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!