Big-time Hollywood director Joseph Kosinski made his mark on movie history landing an expensive debut with Tron Legacy and following it up with the relatively big Oblivion, an adaptation of his own sci-fi treatment. Both times he collaborated with musicians outside the movie industry. On the former a French synth pop duo “Daft Punk”, and the latter an electronica infused French founded Icelandic rock band M83. Both soundtracks score Science Fiction action pictures that pair with electronic synth sound elements to create soundscapes, reflecting the world of the film, but it’s the second film’s sound that succeeds and matures the director’s sense of style; offering a longer more-open relaxed and ultimately varied, deeper involving and emotionally enriching score.
Released in Holiday 2010 as a major 3D blockbuster event release, the $170 million budgeted Tron Legacy (heretofore referred to as Tron) set a record for most expensive directorial debut ever made.1 As a first time feature-film director and a working architect Joseph Kosinski set out to land a gigantic first impression by collaborating with pop-techno house music deejays “Daft Punk”: consisting of members Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter3 to pen the score. The band collaborated with Joseph Trapanese arranging over 24 tracks that realized a pulsing sound2 authenticating the virtual world of Tron (also the namesake of the fictional game world within the movie) designed with such un-paralleled clarity, the amount to which is rarely seen in modern films in-camera.* The film’s sound track exists as a special effect on its whole own, pleasing this complimentary creative approach, the pop duo composers appear onscreen as musician characters themselves within Tron’s virtual world as a house band.
Released theatrically outside the typical Summer/ Holiday’s in Spring 2013 a rare move for a big budget film, Oblivion represents a maturation of Kosinski’s earlier style of musical interpretation while remaining an outlier in terms of traditional modern Science-Fiction Hollywood films. This time the film’s musical collaborator that steps into Daft Punk’s shoes are the similarly French-founded Icelandic band M83. Not so coincidentally enough, Iceland was a major filming location for the movie; with its wide open showcases fitting an epic scope that sweetens the crescendos that are as vast and rising as the beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape our hero “Jack Harper” traverses.
Musical Narrative Effect:
Quite originally for a genre plot, Oblivion is set during the day with few characters, yet balances out by harkening back to the one man show sci-fi films of the earlier 20th century. The mixed familiarity breed is how the film was marketed4 allowing the sound track to tap into ambient soundscapes, taking in the quiet, natural beautifully dystopian environment while occasionally mixing the original beauty with musical references to other films, among them the earlier Tron, and Inception. [Hans Zimmer, who was apparently also involved with Tron’s musical development has his ticking time aesthetic from “Infiltration” referenced during the “Canyon Battle” track [soundtrack 1:02:09].
Throughout these films and at their most iconic moments, the sound effects are reduced and muted and the non-diegetic music fully takes over. A star example in Tron is the light-cycle battle at 41:45 where the character after trying to figure out the rules of the movie’s world within a world has a “eureka moment.” * For a brief time the film runs as the character does in slow motion as the track “The game has changed” begins to play [this track is also musically referenced in the Oblivion score]. The signature example in Oblivion, the slower, longer, and more contemplative of the two, is the night time swimming sequence from 25:25 to 27:25. During that scene, the track “star waves” plays as Jack contemplates the mysterious goings-on so far and shares a romantic moment with his partner. The film’s score still contains the earlier workings of synth and electronica heavy timbre that Tron had, but at a more relaxed tempo with less shallow intervals accented with electric guitar in major scale. Whereas Tron banked on minor scale for its narrative drive to deliver a dangerously anxious dystopian heir of despair & mystery: Oblivion, calling to mind the storied experience of the director’s previous film carries a similarly distinct timbre on a major scale. Both musically and narratively it is a maturity scoring eighty percent of the film, more than Punk’s contribution.
Themes and Processes:
On both films the composers were brought on relatively early in the development process. With Daft Punk it was as far back as the teaser trailer test footage appeared at San Diego Comic-Con 2009 18 months before the film was set to release. Headed up by lead man Anthony Gonzalez, M83 also originally based in France was similarly brought up in the preliminary stages of Oblivion and Kosinski sought them as inspiration whilst writing the treatment.
“I always felt like Anthony’s music was suited to this story from its very inception. When it came time to putting this film together, obviously the Tron: Legacy collaboration with Daft Punk worked out as good as I would have ever hoped, I wanted to do something similar in that I’m pulling an artist from outside the movie business to create an original sound for this film. But I didn’t want it to be—Daft Punk’s music wouldn’t make sense for this movie. It had to be an artist whose music fit the themes and story I was trying to tell. And M83’s music I felt was fresh and original, and big and epic, but at the same time emotional and this is a very emotional film and it felt like a good fit.”4
Touching on the process of selection for each film composer, the contrast/ comparison with choice themes musically and narratively speaks of an apparent evolution and maturation. Starting off with a thick slick layer of gloss and a glass black aesthetic, Kosinski marries his visual approach thematically with matching music as Daft Punk presses on in a thumping rhythm mechanically and without rest. Like a petulant teenager the music is almost relentless. The steady building rhythm of the signature track “The Game Has Changed” is a good example of the pulsing musical rhythm craftsmanship at its peak however, as impeccably assembled it might be, it is exhausting and might attribute to the film’s pacing problems. By contrast The follow up to Tron, Oblivion makes better use of some of that previous films elements and reversing them. For one, the glass black aesthetic has been traded with bright white as a primary colour. Compared to Tron’s dystopian designed world it is the more hopeful of the two. As far as visual design and musical mood go, they seem to come hand in hand as the director has a background in music, playing as a jazz saxophonist.6 There are less characters, less crowds, greater use of negative space and the use of primary colouring is a whiter and a lot less intense. This approach spills over into the music with a slower more soulful (understandably less robotic) beat to compliment the pace. Oblivion’s higher pitched melodies fade comfortably in and out as it mixes more genres; romance, science fiction, action, mystery and grandeur whereas Legacy hits the ground running and refuses to let up.
Tron Legacy goes heavy on synthesizers layered and mixed with orchestra and doubles down on percussion with bellowing echoing drums that march the audience up the hill for a roller coaster ride. While Oblivion also undoubtedly fits into pop-synth inspired electronica, it also has more peaks and valleys in its soundtrack and goes down smoother than its counterpart. The tempo accelerando is much smoother and more gradual as is the shift between major and minor scales compared to Tron’s spikes and stingers. The selections are comparable to a jogger’s heart rate after a run versus in their sleep. It should not be rather too easily dismissed however the smoothness of the sound in Oblivion. Despite going down easier with pleasant mix of sound effects and other ambient sound, its variety oddly may be interpretive to some as less distinctive. The familiarity of old ideas risk overtaking the film’s originality. Punk’s score arguably crowds more music in much less time at a higher rate of beats per minute and is so catchy it’s almost impossible to ignore.
The similarities between the movies Tron Legacy & Oblivion are abundant. Director Joseph Kosinski, an architect with a music background does a sci-fi action picture collaborating with outsiders from the music industry, draws on their electronic music background and foreign sounding flavour to bring in, influence, and entice audiences. The musical score greatly helps by bringing in audiences into a world greatly realized by design, however otherwise alienating. By working with the heavily drawn on and realized production design, the film’s inspired musical score and their established composers benefit greatly, transcending the film’s they are placed in. Now, with the soundtrack to Tron being shorter yet unmistakably distinct, it occasionally exhausts. While Oblivion calls to mind various references to other works throughout its score including the former, its variation in its pacing is a lesson learned in progress, while somewhat slightly less distinctive in tone, it is unmistakably wiser, more varied and powerful.
*Both films are currently streaming on Netflix.
- Box Office Mojo. Ed. Brad Brevet. IMDB, Dec. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=tron2.htm>.
- Kosinski, Joseph, dir. Oblivion. By Daft Punk. 2013. Universal, 2013. YouTube. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikD_0lDRz0>.
- “Daft Punk.” Wikipedia. n.d. N. pag. The Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daft_Punk>.
- “Exclusive: Joseph Kosinski Talks OBLIVION, Working with Tom Cruise, Getting M83 to Compose the Score, the Film’s Unique Design, the IMAX Release & More.” Collider 30 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://collider.com/joseph-kosinski-oblivion-m83-interview/>.
- Gonzalez, Anthony. Oblivion. 2013. Universal Pictures, 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
- “Joe Kosinski Interview On Directing ‘Oblivion,’ Tom Cruise, Special Effects.” uInterview 18 July 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://uinterview.com/uqanda/joe-kosinski-interview-on-directing-oblivion-tom-cruise-special-effects/>.
 In-camera refers to sets and locations built on screen before the use of post-production CGI effects.
 Eureka! A cry or exclamation of satisfaction upon discovery.