It’s easy to forget sometimes that the overall quality of a film reflects a lot more heavily on the studio that made it than the people involved. Sure, an actor might have phoned it in, the editing might be sloppy, the effects might be unconvincing but for the people who were responsible for those factors, it’s just work, there’s no way of really knowing who screwed up, and no matter how the final product comes out, they just pick up and carry on.
Equally, a lot of the time films which come out badly still have elements which have been executed beautifully. An actor could give the performance in a lifetime in an otherwise awful film, like Tom Hollander in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Charlize Theron in Devil’s Advocate or Ben Kingsley in, well, most things. Equally, cinematographers, editors, production designers, sound designers and all the other technical staff and artisans are often saddled with appalling material to work with. The Star Wars prequels have some of the most incredible sound design in recent memory and basically any Tim Burton film from the past decade is a masterclass in set and costume design (but nothing else).
Where it really gets interesting though is the music. In many cases, by the time a composer starts to work their magic, the film is almost ready. They might have been involved during the early stages, or throughout, but once they start recording the score, they have to make do with whatever comes out. When a bad film comes along, some composers phone it in, through out a few vaguely convincing major chords and call it quits, but others go fully in. The nice thing about that is, even if the film stinks, you have a piece of artistry which you can pluck out, isolate, and appreciate by itself, far away from the stench of the project it was affixed to. It’s a saving grace, in a way, a soul-catcher, and it happens more often that you’d think. That in mind, here are eleven brilliant scores taken from eleven utterly dreadful films.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within – Elliot Goldenthal
One of the more bizarre touchstones in early ’00s film history, Final Fantasy was an ill-conceived, soulless special effects showcase which bore virtually no relation to the video-game series it was named for.
It was meant to be a way for Square Enix to transition the series into the cinematic world, but despite the acting talent and ludicrous $137 million budget, it fell flat on its emotionally, uncanny CGI mush. Despite this, veteran composer Elliot Goldenthal created an ethereal, powerful score. Goldenthal has a history of writing great music for bad films (Demolition Man, Batman Forever, Sphere) but this is perhaps the best example.
Conan the Destroyer – Basil Pouledoris
There was always going to be a second Conan film, and it was always going to be bad but even by the standards of cash-in sequel, Conan the Destroyer is an abomination. Whether it’s Arnie’s buttery grasp on the dialogue, the nullifying of the violence or more or less anything Grace Jones does, it’s a wonder that the Schwartzenegger/De Laurentiis/Fleischer trio ever worked together again (they did though, on Red Sonja, which is even worse).
One good decision was to bring Basil Pouledoris back into the mix. He’d composed the brilliant score for the original and his work on the second is arguably even better. It was performed by the Orchestra Unione Musicisti di Roma, who famously worked with Italian composer Giancarlo Chiaramello during the seventies.
I Know Who Killed Me – Joel McNeely
Joel McNeely is one of the composing world’s most under-appreciated heroes. Since first emerging in the ’80s he’s turned his hand to an astonishing number of utterly abysmal films across all genres. He’s scored a few decent ones too, most notably Holes; and he also did the music for the surprisingly decent Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire video game, making him one of the only composers outside of John Williams to ever write an official Star Wars score.
This score, however, for the frighteningly terrible (but otherwise not frightening at all) Lindsay Lohan horror vehicle I Know Who Killed Me might be his best work. It’s unexpected, clever, subversive and it keeps you guessing, all things which the film utterly fails to achieve.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon – Steve JablonskY
The third Transformers film is by no means the worst in the series, but that’s a bit like saying a kick in the shin isn’t as bad as a kick in the eye socket. One of its saving graces is that Steve Jablonsky, who has scored all of the Transformers films, knocked it out of the park.
All the films have excellent music, but there’s something so much more emotionally involving about the third score, particularly in the case of the piece above. Sure, it was set to a shameless, almost offensive reference to the Challenger 2 disaster, but remove it from that ill-fitting context and it’s a wonderful example of how to take a rising, hopeful crescendo and drag it into a tragic descent.
Lady in the Water – James Netwon Howard
Like Jablonsky and Bay, James Newton Howard and M. Night Shyamalan form a reliable partnership of excellent scoring and embarrassing directing. Every score Howard has done for Mr. Twist has been outstanding, but this, for me, is the best. Lady in the Water is a perplexing, muddled, self-indulgent mess of a film. Intended to be a fresh take on the storytelling of Hans Christian Anderson, it instead gave Shyamalan a platform to dump on his critics and literally declare himself the chosen one, all whilst utterly wasting the talent of Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard.
The score, meanwhile, is outstanding, so much so that it’s gained a kind of cult following unto itself. Some argue that Howard’s best Shyamalan score was actually The Last Airbender, but I can’t bring myself to acknowledge that film in any way. The pain is still too real.
Planet of the Apes – Danny Elfman
With all the buzz surrounding the new (and largely excellent) film series, it’s easy to forget that there was one other attempt to reimagine Pierre Bouelle’s 1963 novel. Tim Burton helmed it, and it’s one of the silliest films he’s ever turned his hand to, which is really saying something.
There are positives, the production design, costume design and makeup are all fairly astonishing, Tim Roth’s insanely bombastic performance is a joy to behold and Danny Elfman’s score is one of the best of his long, illustrious career. The title suite in particular, with all its boney percussion and thunderous synth work, is a wonderfully sinister, unforgettable piece.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – John Willams
Somehow, nearly twenty years on, debate is still raging back and forth about the prequels. Were they a daring failed experiment, or just as terrible as their reputation suggests? The tide still shifts back and forth, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t agree that John Williams’ score is magnificent.
Even beyond Duel of the Fates, almost every piece he composed for The Phantom Menace is memorable and potent. It’s hard to nail down exactly which of them had the best score, but the one for the first is probably the most distinct. Even The Force Awakens borrows a few too many cues from Harry Potter, but Phantom is its own beast, and it never gets old.
Godzilla – David Arnold
It’s hard to nail down exactly why this score works as well as it does. At first, it just comes across like ultra-nineties, cut-rate John Williams. A flutter of strings here, a boom of brass there and viola, blockbuster score. The more you listen to it though, the more you can pick out, especially in regard to some of the lighter moments.
One of the film’s numerous shortcomings is that it never seems sure exactly how to portray Godzilla (or Zilla, as the Japanese call this version of him), but the score strikes the exact right balance between imposing and majestic. Somehow, in the midst of all that, it also manages to pay loving homage to the music of the Japanese films.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side – Jerry Goldsmith
Jerry Goldsmith had a very long career, and in that time he scored some fairly dire films. Whether or not his soundtracks were able to elevate themselves above that seemed to shift back and forth almost at random, but most of the time his best work was done on the best films he was involved with (Alien, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, The Omen). Poltergeist II is an exception to that rule.
Steven Spielberg had no involvement with it, and the film was a critical disaster, despite doing OK at the box office. Much of its failings were blamed on a supposed curse (one of the actresses from the original died before production started, and another actor died during the shooting). Goldsmith clearly wasn’t cursed, as he eschewed the comfort zone of his original score and played around with more electronic sounds and even some Native American instrumentation. It works a treat, the second film’s score is just as creepy as the first, but more varied and more layered.
X-Men: The Last Stand – John POwell
While X-Men Origins: Wolverine remains the worst film ever committed to the X franchise, The Last Stand is a close second. Brett Ratner tried his best to do justice to the legacy Bryan Singer had laid down, but a muddled script and confused tone did him no favours, nor did the casting of Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut.
It’s a shame, and it set the whole franchise back by almost a decade, but a few good things came out of it; we got to see what Kelsey Grammar looks like covered in blue fur, and we got an outstanding score from John Powell, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on How to Train Your Dragon. The theme he composed for Jean’s final moment as Phoenix sounds like something from a boss battle in Dark Souls, with some of the most beautiful choral work found in any blockbuster score ever written.
Cutthroat Island – John Debney
Klaus Badelt’s score for Pirates of the Caribbean is still praised to this day, and rightly so, but only eight years before, another pirate film was graced with a score that was just as impressive. The key difference is that this pirate film, Cutthroat Island, remains one of the biggest box office flops in cinematic history, so much so that it put its parent studio out of business for twenty years.
Throughout production crew members were fired, shooting was repeatedly delayed and some two dozen other crew members simply walked off the production. Unlike, say, Apocalypse Now, this did not result in a tortured masterpiece, Cutthroat Island straight up sucks, but John Debney’s score is epic and enthralling, and remains one of the finest examples of contemporary composition that could be described as ‘swashbuckling’.
UPDATE: This article previously referred to Basil Pouledoris with an incorrect first name, this has since been changed.