It’s almost hard to believe that Bryan Singer directed the first X-Men sixteen years ago. It was definitely one of the films that was responsible for this whole superhero adaptation hysteria and, even to this day, remains very unique one as well. What made X-Men slightly different to many other Marvel movie is that it had quite an interesting moral conflict at the very centre of its premise. And while the relationship of Charles Xavier and Magneto was a thrusting power behind the entire franchise, it is perhaps time to move into a slightly different area. And that is exactly what X-Men: Apocalypse is trying to do. It’s much less interested in exploring serious issues and more focused on big blockbuster spectacle. The large scale threat of the title villain seems to eclipse every other film in the series and recalls its colourful comic book counterpart. And while filmmakers try to fit in as many references and easter eggs as possible to please its fanbase, the results are somewhat, shall we say, less than spectacular.
John Ottman comes back to the series with his third score. The previous two entries had very little to do with each other stylistically, save for the inclusion of main theme. X-Men: Apocalypse is different still. It doesn’t feel a whole lot like a superhero score and owes more to the Golden Age scores and Egyptian-themed The Mummy scores by Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Silvestri. It’s a grander music, very much evoking this film’s grand ancient threat. Chanting chorus and a surprising choice to include organ both to enhance that feeling. Electronics are still present but they’re used in a much subtler and supportive way. The score is pretty much traditional and orchestral.
The main X-Men theme is not much of a presence throughout this score and it’s something to surely disappoint some fans. Apart from the main and end titles, there is only a couple of nods to this recongisable idea on the soundtrack album (and a few more in the film). The much desired thematic continuity is indeed minimal - Jane Grey, Nightcrawler and Magneto themes from X-Men 2 are all absent. It might simply because they belonged to older versions of these characters and would have been out of place in this particular film. One returning idea is Xavier’s theme from X-Men: Days of Future Past, although it is sadly not that prominent on the Sony Classical soundtrack album (save for brief nods in tracks like "Just a Dream' and 'What Beach?').
The centrepiece of this film and score is, of course, Apocalypse and Ottman created two grandiose themes for him that are introduced early in. The character is introduced musically right at the very beginning with 'Apocalypse', a concert suite that actually appears during end credits roll. This descending theme is further developed in an actual opening of the film ('The Transcendence'). Here, the theme is aided by The Omen-like choral chanting that creates a truly ritualistic sense of profundity. While this kind of vocal approach was toned down in X-Men: Days of Future Past by studio’s request, here it is unapologetic in its old fashioned chutzpah that brings the franchise closer to a fantasy genre and serves as a darker cousin to Marco Beltrami’s Gods of Egypt (released a couple of months ago). While this theme never quite reaches such big proportions in the remaining portions of this score, it is nevertheless a constant presence, even if only in subtle and more suspenseful variations (‘Who the F Are You’).
Apocalypse is granted yet another theme, which alludes to his godly aspirations. It’s a surprisingly noble and regal idea that recalls old Miklos Rozsa epics of the Golden Age, with a slight touch of Hans Zimmer’s Da Vinci Code. It can be heard in several cues throughout the soundtrack album and Ottman even occasionally uses organ to give it even more weight (‘Moira’s Discovery/Apocalypse Awakes’’ and ‘New Pyramid’). As previously mentioned, Ottman also composed brand new themes for already established characters. The most prominent and memorable is the one created for Jean Grey. She received a more emotional theme that represents a young girl (‘Piece of His Past’). It is at first very fragile melody, not quite as evocative of James Horner this time. Towards the end of the film, however, it grows into force (‘Like a Fire’) and becomes a centerpiece of end credit suite.
X-Men: Apocalypse score feels definitely rooted in character. Ottman has clearly a great sense of empathy for those people and the resulting score is very emotional and almost sorrowful. Having said that, it does feature a heavy dose of action material as well. This is sadly where it becomes more anonymous. The Dies Irae-like driving motif in ‘The Magneto Effect’ might be appropriate to the scene but have a certain “trailer music” feel which makes it somewhat less impressive than it perhaps should have been. And it seems to be the case with many grander cues connected to worldwide destruction chaos and fight sequences (‘Split Them Up!’, “Great Hero/You Betray Me’, ‘The Message/Some Kind of Weapon’).
As with X-Men 2, there is a nod to a classical repertoire. Instead of Mozart’s Requiem, we get a modern adaptation of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony movement in a sequence where Apocalypse demonstrates his power to modern world for the very first time (‘Beethoven Havok’). Just like with 2003 quotes, Ottman builds on top of classical piece and shifts musically towards a modern choral mayhem with heavy arrays of heavy percussion. It might not exactly flatter the original composition but sure works well for this over the top sequence.
X-Men: Apocalypse shows that John Ottman has learned a lot since his early superhero days. The score is certainly polished and well-written. Unfortunately, the overlong soundtrack album might not show it in the best light. Missing are the statements of the familiar old themes that would help a listeners connect the new material with larger identity of this series. Despite that, it’s quite encouraging to hear X-Men bit closer to its orchestral origins and it will be interesting to see where they’re headed next. This score, after two functional predecessors in this trilogy, is definitely a step into the right direction. The evolution indeed leaps forward.
X-Men: Apocalypse is out now from Sony Classical (CD album will be released on the 3rd of June)