Music Past The Red Line: ‘Life’ from Prometheus

By this stage, Prometheus has been dissected, reviewed, criticised, lauded and pulled apart a few hundred different ways. Ridley Scott’s prequel / do over on the ideas presented in Alien, the film is one of those fascinating pieces that brings out entirely different responses in everyone who sees it. To my mind it’s both massively ambitious and massively flawed, and it’s been fascinating to see how the blame — or perceived blame — has fallen on some elements of the production more than others. In particular, one thing regularly cited as a major failing in the early reviews is Marc Streitenfeld’s soundtrack.

To me, the soundtrack is one of the strongest elements of the film. There’s some fascinating work done with the refrains from the Alien soundtrack, linking the two films musically as well as visually. Similarly, one of the film’s major closing action beats is scored with music of an almost religious tone, as well as the usual action bombast, giving credence to some of theories presented about what’s actually going on.

There’s one track which utterly fascinates me. ‘Life’ is heard for the first time very early in the film, and it musically encodes the central conflicts of the movie — religion versus science, humanity making it’s way out into a bigger universe and realizing how little it matters —  into 2:30 of music.

Here’s the piece.

The first thing you hear is that rumbling, low noise we’re programmed to associate with the vast. It’s lower than normal too, until a single, slow drum beat sounds. The meat of the piece lands with the opening horn refrain, alone against that rumbling background bass note. The refrain rises, finishes higher than it started and the emotional response it evokes is instantaneous. This is brave new world stuff, astronauts gazing up and out of recruitment posters as they stare towards the infinite they will soon conquer. It’s a Starfleet style call to arms and, yet, it’s slightly mournful. This isn’t just about the grandeur and vastness of space, the big answers that Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway seek. This is about realising how small we are, how little we matter. The grandeur, the scope of human achievement and endeavor is embodied both in the Prometheus as a ship and in the refrain we get here; proud, heroic, noble and complete over shadowed by the constant, rising bass note. As the strings come in, they pick up the refrain and build on it, whilst the bass note continues to rise in the background. The refrain builds and turns, handed off between the strings and horns.

The choir kicks in last and here the piece becomes overtly religious. This is the sort of music we’re programmed to respond to with awe and wonder, the sort of music that Stephen Spielberg happily used to show how wonderful alien life is, how beautiful and intricate and glorious the universe is around us. It’s ascendant, aspirational: this is where we should be, we’re taking our place in the universe. The choir is deliberately angelic, but they’re always a little out of reach, a little too high and breathy. Beautiful voices just out of reach of understanding, always leading us further out into the black as they rise. Angels? Or sirens?

Then the percussion hits, hard, and the piece curdles. This is the moment everything goes wrong, the moment the expedition realizes how horribly out of it’s depth it is. A single group of humans, two years from help, trapped in the middle of events far larger than they can comprehend. Each note is stretched, the tempo increases, the piece builds yet again and then … stops. We’re left, like the crew, in the middle of nowhere with no way home.

It’s a fascinating, smart, mournful piece of music and the complex reactions it evokes mirrors the complex reactions people have had to both the movie and the main character, Doctor Elizabeth Shaw. Science versus religion, faith versus fact, belief versus action. It’s all here waiting to be discovered like the Engineers themselves.

As for what you find? Well…  that’s an entirely different matter.

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