War Of The Worlds is one of John Williams’ much lesser known scores, but that doesn’t stop it from being an incredibly atmospheric, thought-provoking and spine-chilling musical experience.
If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, then you’ll know that I’m pretty enthusiastic about themes in scores. I love a good main theme. So if you’d told me without any context that John Williams had scored a movie without incorporating any thematic material whatsoever, I’d have been pretty upset. Williams is arguably one of the best theme composers around at the moment, and so a soundtrack by him without any such pieces is practically a crime against humanity. Now, back to topic; I personally consider his War Of The Worlds to be one of his best compositional works, and one of my biggest reasons for that might surprise you; I think it’s good because it doesn’t have any thematic material whatsoever. One of the primary methods that the composer utilises to get across the sheer terror of the Tripods is chaos, and he does this by giving the listener absolutely nothing to cling on to. There’s no safety to be found in themes or really any recurring material. Instead, Williams simply plunges us into darkness with incredibly atmospheric instrumentation right from the start, and overall it’s one of the most effective uses of music to induce horror that I have ever listened to.
Prologue opens the album, and the ominous and incredibly atmospheric tone of both the movie and score is established straight away with slow, methodical strings not dissimilar in style to Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien. Said strings slowly rise in pitch through the opening minute of the piece, gradually adding to the tone by adding a layer of wonder on top of the ominosity to create a rather unsettling atmosphere overall. After a short while, the voice of Morgan Freeman appears over the top of the score, narrating the opening of the film. Having dialogue from a movie in the score isn’t normally something I enjoy, but here it works extremely well, with the music taking a much more sinister tone towards the end as Freeman explains the intentions of the extraterrestrial antagonists.
Tension then builds dramatically with The Ferry Scene, one of the most chilling pieces of music on the album. It is however rather oddly placed, considering the events occurring here happen halfway through the movie, and this is only the second track. This rather odd positioning of tracks is something of a frequent occurrence in this score, and it does kind of muddle up the build-up and release of tension and action at points, which is a bit of a shame. Still, the track itself here is phenomenal. Quiet, tense strings open the piece, slowly building in intensity over the first thirty seconds before the music then dives right into four minutes of chaotic and turbulent action. Williams uses strings, brass and particularly percussion to great effect here, and unlike many of his action-centric scores, there is no main theme to guide them, resulting in this real sense of unsettlement. Of note as well is the composer’s excellent use of ominous vocals about halfway through the track, which are used to truly terrifying effect.
Things then slow right back down with Reaching The Country, a particularly solemn and mournful piece. Once again Williams’ utilises instrumentation expertly here, with the strings being the notable stars of the show in their emotional conveying of the terrible tragedies that occur within the film. Another example of the album’s odd track placement is then up next; standout cue The Intersection Scene. This happens near the start of the movie, and so should really be swapped with The Ferry Scene on the score, as the tension and build-up would flow far better in film order (in my mind anyway). By far the standout aspect of this track are the opening strings, which last for just under sixty seconds, and for me represent one of the most spine-chilling musical moments that I have ever heard. They’re incredibly ominous and intimidating, building both in volume and intensity throughout until percussion and additional strings join the fray, adding to and continuing the increasing tension which then culminates with the arrival of Ferry Scene-esque vocals and loud, imposing brass. There’s no action here, only sheer atmosphere, and it is truly extraordinary to listen to.
The chaotic action then makes a return in Escape From The City, the only track on the album that might actually have a semblance of a motif within it. The music starts at breakneck speed, with loud, dramatic percussion working in tandem with Williams’ now signature fast strings and imposing brass. The “motif” I mentioned is a repeating series of rapidly-firing notes, and it appears throughout the track; both in this scene and at the beginning of the end credits in the movie, which again adds to this idea that it might actually be a theme of sorts. It however doesn’t appear again on this album. Have a listen and see what you think.
Refugee Status sees a return to the more solemn and sorrowful side of the score, with slow and pensive strings taking the forefront for much of the piece before funeral-esque brass comes into play in the track’s final minute. This solemnity then flows pretty seamlessly into The Separation Of The Family, which then darkens the tone slightly before introducing light piano notes than in tandem with the low strings make for quite a harrowing piece of music overall. This tone then continues through into The Confrontation With Ogilvy, opening with slow and atmospheric strings before then moving straight into horror territory with threatening brass and fast-paced, intense strings. The dramatic and intimidating percussion from previous tracks then returns for the final, action-esque minute of the piece.
The first glimmer of hope arrives with The Return To Boston, another annoyingly badly placed but well crafted piece of music. Intimidating brass and loud percussion make themselves known throughout the first two minutes of the track, before slight optimism arrives with light, almost hopeful and fast-paced strings. Dramatically different-sounding brass and percussion then appear in the final minute, marching and militaristic in nature to indicate the arrival of the military in the final few scenes of the film. This injection of hope is continued in The Reunion, where the previously established piano returns in a much more upbeat role in combination with light and pleasant strings. Morgan Freeman’s voice then makes a return for the last few moments of the piece as he delivers an outro akin to the original H.G. Wells War Of The Worlds novel. Epilogue then closes out the score in a dark, post-war-esque manner, utilising ominous strings and moody brass that do an astounding job of getting across the terrifying nature of the invasion but also the reassurance that it is now over.
Overall, John Williams’ score to War Of The Worlds is truly incredible. It’s atmospheric, dramatic and quite unnerving, with the composer utilising instrumentation expertly to get across both the terrifying nature of the film’s extraterrestrial invaders and the horrific effect they have on the human race. The score’s complete and utter lack of thematic material is also surprisingly beneficial here, as it really helps to emphasize the chaotic, antagonistic and utterly unfriendly nature of both the music and the Tripods themselves, with The Intersection Scene being a key example of this. Despite being one of Williams’ much lesser known and even less appreciated compositions, I believe that War Of The Worlds is not only phenomenal, but actually one of his best pieces of work to date.
Standout Cue: 4. The Intersection Scene