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Soundtrack review: Life (Jon Ekstrand – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: Life (Jon Ekstrand – 2017)

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“Life” is a 2017 American science fiction horror film directed by Daniel Espinosa, written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. Six astronauts aboard the space station study a sample collected from Mars that could provide evidence for extraterrestrial life on the Red Planet. The crew determines that the sample contains a large, single-celled organism – the first example of life beyond Earth. But..things aren’t always what they seem. As the crew begins to conduct research, and their methods end up having unintended consequences, the life form proves more intelligent than anyone ever expected. Jon Ekstrand wrote the score.
I had high expectations from this movie from the trailer and cast and it did not disappoint. Calvin the alien was positively creepy and it freaked me out for the duration of the movie plus there was that surprising ending. The terror and suspense is what I had been missing in “Alien covenant” also from this year, which ignore what usually made “Alien” movies creepy, the fact that the creature stays hidden most of the time and the terror comes from now knowing where it comes from. “Life” fixed that and it was scarier. From the musical point of view Alien by Jerry Goldsmith is also the gold standard for this type of movie and Jed Kurzel nailed that in the “Covenant” movie. Jon Ekstrand wrote the music for “Life” and in the context of the film it was just what I needed: tense, atonal, scary and with an actual build up theme that I remembered days later. I still remember the pulsating music that played over the final scene. Goosebumps.I couldn’t wait to hear it standalone as well.

The score opens with “Welcome to the ISS” and I realise without thinking about it beforehand that this is the kind of score that works with the initial voiceover of the mission status presentation; hearing Rebecca Ferguson’s voice over the minimalistic and melodic soundscape makes the score feel just as much an adventure as the movie did and I just feel the need to adjust my safety belt and press the go button. Once she ends the transmission the music takes over, groad6, spacious, dreamy with all orchestral sound peppered with subtle choral drops. The next cue sets the tone for this score with my kind of space suspense sound that reminds me a bit of “Interstellar”, with the organ and the buildup. I want my sci-fi thriller scores to be intense and minimalistic and to setup an atmosphere as dense as a spider web that the more I try to escape the more it grips me.

Jon Ekstrand isn’t content to just doing that; he takes this sound I was pining for and enriches it with melodic emotional embroidery which makes the texture of this score even more comfortable and addictive; I find myself listening to cues like “Care to dance” and “New best friends” with the same knot in my throat that made Michael Giacchino’s “War for the planet of the apes” a memorable score for me. It’s the same subdued,rich emotion waiting to burst on the quieter moments of “Life” and this is very hard to achieve for a composer, to control emotion like that, to not give in to the impulse to let it explode.

Then there are the suspenseful and action cues which are just as good. “Not the face” with its skin crawling noise and the deafening fear is right up there with the best horror cues from this year; it just gnaws at me and builds up until I just want to run and through the music I am able to recapture the feelings I had during the movie. Just like with the warmer moments the composer doesn’t just blow the roof off unnecessarily; when he needs to make a point he cleverly introduces a short choral motif or a frantic buildup. He never lets it out if his sight that this is a claustrophobic thriller where the main characters are trapped in a confined space from which there is no escape and everything also happens against the clock. The word I would have used to describe the overall feeling of the movie would be “suffocating” and the music is the same; I need to gasp for air once a cue like “Spacewalk” is over. It’s fascinating to me how this scary atmosphere can be so addictive; I just want to dial the volume higher and enjoy the tingling in my stomach.

The echoes that both the quiet emotional parts and the scary ones leave inside me make “Life” undoubtedly one of my favourite scores of the year. The way Jon Ekstrand navigates the spectre of emotions from warm to chilling is just perfect. If you don’t want to take my word for it just listen to the cue “Up,up” which starts sweetly, with a gentle melodic motif that almost gets me misty eyed before turning up the terror; the transition is natural and seamless and I feel like I am myself trapped on that ship experiencing this rollercoaster of emotions. I experience love,care,fear, desolation, hope, abandonment all through this minimalistic composition.

“Life” is without a doubt one of the best scores of 2017 and I am very curious to see how high it will end up in my personal index. Even if you haven’t seen the movie you need to experience this album because it’s a lesson in masterful musical story telling. It’s a composition where the attention to every small detail is a joy to discover. After listening to it I feel the need to see the movie once again and pay even more attention.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 57 / 57

Album excellence: 100%

Highlights:
1. Welcome to the ISS
2. It’s Alive
3. Like a Bird
4. Care to Dance?
5. New Best Friends
6. Need a Hand?
7. Not the Face
8. Sprinklers
9. Spacewalk
10. Thrusters
11. Up, Up *
12. I Thought They Came to Rescue Us? *
13. Goodnight, Earth
14. What Are You?
15. Godspeed, Doctor
16. A Long Way Back

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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