One can only imagine what kind of curses were thrown at the screens by countless diehard fans last year when Star Trek Into Darkness revisited some of the famous plot points from series’ past. It probably didn’t help that the film, while really entertaining, is as far removed from the original Gene Roddenberry series as it gets. No real s-f exploration ever takes place, nor there are any meaningful themes addressed. Instead, we were treated to a pretty straightforward action film with pacing so fast there is virtually no time to for audience to catch a breath. And yet, despite all this watered-down and sacrilegious approach to cult franchise, seemingly unforgivable, critics seemed to love it. Fickle creatures, they are.
Musically, Star Trek Into Darkness is a far cry from the broad canvas of outer space as presented by older entries. Gone are the broad melodies to describe the idealised worlds of Roddenberry. The focus shifts to characters themselves - Giacchino’s main theme was always closer to Kirk, rather than the starship Enterprise. Besides, the murkiness of plot of betrayals and acts of violence leaves very little room for wondrous exploration. It’s much closer in spirit to Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek Nemesis and Cliff Eidelman’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the two most notable dark entries. Bitterness seems to be the thing this season and the newly released expanded album allows us to once again put the latest musical venture into the 23rd century under a microscope - more than a year after the film's’ initial release.
The opening section of this story, as presented in IMAX months before the release, promises a much more lighthearted and careless adventure. The amusing encounter with a primitive race might recall some elements of Star Trek canon. However, it’s closer in spirit to the other space franchise in tone. Giacchino’s energetic opening reintroduces his major material from the first film in a rousing and exciting action setting - Spock’s theme with choir is a particular highlight (‘Spock Drops/Kirk Jumps’). As our heroes leave, we are treated to a declamatory statement of Alexander Courage’s fanfare along with Giacchino’s own heroic melody as film’s title appears on screen (‘Sub Prime Directive’).
Main attraction of the score, and also its potential detriment, is John Harrison/Khan theme. If the first film and score started to move away from the space opera romance, then Star Trek Into Darkness severs ties with this concept completely. A relatively simple melodic idea forms the basis of the theme, while the Inception-like ostinato brings a certain sense of urgency to the dastardly plots of this character, in a same way that the Enterprise ostinato represents the inner drive of the vessel and its crew. It would be easy to dismiss this thematic idea for following more obvious trends of blockbuster scoring post-The Dark Knight., and the pulsating ostinato seems to recall similarly obsessive musical tools of Christopher Nolan films and modern scores that they inspired (TRON: Legacy being the other title). However, the devil’s in the detail yet again. Giacchino uses the contemporary language of cinema, but manages to paint a very complex and contradictory portrait of the iconic villain, adding many shades to his motivation. This tune is at its most effective in smaller suspenseful variations, as opposed to several grandiose arrangements that often betray its quite simple (if effective) construction. The sheer wit with which it takes over the innocent and emotional secondary family piano theme in ‘London Falling’ is a testament of the composer’s intelligence and skill. Suddenly, something a homely longing ostinato turns into ominous and mechanic determination. The theme is not only that, however. The stripped-down version, as heard in emotional ‘Harrison’s Heart’, creates a sense of loss and regret. There is more to him than meets the eyes, it would seem, and Giacchinol plays on those feelings extremely well.
Another crucial element makes its proper debut on the new release - the Admiral Marcus/Vengeance theme. True, there was one variation present on the original soundtrack from 2013, but less attentive listeners would probably dismiss it as part of underscore. What’s fascinating about this ideas is how ties to Kirk’s own theme - being its older, experienced, but also bitter, sibling. The connection is never more pronounced than at the beginning of this film, where they are presented in counterpoint to each other (‘The Pride of Iowa’). That fact makes the betrayal halfway through the film more effective. It’s interesting that tune itself doesn’t change at all, it’s the context that puts a different light on it - what we thought was melancholy, turns out to be a sick ambition. The first hint of that shift of tone comes in ‘Scotty Floored’ when the melody takes on a more threatening militaristic tone.
There is a short subplot element in the film that re-introduces the audience to the iconic race of Klingons. They were always graced with interesting music - Jerry Goldsmith’s 'Klingon Battle' remains of the most memorable pieces from the series, while James Horner’s more ethnic-flavoured take is developed out of his infamous danger motif. Cliff Eidelman’s Firebird-inspired take is far more subtle and involved chorus chanting in the fictional language. It is that last aspect that Giacchino makes a use of in ‘Klingon Chase’, punctuated by Blaster Beam effects, previously made famous by Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek - The Motion Picture. The theme itself is really simple, too brief perhaps when compared to the most famous melodies crafted by all those composers. However, Giacchino has showed previously how capable he is in developing seemingly insignificant motifs into something much more impressive, so the subsequent films will almost certainly present an opportunity to revisit this music.
The film, being extremely action-packed, inspired Giacchino to compose numerous action set pieces. Most of them are quite brutal and percussive, having a lot in common with the thriller genre rather than space opera (‘Man vs. Blaster’, ‘Torpedo Tango’). The infamous final confrontation between Spock and Khan showcases both character’s themes, along with the hilarious musical quote from the classic episode Amok Time. All of that is spiced up by creative and dense percussion writing, something of a trademark of this composer. With the aid of many legendary players (with legendary Emil Richards in charge) he creates quite a racket, and a very cool one at that. One the other hand, the bold heroics of ‘Ship to Ship’ sequence inspire more traditional s-f brass chords.
As with the previous score, the final section of the score leans towards more nostalgic elements. The sombre ‘Kirk Enterprises’ leads to the Alexander Courage’s classic fanfare before presenting this material in its full glory and as film credits start rolling. The end credit piece, as presented on the latest album, represents the film version edit, not as recorded, and it incorporates sections from different cues stitched together. The composer never prepared an original piece for this occasion, as he usually does. He merely re-recorded the sections from previous film, almost verbatim. A slight disappointment.
For many listeners the album situation will be frustrating. The original 2013 disc followed the model of the first film and unveiled a modest 45-minute programme for listeners’ enjoyment. The short album/long album merit debate aside, it wasn’t the most flattering presentation - a lot of the more interesting developments and highlights never made it to that disc - and the two lengthy suites focusing on both villain’s themes were both missing. Now, a full year later, we are treated to the two-hour deluxe treatment of the same music. And while this edition brings us the sheer majority of score Giacchino wrote for this film (not counting one curious omission), it might prove to be too much of a good thing for some. Somewhere in between is the perfect running time for a score like Star Trek Into Darkness. Fortunately, now listeners have means to create their own preferred playlists. In any case, the latest entry in Varese Sarabande CD Club series is a worthy and, for many fans, essential purchase.
In the end, one’s enjoyment of this score is down to one thing - what kind of Star Trek are we expecting to experience. For fans of older, classically-influenced music of the series, it might be a slight disappointment. What they’re looking for can be found only at the fringes of both Giacchino scores. It is obviously not his fault, as both films don’t really allow for such an approach, nor do they really need it. Still, many people are still longing for more wondrous aspects of this franchise. At the end of the film, the Enterprise and its crew finally leaves our solar system for a five year mission of space exploration. Here is hoping Michael will come back for the rumoured third film, and that he’ll be able to take his immense talent when no man - or no one - has gone… before.
Star Trek Into Darkness: Limited Edition is available now from Varese Sarabande Records