Since the explosive shockwave of The Sixth Sense in 1999 and *that* twist, director M. Night Shyamalan and composer James Newton Howard have had a fruitful relationship, with JNH (as he’s known in the fan circles) scoring all eight films since ’99. The latest is After Earth, a science fiction adventure starring Will and Jaden Smith. Does this match up to the previous efforts in one of the most-celebrated modern director/composer relationships?
Frankly, the answer is no. Being blunt, After Earth is a decidedly lopsided score, moving between many fine moments and quite a bit of slightly generic action music that at times really sounds like filler. There are some very good pieces, approaching the potential of the previous collaborations, but there’s just too much the other way. We’ll start with the lesser points, and get those out of the way.
Some may also recognise Howard’s name from his partnership with Hans Zimmer on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and there’s a feeling amongst some that perhaps some of Zimmer’s stylistic tendencies rubbed off on a composer who had previously created great action scores for movies like The Fugitive. Based on some of the more action-orientated tracks here, that theory perhaps carries some weight. There’s really nothing memorable in the action music, nothing that yourears can latch on to and digest.
Worst of all, it’s dull. There’s a lot of repetitive string movements (like heard in the Dark Knight movies), a lot of heavy percussion, and a lot of melodies that sound like they’re synthetic. This is also mixed in with a lot of ethnic elements, and many musical sounds that echo the jungle setting of the film. It may be effective in the film, I don’t know, but on album it gets tiresome very quickly.
The album is also broken up into many short tracks, so even when one of them perks up your interest it’s often over before you’re able to enjoy it. But lets step away from the bad and get to the good. Firstly, the score exhibits Howard’s undeniable talent for melody. There are some beautiful moments here; warm and sweeping strings, wonderfully tender piano, and some epic cues, although again they’re over too quickly.
Secondly, the score has a genuine emotional feel. There’s a lot of hope and optimism here, and music for what I assume is a bonding between father and son, and it has a nice human feel to it, at least without the context of the film. Howard also works well with choral elements, and knows when to play it up, instead of deciding to just throw the choir in whenever something happens.
After Earth has some nice moments, but it really feels off balance. It has some honest emotional material that works pretty well, but the whole thing is brought down by the unfortunately generic and boring action cues, which is a disappointment from a composer of James Newton Howard’s stature.
AFTER EARTH is available via download now, and on CD on June 10th
Words: Charlie Brigden