When I was in middle school, I had a copy of “Aliens” on VHS — not an official VHS, mind you, but a shabby taped copy of an edited TV airing with all the cursing taken out. Didn't matter. I knew it was a masterpiece. In addition to Sigourney Weaver's legendary, Oscar-nominated performance and James Cameron's brilliant direction, one major element kept me coming back again and again: James Horner's thrilling, indelible score.
As we previously reported, Horner is feared to have died in the crash of his single-engine plane near Santa Barbara, California on Monday, and it's first and foremost a huge loss for his loved ones, most importantly his wife Sarah and two daughters. It's also a loss, no doubt, for filmgoers. In addition to his “Aliens” score — which brought him the first of a total of ten Oscar nominations — Horner composed the music for a stunning list of classic films: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Cocoon,” “Field of Dreams,” “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “Avatar” — and that's just a small sampling.
Speaking of “Titanic” and “Avatar” (the former netted Horner two Oscars), it's almost a miracle Horner ever worked with Cameron again, given that he once described his experience working on “Aliens” as a “nightmare.” He wasn't kidding. That famous climactic cue? Burdened by unreasonable time constraints, the composer (then just 32 years old) was forced to write it virtually overnight.
The fact is, “Aliens” wouldn't be the movie it is without Horner's essential contribution. Can you imagine Ripley screaming “Punch it, Bishop!” without the goosebump-inducing swell of that horn section? Or Ripley crawling out of the airlock absent those screeching strings? The music quite literally made those scenes what they are.
Though that oft-sampled climactic cue is the film's most famous musical passage, Horner's score — brought to pulse-pounding life by the London Symphony Orchestra — is a killer throughout. Take the film's opening titles, which evoke the vastness of open space while intermittently nodding at the military bent of Cameron's sequel by bringing in the soft roll of a snare. While Horner was known — and very often criticized — for the over-the-top sentimentality of his musical contributions, it was the insertion of subtle details like that that — in the case of “Aliens,” at least — that made him a great composer.
Cameron's film is ultimately a thrilling mish-mash of genres, and the score lives up to that by being as multi-faceted as the film itself: alternately thrilling, creepy, horrifying, blood-curdling, triumphant and even intimate, particularly in the quieter bonding scenes between Ripley and Newt. Following the military-style thrill of the combat drop onto LV-426, the early scenes of exploration through the seemingly-abandoned complex on the ground are an exercise in horror movie-esque dread and restraint, punctuated with the occasional shrill string cue during the requisite jump-out-of-your-seat moments. What Horner's music does here is to transform the claustrophobic, utilitarian colony into a haunted house set in deep space (a nod to “Alien,” the more pure-blooded horror film that preceded it):
But it is during the film's full-bore action sequences that Horner's score most gets under my skin. The pivotal moment when Ripley transforms from remote observer to action-movie heroine represents the first instance of Horner's gift for propulsive action-movie theatrics. The relentless roll of drums, broken by metallic clangs and piercing horns, brings a relentlessness to the sequence that adds immeasurably to its effectiveness:
Back to the shoddy VHS tape, adorned with a makeshift label held on by Scotch tape. There was something that kept me coming back to it, over and over. There was something that compelled me to replay the film's double climaxes multiple times in a single sitting, using that antiquated rewind button. There was something that kept me leaning forward, standing up at attention even, my eyes riveted to the screen. I now understand that that thing was James Horner's music, one of the greatest — if not the greatest — action-movie scores of all time. He was a lot of things to a lot of people, but that's how I'll remember James Horner.