Soundtrack Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

This was originally published at The Edge SUSU on July 23rd 2014. 

Hans Zimmer, with his instantly recognizable sound, is undoubtedly the most sought after composer when it comes to Hollywood Blockbuster fare. Now no one is denying that Zimmer has talent, but when it comes to many of his compositions for action and sci-fi movies he does recycle a lot of the same material. I’m not on an anti-Zimmer crusade here, far from it, but really Hollywood needs to become less reliant on his music. Not only do films too frequently call upon Zimmer to produce dramatic, thrilling themes, but those that don’t, often employ composers who attempt to replicate the Zimmer style; and then, there is the fact that the industry is seemingly overrun with his countless protégés.

That is why it’s always refreshing in this post-Dark Knight cinematic landscape to find a blockbuster doing something a little different with its music. Michael Giacchino distinguishes himself from many other mainstream cinema composers by functioning as an additional storyteller, by translating across the emotions already inherent in each scene of the film, rather than forcibly telling you what to feel. He helps to amplify the emotional content of any project, making everyone else involved look good too, rather than just grabbing attention for himself. In short, he’s a collaborator.

All of this really came to my attention when I went to see the new Planet of the Apes film. For the first time in a while, a blockbuster release seemed to have a score that was crafted with meticulous care, to really maximize the potential of every moment. For once, the composer seemed to be more interested in emotion than in simply creating one or two distinctive memorable themes and then a load of filler to bridge the gaps. Giacchino’s score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works as a cohesive whole, every track flows beautifully into the next one and each piece is still intrinsically strong.

The album begins with a powerful opening: rather than kicking off with bombast, ‘Level Playing Field’ gently introduces us to the universe of the film with a stripped down and minimalist piano-led piece that softly hints at a sense tragedy, lamenting the loss of the old world. Sounding vaugley like the composer’s work for Let Me In, the track doesn’t shove anything down your throat, it’s subtle and quietly affecting. This kind of thoughtful and poignant music is thankfully not a rarity in the score either; there is always time to return to these intimate pieces in between the action bits. Normally scores for films like this treat the smaller moments as something that needs to be gotten over with to make way for the louder more full on action themes, but Giacchino’s always been adept at this; just think about Up’s ‘Married life’ and its powerful emotional impact!

Of course Giacchino can still bring the required tension, the second track ‘Look who’s Stalking’ delivers something very different, but importantly in-keeping and compatible with what proceeded it. The track makes dramatic use of sudden and irregular bursts of percussion, creating a palpable sense of unease as the audience awaits the next sporadic and violent outbursts from the drums. It then builds up to a haunting choir that brilliantly echos Ligeti’s ‘Requiem’ in a possible reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the film’s famous primates.

There are many more instances throughout the soundtrack that have a legitimately creepy horror-film vibe. Koba (the film’s scene stealing villain) has a suitably menacing leitmotif which reoccurs frequently in numerous tracks. Often accompanying the motif is the inclusion of steel percussion (most clearly heard in ‘Monkey in the City’) in a nod to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the 1968 original Planet of the Apes. Once again what is so remarkable is how well this tribute works with the rest of the score even though Giacchino’s own direction is entirely different.

Probably the most impressive thing about Dawn’s score is its composers restraint. He is able to let himself go when he needs to and use all the tools in his disposal to create sweeping, cinematic pieces, but when things need to be reigned in, he’s able to do so without being boring. Everything comes together in the strongest track in the entire album, ‘Planet of the End Credits’, which deftly moves through all of the themes and motifs of the entire journey, hammering home just how well it all works as a whole. The score is a rarity in that it can hold your attention for its entire duration and many of the tracks are among some of the most memorable of the last few years. Overall Giacchino’s score is beautiful, moving and dramatic and suits the film perfectly, not one track lets it down. Perfect.

RATING: 10/10

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