With Avatar: The Way of Water, composer Simon Franglen above all else manages to achieve the impossible; living up to the tremendous musical legacy of the late great James Horner. Danger motif, action piano riffs, two-note percussive hits, themes from the first score – they’re all there, and those combined with some pretty spectacular new compositions of Franglen’s own added to the mix makes this sequel score a true soundtrack achievement indeed.
So as you’re all probably very well aware, James Cameron’s first Avatar score was composed by James Horner. You can read my full review of it here from back in 2019, but in essence I was and indeed still am rather a big fan of it. The themes were fitting, well-crafted and very enjoyable, and I maintain that above all else Horner frankly nailed the musical style. To quote myself, his “expert use of tribal-sounding vocals and percussion in combination with traditional orchestra not only makes for some breathtakingly beautiful musical moments, but also gives the Na’vi a literal thematic culture, and one that is truly unique in its symphonic style.” It was a pretty fantastic score overall, and I still maintain that “War” is one of Horner’s finest pieces of action music. The composer however unfortunately and very sadly died in a plane crash back in 2015, so the scoring duties for Cameron’s long-awaited Na’vi-based sequel have been handed over to composer Simon Franglen instead, an excellent composer in his own right but also once score producer for Horner across multiple films (including the original Avatar). So, if anyone was going to be able to re-capture the musical magic of the late maestro, it would be Franglen. The only question remaining then is quite simply; did he manage it?
“Leaving Home” opens this sequel soundtrack, and with it Franglen almost straightaway introduces one of the new main themes for the score; the Songcord theme. This eight note motif features pretty heavily throughout the entire album, and is also the melodic centrepiece of “The Songcord”; an actual and rather wondrous song sung by Zoe Saldaña & composed by Franglen. Here though in its introductory track the theme plays almost solemnly, with gently downtrodden strings taking centre stage initially before looming brass and crashes of emphatic percussion then take over, and the new theme receives a loudly grandiose and happily lengthy playthrough with ethereal vocals in tow for the remainder of the track’s three minute runtime. “Songcord Opening” is up next, and even in just the first few seconds you can feel the world of Pandora starting to form around you together with the Songcord theme; the quietly wondrous vocals, the twinkles of gentle percussion, the whistling Na’vi-esque woodwinds – the style and memory of Horner’s original work just comes flooding back, and within even just a minute it feels fully formed around you, and the magical instrumental world of Avatar has returned. Serious props to Franglen there, absolutely nailed it. Don’t get me wrong, you can tell it isn’t Horner himself at work here (or at least, I feel like I can), but Franglen has re-captured his style for Avatar in pretty much as perfect a way as you’re going to get I think without the man himself, and it does sound absolutely astounding as a result, even a little tear-inducing.
With the style now settling like snowflakes around the listener, whistling, upbeat woodwinds begin to play at the start of the subsequent “Happiness Is Simple”, with gently optimistic vocals then echoing this hopeful sentiment as the cue continues with Horner-esque instrumentation rising higher and higher until the final thematic bridge is crossed at the ninety second mark, as Horner’s main Avatar theme from the first film sounds triumphantly through. It’s the final piece of the Avatar soundtrack puzzle here, and after thirteen years I must say it’s great to finally hear it again now, especially on the luscious-sounding brass and strings provided by Franglen here. The music however then turns rather sinister in “A New Star”, with low rumbles of moody brass and militaristic percussion hinting toward the presence of the villainous and human-controlled Resources Development Administration (RDA) in the film. Horner’s main theme then roars into action mode in “Train Attack”, with the Na’vi vocal chanting from the first film also returning and playing alongside bursts of frantic brass and continually propulsive percussion. The music then remains frenetic and almost desperate-sounding in tone for much of the three minute piece, with only brief heroic bursts from the Avatar theme hinting toward a more hopeful future. The composer then introduces another new motif to bridge old with new in “Converging Paths”; this time a lightly adventurous piece (which according to the composer himself is Kiri’s theme) on gentle woodwinds which overall blends rather seamlessly with the Horner-esque wondrous style in the motif’s debut cue here.
The main Avatar theme sounds tensely through on loudly worrisome vocals toward the end of “Masks Off”, and it isn’t long before frantic action then rears its dramatic head again with “Rescue And Loss”; here strings reach an almost blinding pace with increasingly emphatic percussion holding the background, pushing the pace further and faster until the marching drums and ominous brass of the RDA then roll into view at the five minute mark, and the action then ends a few seconds later on a rather malevolent crescendo. The Songcord motif then strikes a downtrodden chord on strings in “Family Is Our Fortress”, before then building back up into hope on increasingly grandiose brass and tribal vocals in the subsequent “Sanctuary”. Another new theme however is then introduced in “Into The Water”, which we’ll call the Way of Water theme as it has an ethereal, almost surreal feeling to it, as if one was floating in and overlooking a deep sea (which I assume is indeed the intended effect of the motif, given the film). The theme plays rather beautifully amongst peaceful instrumentation throughout its four minute debut cue here, and is particularly reminiscent of Horner’s style from the first film (complete with whistling woodwinds), making for a stylistically exquisite and enjoyably serene thematic introduction overall. “The Way Of Water” then cements this new theme into the score with twinkling percussion and echoing, tranquil vocals, fleshing out the motif through several happily lengthy playthroughs.
Strings-based serenity is centre stage in the first minute of “Payakan”, with brass and additional strings then dialing up the optimism in the rather wondrous cue’s back half. The Way Of Water motif then briefly reprises at the start of “Friends” on gentle strings, with Na’vi chanting then bursting through together with thunderous brass to close out the track a minute or so later. Wondrous woodwinds and twinkling percussion then play Horner’s main Avatar theme midway through “Cove Of The Ancestors”, with strings then also entering the fray and Kiri’s motif helping to evoke a sense of peace and tranquility throughout the just under three minute track. A rumble of drums and upbeat, adventurous brass then kicks off “The Tulkan Return”, a similarly three minute piece that, with an overall tonal feel of freedom and hope, reminds me a lot of the boldly optimistic overtones of Horner’s “Climbing Up Iknimaya” from the first film’s score. A brief but dramatic reprisal of Horner’s infamous danger motif then kicks off action setpiece “The Hunt”, with tense brass leading the musical charge together with rapid strings for the first minute or so until the sinister RDA percussion and brass combo makes itself known at around the halfway mark. From here on the music then gradually becomes more and more worrisome, until desperate brass then concludes the cue on a loud vocal crescendo.
Standout cue “Na’vi Attack” continues where “The Hunt” leaves off initially, but then takes things to simply spectacular levels. After a few seconds of quiet build-up the orchestra properly kicks off at the forty second mark, with Horner’s danger motif introducing a loudly fist-pumping brass crescendo that then leads into several particularly heroic renditions of both the Na’vi chanting and main Avatar themes. This thunderous action then continues throughout the happily lengthy five minute cue, with the new Songcord and Kiri motifs also notably entering the fray and joining forces with the original themes from the two minute mark onward. This track is essentially Horner meets Franglen at its loudest and boldest level, to some truly amazing musical results overall. The danger motif and Songcord theme then continue the action through “A Farewell To Arm”, with emphatic vocals boosting the dramatic volume to a particularly intense crescendo toward the end of the piece. Freneticism then returns in “Bad Parents”, with deeply thunderous percussion driving the action-level pace forward together with imposing, in-your-face vocals and brass until the Songcord theme then crashes enthusiastically into the fray at two minutes in, and continues playing rather worrisomely until the cue ends a minute later.
Fast-paced duo “Knife Fight” and “World Upside Down” then bring this chapter of action to a grand Horner-esque close, with the former in particular leaning heavily into Horner-isms with frenetic piano riffs (à la Clear And Present Danger), two-note percussive hits (Aliens) and exquisite flurries of strings and brass (with the Songcord theme weaving in-between), while the latter focuses more on utilising dramatic tribal-esque vocals and bold brass notes (though the danger motif does also crop up) until an almost deafening crescendo is then reached to close out the action. “From Darkness To Light” then reprises Kiri’s theme from “Happiness Is Simple” now in quietly pensive form on ethereal vocals, with the Songcord motif then echoing solemnly through on downtrodden strings. As the score starts to draw to a close, “Songcord Chapter” then reprises the Songcord theme but in now fully vocal mode complete with lyrics (in the Na’vi language), as a prelude perhaps to Zoe Saldaña’s later rendition. “The Spirit Tree” then continues in this vocal manner with gently hopeful reprisals of the Songcord motif in the first half and then loudly grandiose, conclusive playthroughs in the second, with Na’vi chanting then concluding the score itself at the end of the track. “The Songcord” then closes out the album with Zoe Saldaña’s promised lyrical singing of the titular motif, ending the story so far on a quiet but also rather hopeful note.
Overall, Simon Franglen’s score for Avatar: The Way of Water is pretty damned great, and most importantly for me it succeeds in probably its most difficult task; living up to the sky-high compositional legacy of the late great James Horner. I’d like to think my saying that holds some weight, especially as Horner remains to this day my favourite film composer, and I certainly don’t say it without reason either. One thing that I feel Horner absolutely nailed with the original Avatar score was its style, in particular its use of wondrous woodwinds, exquisitely peaceful, tribal vocals and genuinely gorgeous orchestration that overall was not only tremendously enjoyable, but also gave the Na’vi a musical culture if you will, and above all else I’m happy to say that Franglen has managed to re-capture that pure wonder here. His reprisals of Horner’s themes and style are excellent, with the main theme and danger motif renditions in standout cue “Na’vi Attack” being of particular note, as well as the abundance of action “Horner-isms” throughout “Knife Fight” for example as well as the gentler, more serene Avatar-esque ambient-ness in “Into The Water” which overall, while you can sort of tell it isn’t Horner himself, are about as close I think as we’re ever going to get to another score by the maestro short of going back in time, and words can’t really describe just how damned solid an effort it is by Franglen.
It’s not all about James Horner though, as I will say Franglen has also added to the musical world of Avatar rather substantially here with some spectacular new themes of his own. The Songcord theme for instance is a beautifully serene piece that appears all across the album, with its dramatic introduction in “Leaving Home” and lyrical finale (courtesy of Zoe Saldaña) in “The Songcord” of course being particularly of note. The composer’s theme for the underwater elements of the film (thereby dubbed the “Way Of Water” motif) is also pretty fantastic, with its appearance in (funnily enough) “The Way Of Water” evoking such feelings of peace and serenity that you really do feel you are floating in a calm, deep sea as you listen to it. There are other themes present as well throughout the album such as the gently adventurous piece for Kiri, and conversely the emphatically in-your-face, brass and percussion heavy motif for the humans of the RDA, and while I do feel they could be a bit more prevalent, the way a lot of these themes intersect and “battle it out” together with Horner’s original motifs in the score’s various action setpieces is quite simply a joy to listen to.
All-in then, no Franglen’s The Way Of Water score isn’t as mind-blowing as Horner’s original was, but that’s not the point to take away from this; what it does do is successfully resurrect and even expand upon the exquisite musical world the late great composer lovingly crafted for the first film, and adds some seriously solid themes of its own into the mix too. The result overall? Genuinely amazing.
Standout Cue: 16. Na’vi Attack
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