Top 10 Sci Fi/Fantasy Movie Composers

The composer is the unsung hero of genre films.  An excellent symphonic score can make a bad film tolerable (see, e.g. Conan the Barbarian), and a bad one can make a good movie downright painful to sit through (go watch Black Hole again and tell me your ears aren’t bleeding by the end.  Thanks, John Barry!).  Most people can hum the melodies, step to the marches, and tap out the rhythms these giants of cinema created without fanfare (that’s a music joke right there), but not many folks could name them.  So I’m here to do it for you, and also to force my ranking of their relative greatness down your throat in the process!

Here’s my methodology:  First, I only considered composers who have scored at least five symphonic (no “musical numbers” or “original songs”) soundtracks for sci-fi or fantasy films.  Second, horror films by themselves didn’t count since some composers specialize in only that sub-genre and also … I just don’t like most horror movie scores; my list, my rules. Third, the quality of the movie was not considered, just the music.  Finally, I judged quality by originality and emotional arousal, not necessarily technical skill (although that counted a bit towards the middle).

One side note (this one’s for you, @supergeekerella, so don’t troll me later).  It might occur to you when you see this list that all of these composers are men. You would be correct, though a couple of them might be on the bubble, honestly.  The world of original movie scoring is almost as exclusively male as big-ticket directors, and unfortunately for all of us there just aren’t that many women out there composing for genre films… yet.  I’d love to include Lesley Barber or Kathryn Bostic on this list – their work is unique and stirring, but there’s just not enough of it yet.  Maybe I’ll revisit in a few years to put some gender equity in here when the catalog is bigger.

And now … The List …

#10 – Basil Poledouris

Classical Influences: Frederic Chopin, Miklos Rozsa

Notable Films: Conan the Barbarian (1982), Robocop (1987), Starship Troopers (1997), Flesh and Blood (1985), Cherry 2000 (1987)

Favorite Track: Theology/Civilization from Conan the Barbarian, Soundtrack

Basil beat out James Newton Howard for the #10 spot, mostly on the strength of two of his film scores: Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Robocop (1987).  And also because JNH gives me the meh‘s. There’s something tragic about Basil’s music, and his style leans toward the chaotic, mixing movements to the point where you’re almost confused about the emotion he wants to draw out.  But when Akiro the Wizard says “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!” I’ll bet you can hear the punchy music that follows in your head.

#9 – David Arnold

Classical Influences: Gioachino Rossini, Ludwig van Beethoven

Notable Films: Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), Wing Commander (1999), The Chronicles of Narnia (2010),

Favorite Track: Stargate Overture from Stargate, Soundtrack

I almost had to break my own rule on this one because of Godzilla. @wittywats and I walked out of this film within the first 30 minutes back in 1998, but we stayed to watch all of In & Out. That should tell you something. Not even Arnold’s workhorse score could save that shitbag movie.  The rest of his work, however, is solid and serviceable. The Irish composer is better known for his work on James Bond films, but his genre catalog is well known, if thin. Just enough to squeak into the number 9 spot.

#8 – Michael Giacchino

Classical Influences: John Philip Sousa, Johann Strauss (the II, you rube)

Notable Films: Star Trek (2009), John Carter (2012), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Jupiter Ascending (2015),  Spider Man Homecoming (2017)

Favorite Track: The Temple of Issus from John Carter, Soundtrack

Look, when you’re tapped to make music for Star Trek and the Marvel Cinematic Universe there must be something appealing about your art.  Giacchino has the mass appeal thing down to a science, and he can tug your nostalgia strings like … well, like a conductor.  His style is thematic and largely depends on the context on-screen to really grab you, but he does that better than almost anyone else. I wouldn’t call any of his music especially memorable however, and he has a tendency to name his tracks with puns, which is why he’s only at #8.

#7 – Howard Shore

Classical Influences: Richard Wagner, Jean Sibelius

Notable Films: All of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films

Favorite Track: Riders of Rohan from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Soundtrack

Yes, yes. I realize that although there are six fantasy films in Shore’s catalog they’re all set in the same series.  It’s a limitation, which is why he’s this low on the list.  But good gravy, the heroic themes in The Lord of the Rings series are second to none.  Shore has said that he composed the music for the series such that if you discovered it in an archaeological dig from the 16th century, it wouldn’t seem out of place.  I don’t know about all of that, but if you can listen to the score for The Two Towers and not want to raise your sword in defiance, then you’re a dead shell of a person.

#6 – Danny Elfman

Classical Influences: Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok

Notable Films: Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Darkman (1990)Spiderman (2002), Justice League (2017)

Favorite Track: The Batman Theme from Batman, Soundtrack

Many of the composers on this list have “side projects” that include a totally unknown rock band, but Danny Elfman did it in reverse.  He was the front man for the odd rock band Oingo Boingo before he started composing for theater and then films.  Apparently, he didn’t even know how to read music when he started composing his theatrical scores (or at least not well), and was just banging out the music on a piano.  Now he’s one of the most recognizable and successful film composers of all time, known mostly for his Tim Burton partnership.  It’s entirely possible that he’s your favorite on this list, but frankly his style doesn’t appeal to me that much.  There just a little too much Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in most of his music for me.  Having said that, I loved the Batman score.  This is a movie that had two soundtracks – one of them by Prince (Prince!) – and Elfman’s Batman Theme still is one of the most recognizable superhero themes ever.

#5 – Jerry Goldsmith

Classical Influences: Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy

Notable Films: Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Trek the Motion Picture (1979), Alien (1979), Gremlins (1984), Total Recall (1990)

Favorite Track: Overture from Twilight Zone the Movie, Soundtrack

At this point in the list, things get tricky.  The rest of the composers are all prolific, recognizable (in style, anyway), and inarguably excellent at their craft.  Not much separates the rest of the pack until you get to #1 (who, let’s be honest, is in a class all his own).  It would be difficult to argue, therefore, that Goldsmith shouldn’t be higher on this list – now it’s just down to “I like this one better.”  Goldsmith has written some of the most memorable pieces of movie music ever, most notably the Star Trek theme that was eventually adapted into the TV theme for The Next Generation, and he has a gift for incorporating different cultural elements into his music to set the tone.  Listen to Klingon Battle in Star Trek the Motion Picture, or The Hunt from Planet of the Apes side-by-side with Too Many Gremlins and tell me this guy isn’t diverse.  Goldsmith died in 2004 and movies have suffered for the loss.

#4 – Alan Silvestri

Classical Influences: Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner

Notable Films: Back to the Future (1985), Predator (1987), The Abyss (1989), Contact (1987), The Avengers (2012)

Favorite Track: End Credits from Predator, Soundtrack

Alan Silvestri is known primarily for his collaboration with Robert Zemeckis, which gifted us with the unforgettable Back to the Future soundtrack.  Silvestri is a drummer (one of the few professional composers who started as a percussionist), and his scores reflect that.  There’s a sort of “forced march” feeling to most of his music, as the pounding drums and brass take you to a climax that never quite happens.  His score can turn a silly movie, or a silly scene, into something you immediately take seriously.

#3 – Hans Zimmer

Classical Influences: Ludwig von Beethoven, Gustav Mahler

Notable Films: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), Inception (2010), Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Favorite Track: Mesa from Bladerunner 2049, Soundtrack

In general, I like German composer Hans Zimmer’s emotional pull.  His music is evocative and dark, and well-suited to expansive sci-fi films like Interstellar and The Dark Knight.  But the real reason he’s on my list is because he had a cameo appearance in the first music video ever played on MTV in 1981: Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles.  If that doesn’t give you instant music cred, then nothing will.  Everyone who has seen a Christopher Nolan film is already familiar with Zimmer, and his scores are a big part of the success of Nolan’s films.  To my ears, however, his crowning achievement is the Bladrunner 2049 score.  I would never have imagined someone could so effectively capture the wounded, plaintive sense of the original Vangelis score from the 1982 film, and then transform it into something with a dash of hope and wonder.  But he did it.  And we should all be grateful.

#2 – James Horner

Classical Influences: Sergei Prokofiev, Antonin Dvorak

Notable Films: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (1982), Krull (1983), Cocoon (1985), Aliens (1986), Avatar (2009)

Favorite Track: Battle In the Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, Soundtrack

When James Horner died in 2015, I listened to the Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock soundtracks nonstop for weeks. Horner was a piano and violin virtuoso whose preferred score style is frenetic and uplifting, and he was a master at weaving the different sections of an orchestra together into a tapestry of emotional resonance.  Take my favorite piece (Battle in the Mutara Nebula) as an example.  The very first measures layer the strings together … Cello, then Viola, then Violin (with an assist from the French Horns) … before everyone drops out, leaving the violins alone to let you and the crew of the Enterprise know “oh shit, we need to make a run for it!”.  You’ll also notice that every time the Enterprise is on screen, there’s a clean rhythm from the brass.  It’s fucking brilliant.  Horner was accused of being repetitive in his early career, and there’s some truth to that, but that faded after The Name of the Rose in 1986.  Everything after that movie was significant for it’s maturity, but still retained that mind-bending layering style that was unique to Horner.  But nothing competes with Khaaaaaaaannnn!!!!!

#1 (with a bullet) – John Williams

Classical Influences: John Philip Sousa, Gustav Holst

Notable Films: Waaaay too many to list effectively, but: Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).

Favorite Track: Superman March (Alternate Version) from Superman, Soundtrack

Unlike the other composers on this list, everyone knows John Williams.  We can all hum along to the main themes from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Harry Potter.  The man is a damn meme unto himself.  If you haven’t “duh-duh-duh duh-da-duh duh-da-duh“ed the Imperial March when a hated boss/colleague walks by, then I don’t need to know you.  John Williams is the architect of the post-1980’s American psychology of greatness (maybe that’s a bit heavy-handed, but hear me out).  Apart from defining the musical persona of the Nazi-battling archaeologist Indiana Jones, did you know he wrote the main theme to the Olympics?  Or the intro to NBC Nightly News?  John Williams can be thanked (blamed) for introducing Nerds and non-Nerds alike to classical music.  That’s certainly true for me.  Luckily I had a composer in the family who would say, “Oh you like the Star Wars music?  Try listening to Holst’s Jupiter Symphony.  You like that too?  Now try Rossini, or Dvorak.  Now go out and buy the Hooked on Classics 8-track.”  I digress.  Without this man, there would likely be very few symphonic scores for movies these days.  All of the other composers on this list owe him a debt of gratitude for keeping them employed over the past 40 years.  John Williams FTW!

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Spoilers After The Break: Uncanny Avengers #8 Review

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The only Avengers book I’ve been reading regularly since the end of Secret Wars is All-New All-Different Avengers.  That is mostly because of the presence of Miles Morales.  (I read Uncanny Avengers for about 5 minutes before Peter Parker/Spider-Man left the team.)   And much like I mentioned in my Spider-Women Alpha review, I’m a sucker for crossovers, especially those that interrupt my regular monthly readings with tie-ins.  As such, I’ve been reading the Avengers Standoff event.  Some spoilers and thoughts on the latest chapter, Uncanny Avengers #8, after the break.

Continue reading Spoilers After The Break: Uncanny Avengers #8 Review

Slightly Misplaced Comic Book Heroes Case File #60: Ronin

You'll never guess who's behind the mask. Seriously. Even I'm not sure here.
You’ll never guess who’s behind the mask. Seriously. Even I’m not sure here.

When Brian Michael Bendis took over the Avengers titles, he decided to blow up the team.  That was literal in more than a few cases, like Jack of Hearts.  Hawkeye, who Bendis claimed was his favorite character, died in another massive explosion but emerged later thanks to House of M.  These things happen.

But Bendis then brought in a new team that he saw as a chance to do an all-star team like the original Avengers line-up was, but with the all-stars that existed then.  Not all of them made sense, and some of them were questionable picks.  But among the promotional art was a “new” character called Ronin.  Who was Ronin?  Well, that depended on what comic you were reading.

Continue reading Slightly Misplaced Comic Book Heroes Case File #60: Ronin

Spiders, Spiders Everywhere Part 10 (Death Of Captain Marvel Edition)

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The Death of Captain Marvel is one of those stories that routinely show up on critics “best of” lists, but that you never get around to reading.  Well, it has been that way for me anyway.  But I recently remedied that as I had to read it to see if it fit in with the Spider-Man Complete Chronology.  Given I’m writing about it in this column series and not in a Chronology update, I think reveals the answer to that.

More about The Death of Captain Marvel and it’s place in Spider-Man lore after the break.

Continue reading Spiders, Spiders Everywhere Part 10 (Death Of Captain Marvel Edition)

Spiders, Spiders Everywhere Part 9 (Contest Of Champions Edition)

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If you are old like me you probably remember Marvel Super Hero Contest Of Champions.  It’s a series with a backstory perhaps more interesting than the series itself.  It also paved the way for all those mega crossovers you love/loathe today.

Contest was Marvel’s first limited series.  It was also the first time that one of the big two had all of their heroes come together to battle a single threat.  And while it had no endless amount of tie-in books, it clearly set the stage for the original Secret Wars and DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earth’s, which would appear not long after.

More on Contest and what any of this has to do with our pal Spider-Man and it’s exclusion from the Spider-Man Complete Chronology after the break.

Continue reading Spiders, Spiders Everywhere Part 9 (Contest Of Champions Edition)

Marvel’s Birthday Gift To Me: Spider-Man In New Civil War Trailer!

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Expect to see this picture a lot. Spider-Man!

I’m too excited to even look too closely at the suit yet.  Classic Spidey, not sure what I think about the flairs.  I like that his eye slots are animated…which make no sense “real life” wise, but is typical Spidey.

Oh, yeah, the new trailer itself is awesome and you can check it out after the cut.

Spider-Man!

Continue reading Marvel’s Birthday Gift To Me: Spider-Man In New Civil War Trailer!

The Secret Wars Power Rankings – Final Standings

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Well, it is finally over!  Ok, it was finally over back in the beginning of January, but I’ve finally finished my write ups.  With that done, after the break check out our (well, mostly my) final rankings for all the Secret Wars series.

It was a huge event and most will not be insane enough to read it all.  If you are interested in the main story, you can mostly get by with just reading the main series.  Very few of the other series tie into the main event, and those that do are recapped as needed in the lead book.

Outside of that, I’d recommend giving any of the top 15 a shot.  As for the rest, you can likely just pick and choose the series that interest you.  As said, most have no ties to the core book outside of Doom being God and the story taking place in a domain of Battleworld.  And some barely bother with that.

Let us know what’s ranked too high or too low.

Continue reading The Secret Wars Power Rankings – Final Standings

A Rarity In Comics These Days Courtesy of Pleasant Hill: An Actual Surprise

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Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!  After reading all of DC’s Convergence and Marvel’s Secret Wars (final updates coming soon!) last year, I’m definitely suffering from “event fatigue”.  Yet, here I am once again reading the first issue in the next Avengers event, Avengers Standoff: Welcome To Pleasant Hill #1.  Yes, I am a sucker for punishment.

Some spoiler free comments on the best Marvel twist since the late 90’s after the break.

Continue reading A Rarity In Comics These Days Courtesy of Pleasant Hill: An Actual Surprise

Jimmy Attempts To Read All Of Secret Wars 53 (What Year Is It? Edition)

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Most alternate realities that make up the multiverse at both Marvel and DC Comics are variations on a theme.  There are some completely originally universes, but most are inhabited by Elseworlds and What If? stories that take our familiar heroes and villains and apply a twist.  Maybe the hero and villain have changed roles.  Or our hero was raised in Russia instead of on a farm in the middle of the US.

A common twist is to time displace characters.  For example, what if Batman was around in the days of Jack The Ripper?  In 2003, writer Neil Gaiman transplanted the Marvel Universe to the Elizabethan Era in the hit 1602.  Not surprisingly, a domain of Battleworld gets dedicated to this time period in 1602 Witch Hunger Angela.  Unfortunately, while the original series was a huge success, this Secret Wars version is quite poor.  But to fulfill my contract here at Gabbing Geek, I still need to cover the last two issues after the break.

In much the same vein, the Secret Wars series 1872 takes the Marvel Universe and places it in the old West.  So after the break I’ll also be cluing up the final 3 issues of that series…for better or worse.  (For worse if you ask Ryan.)

Continue reading Jimmy Attempts To Read All Of Secret Wars 53 (What Year Is It? Edition)

Super Bowl 50 – Hulk v Ant-Man For Coke Mini

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With the Hulk preferring to appear in Thor: Ragnorak over Captain America: Civil War, it could be a while before we see the green giant share the big screen with Marvel’s smallest hero.  But if the Coke Mini commercial after the break is considered canon (it’s not…) then they’ve already met.

Continue reading Super Bowl 50 – Hulk v Ant-Man For Coke Mini