Pacific Rim Uprising
Monster movies go back a long way in the history of film - further even than the 1933 King Kong, scored by the great Max Steiner - and though they have not always been in fashion it seems their public demand has never been meager enough that Hollywood production companies could help themselves from making more. The most recent of the bunch, such as the 2014 Godzilla, which received generally positive reviews, only encourages the public outcry for bigger badder monsters on screen, and so we end up with a situation like this where films such as Pacific Rim Uprising and Rampage are released within a month of each other. For many moviegoers interest in seeing the film depends on the intellectual appeal of monster(s) in question, but it seems the Pacific Rim films have earned appeal among a wide array of highbrow and monster masher fans alike. Pacific Rim Uprising (abbreviated hereafter as Uprising) is the sequel to the 2013 Pacific Rim, a science-fiction action series about humanity's fight against extinction, using giant mechanized Jaeger weapons to fight colossal monsters known as Kaiju. The original was scored by Ramin Djawadi, hailing back to his work on Iron Man with a rock anthem for electric guitar and orchestra and featuring lots of pomp brass with heroic overtones. John Paesano had first been slated to compose the music for Uprising, replacing Djawadi until it was announced in January that Lorne Balfe would compose the score. Balfe is a Scottish composer for film, television, and video game scores who has collaborated on multiple projects with other composers as a member of Remote Control Productions, an organization meant to promote collaboration and creativity. Instead it accomplished the opposite, bringing most of its members under a stylistic umbrella that has resulted in two decades of like-sounding music in film. Besides the "greatest hits of Brad Fiedel" score Balfe wrote for Terminator Genisys, and his contributions for Dunkirk and to the television series The Crown, I can not admit to being overly familiar with his work. Sorry to say this does not appear to be necessary here as Uprising comes off as another cog in the bigger network of gears that is Remote Control Productions. The score is primarily made up of layered textures, driving rhythms, and characterless melodies. In a nutshell most cues play out as follows: enter soft pulsing, thrumming, and whirring textures; build layer upon layer with strings, brass swells, and electronic components; peak in volume and density as the moment of epicness takes place and hurriedly fade back into the soft, thin patterns that began the cue. The only timbres heard prominently outside of the standard orchestral families and banal electronics include airy, breathy, Vangelis-like synthesizer textures ("Shao Industries"), dubstep beats, comically assertive synthwave calls ("Scrapper Chase"), and what sounds like a sharp, glistening, processed violin sliding around on the new theme written for the film ("Pacific Rim Uprising"). The new albeit boring theme is the one glimmer of hope in Balfe's score for Uprising, appearing at predictably touching or otherwise significant moments in the film, with the violin perplexingly attempting to imitate some sort of Asian timbre. Perhaps they were trying to draw a connection between Jake Pentecost and his half-sister Mako, but even if its only purpose was to add a new colour to the otherwise commonplace sounds of the orchestra it was underused. Moreover, when pitted against Djawadi's theme from the first film it is made obvious how weak Balfe's new theme is by comparison. Djawadi's theme is brought back in a big way toward the end of the film, performed during a battle preparation montage with certain light embellishments such as a cheering male chorus ("Go Big Or Go Extinct"). But this came off as a token appearance, uninterested in serving any genuine account of musical continuity between films and used more as if to say, "here it is, now get off my back and let me write my own music".
In the words of my brilliantly cutthroat girlfriend, this is music that "does nothing" and might as well be sound design. It is musical content that has a melodic voice, but is completely dependent on a harmonic structure that invariably goes nowhere. Instead of making the conscious choice to write an appropriate melody, or to go full out sound design, where music mingles directly with the sound effects and creates an overall soundscape inseparable from the film, we get an indecisive go-between that lacks the narrative strength of either decision. The result is a predictable harmonic progression that uses deafening volume and high ranged clusters to elicit a conditioned response. Typical of this musical aesthetic, the biggest threat on screen is directly proportionate to the extension of the lowest bass frequency. Thunderous, roaring trombones, tubas, and double bass strings are used to the point that it sounds as if the music is being distorted due to the enormous volumes, and because the air pressure required to hit the frequency is too low for the instrument to do anything other than fluctuate uncontrollably. And rather than attempt to break our speakers with deep, ungodly, high calibre resonance that holds up to any standard a decision was made to record a distorted, semi-low frequency that only simulates the effect. I first noticed this when the 2010 Clash of the Titans film came out, and even the lowest frequencies available to the human ear could no longer approximate the gargantuan size of the Kraken. God of War III was released the same year with a similarly full, rumbling orchestral score to keep up the trend in the gaming world. Though this was effectively mind-blowing when first concocted these days it comes off as a pathetic and unnecessarily demonstrative use of music. I might as well drive the point home that Balfe wrote music better suited to work in a video game than film. A film score on average has one and a half to two hours of music written (though that average is growing) while a video game score can have as much as ten hours of music written. And because there are many more minutes worth of game play to score than a film, video game music is designed with a focus on tonality and not necessarily melodic material. Film scores are also constructed to a very particular form out of which the music is developed, whereas game music might be recycled heavily or constantly transformed through layered textures and cross-faded cues dependent on the type of game (ex. open-world versus linear narrative). Furthermore, video game composers do not usually have the luxury of affording a big orchestra, so they use electronic instruments out of necessity, or resort to a piano. All of these differences are emphasized in Balfe's score for Uprising. Worse still, just about every cue has the potential to be dropped at any point within the film without making the slightest difference, as if he did not know what type of medium he was scoring. Actively listening to this score and participating in the music was agonizing. I can only imagine how bored an orchestra must be when subjected to this type of music, as if it is what audiences want to hear. If Balfe thinks five warm notes played between an onslaught of bland textures saves a score from becoming a hackneyed, selfish pleasure cruise then I enthusiastically object to any alleged capacity he has for emotional depth in music. There is no soul to this score, much less an attempt to support the story. It is music that has been informed by an industry, and we need composers who are willing to inform the industry with their music. I will keep repeating myself so long as composers keep producing scores like this, though frankly I would be surprised to see any great change in the immediate future. That said, the next generic Remote Control Productions score to come along for a major blockbuster might just be my first capsule review. There is nothing more tiring than to write about the music one loves only to cast a score asunder because it makes mockery of good film music, and rather than continually decry film music while struggling to rephrase that this stylistic approach should be suffocated before it kills real creativity, I will protest by giving it no mind whatsoever. #LorneBalfe