Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar (and Soundtrack Musings)

I'm quite ill today, so I'll probably refrain from going into as much detail as I would like to on this topic (or so I say at this time, I may get carried away). Nevertheless, I wanted to get into this topic while it was still fresh in my mind.

First off: Avatar was a decent film. The visuals definitely made it what it was, storywise, it was pretty weak. Like I thought, it was a retelling of Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai. But visually, it was a masterpiece. I don't think I've ever seen a film look as good as this one did. The 3-D was the best I've seen in a film. The Na'vi looked so real, almost like they could walk off the screen. See it in theatres. Even if you don't "like" the story, it'll be worth it for the visuals alone. I was disappointed by the lack of character development though, and would like to learn more about the world of Pandora. It was just so fascinating, and so beautiful--almost like a character in itself.

Now, a topic most people aren't talking about: the soundtrack. I liked it. However, I recognized several bits of the music from other films. I sat there in the theatre at one particular moment wondering where one piece was from, because I knew it was from a film I'd seen multiple times. Y'know, instead of paying attention to the movie, I was thinking about music. I'd thought far enough that it was probably a violent movie, possibly a war film. Here is the piece of music in mind (I've included it as a link because the title of the piece contains a slight spoiler to the film, and I want to give people the choice whether or not they want to view it based on that fact):

Avatar soundtrack, piece 10 (begins about the 5 minute mark)

It's not the main musical composition of the piece, but still I recognized it! I did research when I got home, and found out that James Horner, the composer, likes to "recycle" his past music and rework it into his soundtracks rather than creating entirely new pieces. Therefore, I did more research, and John Tillnes a man who is obviously much more knowledgeable about music than I, gave me the insight I needed to solve my problem (with some help from the commenters as well). Apparently the repeating music at the end is called a "four-note motif", and it's a common theme of Horner's. After reading the comments, I finally figured it out: Enemy at the Gates! That motif is used quite liberally through out the film during really tense moments, thus making it stick out in my mind. It helps that I've watched the film numerous times. Here's the piece in question (again, linked to because of a slight spoiler):

Enemy at the Gates

Clearly the motif is used at the forefront of this piece, whereas it is a bit more subtle in the Avatar piece.

I found another, with a bit of assistance from a friend as well, the following piece is similar to many pieces of the Glory soundtrack:

Avatar Soundtrack, Piece 6

I've read that there are similarities to the Titanic score, among many others. I didn't catch any other similarities though, because my fascination with movie music is a fairly recent one. Before, I hardly noticed the music, save for a particularly good piece. That, and I haven't watched Titanic in over two and a half years, despite owning it on DVD. It's just too long to watch most of the time, I don't have the attention span for it. Gangs of New York is one of the very few "long" movies I can watch on even a semi-regular basis, because it's one of my favourites. However, I don't believe Kirk has seen Titanic, so that should be remedied at some point.

So how do I feel about Horner "borrowing" from his past sound tracks? It doesn't really bother me that much. He's clearly got a specific style, so if it works for one film, and can work for another...go at it. But it is a problem when the pieces are much too similar. Noticing that four-note motif was clearly distracting for me, but I also recognize that I'm quite nerdy about movies in general. For the casual fan, I doubt they'd notice. I don't think I'd say that I dislike Horner, his music is actually quite moving, but there are other composers out there that I like a whole lot more.


  1. Wow - you know your soundtracks, lady!

    Gangs of New York, oddly enough, is one of my least-favorite movies of all time: I always thought that it plays like a musical without the music! Watch the first fight scene with One Day More from Les Mis playing and see what I mean!

    I haven't seen Avatar yet, but I hope to see it next week sometime the way movies were meant to be seen: in 3D by yourself! Ha, ha!

    Get well soon!

  2. Hmm, musical without the music, eh? I never thought about it like that. I love it because of Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. It's rare that you find yourself rooting for the villain in a film. That, and I'm a sucker for movies about history.

  3. I used to really like Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Gangs of NY, but when I've run across the movie on TV in recent years, it strikes me as being just one step away from Snidely Whiplash.

    His performance in There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, I think is a masterstroke: subtle and over the top at the same time.

    Movies about history are great, and so are movies about movies! I give you: Cinema Paradiso, maybe my favorite movie of all time.

  4. Oh, There Will be Blood is fantastic! He more than deserved that Oscar for it. Have you seen the Ballad of Jack and Rose? He gave a very subtle performance in that one, and I thought he did a very good job.

    As for Cinema Paradiso, I've heard really good things about it but haven't yet seen it. Which version is best, the longer one, or the shorter, "international" version?

  5. I haven't seen that movie. I'll look for it!

    Strangely enough, the US version of Cinema Paradiso is by far the superior one -it maintains the mystery and romanticism that the International version gives away. A rare studio intervention that actually works.

    The ending is the best movie ending ever - it makes me bawl like a baby every time.

  6. Oops - to clarify: the shorter one is the better one; I think I just misused the meaning of the word "international!"

    The shorter one is the one that was edited by Miramax for US and Canadian release.

  7. Okay I'll check out the shorter version then. That surprises me as well because generally when studios start to edit things, it takes away from it, rather than make it better.

  8. You're right.

    Roger Ebert weighs in on it here: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20020628/REVIEWS/206280301/1023

    He thinks the shorter one is better too, which is counterintuitive, but seems to be the critical consensus.

  9. Thanks for the link, that was really interesting. Definitely will check out the shorter version first. :)