The great music of science fiction cinema isn’t relegated to just the John Williams and Jerry Goldsmiths of the world.
Since the birth of the theremin, the importance of inventive music to science-fiction filmmaking has been indisputable. And with recent Marvel soundtracks enjoying vinyl-collector levels of popularity, we’ve decided to revisit some of the best song collections in modern sci-fi films.
Some of these entries occupy the murky space between “soundtrack” and “score,” but each one made the list because of how important the presence of music (whether popular or original) is to the narrative or overall vibe of the film. (Or because I think they’re really good songs, dammit.) And with respect to John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, we’re looking for less “standard classical” and more “Wait a sec, was that the Fairy Fountain music from Legend of Zelda?” Here they are, in chronological order…
(And just to clarify, a soundtrack is generally made up of songs — like pop music — connected to the movie, whereas the score is usually non-diegetic music composed specifically for the film. There is a blurring between soundtrack and score in some cases, but we’re focusing on soundtracks today.)
Silent Running (1972)
If you haven’t seen this environmentalist space adventure, it’s absolutely worth a watch (fun fact: the three drones were all played by bilateral amputees in custom suits). True to its 1970s flower-child conservationist message, the soundtrack includes two original songs performed by folk maven Joan Baez. Baez’s bright tones are bizarrely at home in the cold of space, lending a lush sonic backdrop to the greenery-filled dome piloted by Bruce Dern.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
This surreal story of an alien (played by David Bowie) who crash-lands on Earth during an attempt to save his drought-ridden home planet is as much driven by the dynamic soundtrack as by its trippy visuals. From Holst’s Planets Suite to Louis Armstrong’s “Blueberry Hill,” the range on display here is so wide you forget Bowie himself doesn’t appear in any capacity other than as the tragically downward-spiraling alien. Also of note is the original score, composed and arranged by pop and progressive veterans John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, percussionist Stomu Yamashta, and Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones.
Despite being so poorly received that it inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards, Xanadu actually had a lot going for it, from animation by the legendary Don Bluth to a story mixing Greek mythology with roller-disco (okay, I see what went wrong now). But the soundtrack defied expectation, going double-platinum thanks to original music by The Tubes, Electric Light Orchestra, and star Olivia Newton-John.
Repo Man (1984)
I almost don’t care what the premise of your film is; if the soundtrack features Fear, Iggy Pop, and Black Flag, I’m sold. Luckily, this cult classic, punk rock, alien invasion comedy also offers one of Harry Dean Stanton’s many memorable performances and a slew of snarky one-liners only rivaled by the in-your-face soundtrack.
There’s plenty to be said of Queen’s excellent original music for Highlander (never released as a soundtrack, but with most of it included on the album A Kind of Magic), but it’s best to just put on the title sequence track, “Princes of the Universe,” make sure you have some decent headphones, and turn your volume all the way up.
The Crow (1994)
The classic goth revenge-fantasy made excellent use of the music references in James O’Barr’s original Crow comic books, with nods to shoegaze icons Joy Division, The Cure, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, among others. The soundtrack itself went triple-platinum, due in part to innovative cover songs which bridged the gap between the atmospheres of the ’80s comic and the ’90s film, including a version of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” (yes, about that Marvel character) contributed by Rollins Band.
Tank Girl (1995)
In keeping with the film’s riot grrrl-esque aesthetic, the soundtrack was arranged by Hole singer Courtney Love and was noted at the time of its release for garnering better reviews than the film itself. The album is a veritable who’s who of ’90s alternative rock, with songs from Bjork, Portishead, and L7 decorating the film’s post-apocalyptic landscape.
The Fifth Element (1997)
While the music here is more accurately described as a score than a soundtrack, its dynamism and extremely eclectic styles — which run the gamut from reggae and opera to Algerian jazz — were (excuse the pun) instrumental in setting the boldly-realized vision for Luc Besson’s space-fantasy. The film’s most famous number, “The Diva Dance,” is probably the best example of diegetic music in any sci-fi film this side of the cantina sequence on Mos Eisley.
Donnie Darko (2001)
It has to be said quickly that the original compositions in Donnie Darko by Michael Andrews are exceptional, especially considering the low-to-nonexistent budget he was given for this indie time travel film. But continuous sequences set to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” and The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” do a lot to anchor the narrative in 1988, giving the famously convoluted, heady film a measure of cohesion.
Children of Men (2006)
The unsettlingly believable dystopia of Alfonso Cuarón’s film is brought to life in part because of its soundtrack, which ranges from the cheeky “throwback to 2003” moment featuring The Kills to Michael Caine’s “zen music” air-guitaring along to Aphex Twin. Classical music offsets the horrors of the Bexhill refugee camp, and the foreboding lyrics of King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” sets the bleak, yet ultimately hopeful, tone of the film.
While the film itself polarized audiences, Zack Snyder took pains to faithfully adapt Alan Moore’s graphic novel, even down to the exact songs referenced in its pages by Moore. The alternate-reality Cold War setting is highlighted by music from Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, and Jimi Hendrix. And of course, we can’t forget that cringe-worthy sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s now-ruined “Hallelujah.”
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
“What do you play?” “Wow, um…Zelda, Tetris…That’s kind of a big question.” Maybe this genre-mashup doesn’t meet the criteria of sci-fi purists, but I don’t know another kind of universe in which vegans can levitate hapless slackers and punch holes in the moon (thankfully). Anyway, the excellent soundtrack includes a host of garage- and indie-darlings such as Frank Black, Broken Social Scene, and Black Lips, not to mention Beck who provided songs for the fictional band Sex Bob-Omb.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
Like The Fifth Element above, this is more of a score than a soundtrack. But the mix of orchestral arrangements and infectiously catchy Daft Punk beats gives it, arguably, a higher replay value than the actual film. If anything, the film is carried on the strength of Daft Punk’s contributions, which themselves owe much to Wendy Carlos’s original electronic compositions for Tron.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Innovative in its use of a 1970s playlist, the soundtrack for Guardians (affectionately dubbed Awesome Mix: Vol. 1, mimicking Peter Quill’s mixtape in the film) was the first in history to top the Billboard 200 while consisting entirely of previously released material. However, the feel-good soundtrack is more than just a refreshing twist on the standard orchestral scores of most films set in outer space; it illustrates the empathetic link between Quill and the alien cast of characters around him.
Black Panther (2018)
The album was as destined for instant popularity as the film. And Killmonger’s theme in particular (part of the separate album dedicated to the original score), which mixes traditional Senegalese and South African influences with modern trap music, became an instant fan favorite upon its release. Curator and artist Kendrick Lamar’s skillful selection of big name, up-and-coming, and Pan-African artists on the soundtrack makes it the perfect companion piece to the film. And while “All the Stars” is easily the biggest hit (at over 40 million views on YouTube and 150 million listens on Spotify), it’s the closing track that best captures the emotion and energy of the blockbuster film.
- Back to the Future (1985) for the Van Halen “Darth Vader” sequence, but I can’t forgive them for letting Marty McFly musically rob Chuck Berry
- Weird Science (1985) because Oingo Boingo
- Titan A.E. (2000) for recognizing that Jamiroquai’s music belongs in outer space
- And Ghostbusters (1984), whose theme song would make up every entry on every list devoted to sci-fi music if there were truly justice in this world
How has music shaped your enjoyment of sci-fi movies? Got any favorites we missed? Let us know in the comments!
Lauren Lavin is a freelance writer and artist who can be found on Twitter @YasBruja.