Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
I’ve made it clear in the past that Michael Giacchino is one of my favorite composers, and I might have even called him the best composer out there today; his ability to so effortlessly switch between genres is impressive, with him composing excellent scores for such contrasting films as Star Trek (my review), Up, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review). My recent obsession with all things John Carter/Barsoom-related has introduced me to Giacchino’s score for the 2012 Disney film for the first time. As expected, it’s wonderful.
The soundtrack opens with Giacchino’s beautiful, sweeping theme representing the world of Barsoom; after listening to it for the first time, I walked away whistling it. In the theme, he has managed to capture the majesty and splendor of the planet, both as described by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the original A Princess of Mars novel (my review) and as shown in the film adaptation, but it also embodies both the adventure at hand and the romance between Carter and Dejah Thoris. This quickly fades into something more ethereal and otherworldly, led by a solo voice and eerie strings, serving as a backdrop to the opening scene that describes the plight of the dying planet.
There is a lot of diversity found in this score, with Giacchino switching between a larger, more triumphant sound (“Carter They Come, Carter They Fall,” “The Prize is Barsoom”) and something that is more mysterious and appropriately unearthly (“The Temple of Issus,” “A Thern Warning”). He also makes heavy use of voice, with either the choir or a single voice making an appearance in just about every track. The dexterity of the human voice gives it the ability to fit right in with the “unearthly” style of music mentioned as well as with the more tender, intimate moments of the score, such as at the start of the track “A Change of Heart.” They even fit in perfectly during the more aggressive, war-like bits of music, such as in the latter half of the track “The Prize is Barsoom.”
The Tharks are an indigenous species on Barsoom, not human-like in appearance, and they are represented well here by heavy percussion with a sort of tribal, primitive sound to it. It’s appropriately aggressive, just like the Tharks themselves. Giacchino uses strings to great effect, with the bowed instruments often acting as the driving force beneath the rest of the orchestra, usually playing an ostinato eighth note line, occasionally interjecting with a quieter version of theme heard in the other instruments. The strings also have many beautiful moments on their own, playing soft, warm melodies that emphasize the beauty of the world and the tenderness shown between Carter and Dejah Thoris.
The original John Carter stories as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired many generations of scientists, writers, and even filmmakers. Among those was George Lucas, whose Star Wars saga borrows many elements of story and character from Burroughs’ work. It’s an ironic twist, then, for me to point out that there are parts of Giacchino’s score here that are reminiscent of John Williams’ score to Star Wars. No, nothing is ripped off, but there are certain points in the score when I can definitely hear the nod to Williams’ work, which is a nice touch that familiarizes the film a bit. You can even hear some of Giacchino’s Star Trek in here, though there’s nothing blatant enough to upset me. These three films all take place on foreign planets/in space, so the feel of them is similar (though Star Trek is definitely more sci-fi than the other two) and the music shares common elements of the genre.
Despite the fact that the film was not received very well, Giacchino’s score has received universal acclaim because, well, he’s awesome. With his score to John Carter, Giacchino has ventured into yet another new territory for him – that is, the territory of space fantasy – and has emerged victorious. His interpretation of John Carter’s Barsoom is on as grand a scale as the original book, but he also captures the more personal moments between our hero and Dejah Thoris. His ability to switch styles so quickly, from a majestic main theme to an aggressive percussion rhythm for the Tharks to ethereal strings/voices for the planet of Barsoom itself, makes the soundtrack just as epic as the film itself.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
1. “A Thern for the Worse” 7:38
2. “Get Carter” 4:25
3. “Gravity of the Situation” 1:20
4. “Thark Side of Barsoom” 2:55
5. “Sab Than Pursues Princess” 5:33
6. “The Temple of Issus” 3:24
7. “Zodanga Happened” 4:01
8. “The Blue Light Special” 4:11
9. “Carter They Come, Carter They Fall” 3:55
10. “A Change of Heart” 3:04
11. “A Thern Warning” 4:04
12. “The Second Biggest Apes I’ve Seen This Month” 2:35
13. “The Right of Challenge” 2:22
14. “The Prize Is Barsoom” 4:29
15. “The Fight for Helium” 4:22
16. “Not Quite Finished” 2:06
17. “Thernabout” 1:18
18. “Ten Bitter Years” 3:12
19. “John Carter of Mars” 8:53
Total Length: app. 75 min.
P.S. – Read my review of the film here!