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Composed, Conducted, and Orchestrated by Ennio Morricone

First of all, when listening to Mission to Mars, one should completely forget the movie.  It came quite close to being a charming, inspired variation on CE3K and 2001, but its ending completely totaled the rest of the film.  Fortunately, Ennio Morricone's score survives in a generous 63 minute soundtrack album.  I have to admit (prepare to shudder) that this is actually my first complete Morricone album - he is simply one of those composers that I hadn't had time to delve into until this came to my mailbox.  The maestro rarely tackles science fiction films, but Mission to Mars proves to carry his completely unique compositional style to the sci-fi realm.  Thus, the album will definitely have its fair share of detractors, but for others the sheer difference from the norm will be a selling point.  I think readers of my page know how much I enjoy weird, off-the-mark film scores, and Mission proves no exception.  Morricone utilizes the New York FILMharmonic orchestra to its fullest, as well as a barrage of synthesizers, chorus, and pipe organ.  Some of the synths can be grating, such as the electric guitar sound in the first track, but the composer most often creates an interesting, varied sound palette.  Once again, the listener will have to completely abandon his or her ideas of proper sci-fi scoring, since most of these effects have never been approached before.  As an example, "Towards the Unknown" utilizes a passionless, indifferent pipe organ during one of the film's main tension scenes.  Here, the listener must drop any ideas about the organ as a church instrument and realize instead how alien the timbre sounds and the majesty conveyed.  Morricone composes several exceptionally long cues, with the most lengthy being 15 minutes, often using bizarre orchestral atonality in several places to raise tension.  The composer demonstrates his knack for melody quite often with several main themes, mostly hinting at nobility and nostalgia, which provides several breaks in the alien soundscape.  In summation, those looking for a gargantuan change from normal sci-fi scoring are advised to check out Mission to Mars, while newbies and traditionalists should stay away.

Track by Track Analysis:

1. A Heart Beats in Space (7:58)
Morricone actually opens the album with the film's end credits, a lengthy concert suite of several of the main themes.  As the title implies, it begins with the steady pulse of a human heart and an ominous choral background.  Soon, though, one of the main themes timidly approaches on oboe and trumpet.  A quiet electric guitar solo enters, and Morricone bases the first section around a development of this new theme, eventually utilizing chorus much like Goldsmith's Legend.  Its shape is one of quietly ascending flourishes.  Next, the composer seamlessly transforms this motif into another main theme that will eventually define the general sound of the score - almost like a variation on the finale to Williams' CE3K.  The only downfall in this track is that he uses a synth oboe at points instead of the real thing, which adds a grating ambience.  Finally, in the last section, he lets the listener gradually back down to earth with a return of the opening ascending themes, augmented at points by a solo soprano trumpet, adding almost a Baroque atmosphere.  The piece ends as it began with a beating heart.

2. A Martian (6:05)
While the music is great, this scene in the film was its undoing with a huge, '50s looking Disneyfied alien that had me dying laughing in the theater.  Two other themes are introduced here, the first a chromatic wonder motif usually scored for woodwinds.  Also appearing is a variation on the central theme from "Heart," a similar phrase with slightly more nostalgia played by low synth oboe (which isn't nearly as grating as the one in the previous track).  The track blends these elements into a suitably spectacular finale track that provides a nice counterpart to "Heart."  The final minute features a huge string and choir climax, as well as a captivating postlude for soprano trumpet and a final choral utterance of the nostalgia motif.

3. A World Which Searches (2:58)
This track provides almost a concert arrangement of the nostalgia motif, which is quickly overshadowing the other motifs as the main theme.  Its arrangement is quite similar to several sections from "A Martian."  Again, a huge climax of the theme's last section forms the last section.

4. And Afterwards? (6:32)
I originally thought that this was yet another track in the vein of the previous three, since it begins with yet another straightforward arrangement of the main theme.  Fortunately, though, it is here that Morricone introduces atonality into the mix with a warped pastorale for woodwinds, pounding pizzicatto strings, and fragmented low brass.  Soon, the chorus enters in a Ligeti-like moment, moaning eerily with sudden dissonant outbursts from the bass and a return to the ominous woodwinds.  Also present are a few nerve-wracking pulsing synthesizers which appear in the last two minutes.  Various evil-sounding mixes of these elements round out the rest of the track, which for me was one of the score's many highlights.

5. A Wife Lost (3:26)
Morricone provides a nice break in the tension with another cue based on the prelude theme in "Heart."  Several unusual synths get the melody at various points, hinting vaguely at the main theme.

6. Towards the Unknown (8:14)
While most sci-fi buffs unanimously despise this track, it was for me one of the highlights of the album.  For one of the film's main tension scenes, Morricone introduces minimalism to the mix with a hypnotic yet utterly suspenseful track for pulsing electric bass and spacious pipe organ.  The effect is startling, especially during the movie, and it almost reminds me of one sequence from Alex North's rejected 2001 score.  The organ's line is interesting - although it sometimes sounds exactly the same, the composer interpolates subtle differences - sometimes rising through chromatic minor chords, sometimes falling, and sometimes landing on a perfect cadence.  Also, throughout the running time, Morricone constantly expands on the orchestration, first adding tense strings, then horns and brass, then acoustic pizzicatto bass, then moaning chorus.  Additionally, he sometimes adds unexpected rhythms to the mix in strings, brass, or percussion, as well as a few countermelodies, each getting more dissonant as the track continues.  So, if you can't tell by now, the most appealing aspect of this track is its many subtleties and variations.  In the final minute, the player closes the swell box on the organ, and Morricone rounds the cue out with a straightforward recapitulation of the main theme.  I love the last 30 seconds - he brings back all the elements from the first sections, now with the organ playing fortissimo, huge dissonant effects in the orchestra, as well as new synth pulses.

7. Ecstasy of Mars (2:57)
Morricone next provides a concert suite of the chromatic wonder motif, played in several variations.  The quiet prelude motif and softly singing chorus blend with the wonder motif in the second half.

8. Sacrifice of a Hero (13:19)
This is the big one.  The sequence you'll want to hear thousands of times.  The reason to come back to the score.  It opens with the pulsing synth bass of "Towards the Unknown," but soon proves to be much more dissonant with an atonal brass chorale, sudden outbursts of tremolo strings, and pounding bass piano notes.  Next is a yearning, ominous elegy for strings, later setting itself up as a surging, pulsing ostinato.  A noble horn and trumpet theme soon enters accompanied by militaristic snare drum, built upon across the next few minutes by cacophonous synth effects, choral moanings and whisperings, a dissonant string melody, and several shrieks from the woodwinds.  Morricone incorporates several of the main themes, including the chromatic wonder motif under a sustained string tone, and later the noble fanfare.  The wonder motif takes over again, accompanied by more of the whispering chorus, metallic synths, and pizzicatto strings.  Soon, though, another mournful string theme enters for several minutes, hinting that something VERY BAD is happening on screen.  After a few more sections of previous elements and dissonant orchestral outbursts, a new, moving trumpet elegy (a highlight of the track) rounds out the cue, probably the high point of the score.

9. Where? (5:32)
For some reason, Morricone places the final track of the score here, which is yet another of its best moments.  Although opening with dissonant FX and strings, it soon builds into gradiose proportions with large bass chords, pulsing string/woodwind notes, and an inspiring trumpet fanfare.  After a few more seconds of ominous atonality, it builds again into a racing march-like figure carried by horn tone clusters and pipe organ into the hugest climax heard so far this year with organ, triumphant brass fanfares, and fortissimo chorus that eventually melds into the main theme - probably the highlight of film scoring for 2000 so far.

10. An Unexpected Surprise (2:32)
Surprisingly, the score now dips back down into atonality with tremolo strings that eventually break into a jarring dissonant cadence for brass and a groaning action cue.

11. All the Friends (2:38)
Morricone decides to end the album with a quiet, contemplative cue again based on the main theme, first presented on recorder amidst high strings.  It proceeds to a nondescript major-key ending.

Again, if you want to hear a new approach to sci-fi scoring, look into Morricone's Mission to Mars score.  If you're not ready for the weird atonality, synths, and orchestral effects, stay with something like Star Wars.

Mission to Mars: The Final Score
Music Rating 9/10
Packaging/Liner Notes N/A
Sound Quality 9/10
Orchestral Performance 9/10
Length 9/10

Mission to Mars is Copyright 2000 by Touchstone Pictures/Hollywood Records.  Review Copyright 2000 by Andrew Drannon.  All Rights Reserved.