. There are times where it does everything short of standing on its head to save the pacing, but some scenes are beyond help. The jellyfish scene, for example, is scored with a beatific malevolence--a wonderfully realized sense of marvel turning to panic at a palpable rate. But I still couldn't tell why Peter Coyote seemed more annoyed than concerned, or why we kept cutting to Dustin Hoffman lounging around his pod.

All in all, I'll be happy to pick up the CD of this score, so that I can hear the music out of the context of the uneven movie. Elliot Goldenthal seems to suffer from that rarest of diseases where he's far too talented to be wasted on almost any of the films he's scored so far. I can't wait until the day he's handed a first class project to work on.

I am very happy: Doug@filmscoremonthly.com


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