Since the dawn of motion pictures, filmmakers have sought to visually represent the impossible; to make our wildest dreams and fantasies look real right up there on the big screen. It’s why the science-fiction and fantasy genres fit so well with movies and why the soundtracks paired with these astounding visuals are often the most inspiring and adventurous. In your mind, you know that ship flying through space and shooting futuristic weaponry isn’t real, there really aren’t hobbits living under hills and David Bowie as a goblin king is too good to be true. But when those orchestral swells build or Bowie breaks into song, your heart believes. It also seems film composers and music supervisors are willing to take more chances with sci-fi and fantasy films, resulting in mighty themes and intensely romantic interludes, the more dramatic or whimsical the better. Long story short: sci-fi and fantasy soundtracks are awesome.
The sheer quantity of truly great sci-fi and fantasy soundtracks means I’m going to set down some rules: needs to have been pressed on vinyl, no Star Wars and no superhero movies. You’re shaking your head but admit it, if those were allowed then this list would be stacked with them and that’s just no fun. But if you’re interested, read more about which John Williams scores we like here.
Here are 10 sci-fi and fantasy soundtracks that get the adrenaline pumping, the heart melting and above all, the imaginations soaring.
“Khaaann!!!” Now that that’s out of the way, I can say The Wrath of Khan (1982) is the best Star Trek movie ever. It also happens to be one of James Horner’s most memorable scores. Where Star Trek: The Motion Picture went for enlightenment, Khan is good old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure, pitting the starship Enterprise and her crew against an old foe from the TV-series, Khan Noonien Singh, a role originated and again acted here by the amazing Ricardo Montalbán. This movie has everything: James Kirk’s past, his friendship with Spock and good guys outsmarting charismatic bad guys. Who can forget the way the horns just light up in the “Main Title,” before the main hero motif swells and soars? The interplay between the heroic and the sinister is about as good as it gets here. “Surprise Attack” and “Battle in the Matara Nebula” get the blood pumping, piling on the suspense until the climax in “Genesis Countdown.” But there is poignancy, too, as on “Spock” and the “Epilogue/End Title.” The recent 2-LP reissue is cool but here’s where an older single LP pressing does a better job with its all killer, no filler efficiency. The Wrath of Khan is exactly why movie scores are so popular, and if you haven’t seen it, get to it.
I can’t remember how many times I saw Edward Scissorhands (1990) in the theater but I do remember marveling at how perfectly it captured that feeling of alienation inside what’s supposed to be a bright and perfect world. For Tim Burton’s tale about a mechanically constructed young man (played by Johnny Depp) with scissor blades for hands and an awesome leather outfit, brought to cookie-cutter suburbia by an Avon lady, who better than composer Danny Elfman to embody Edward’s innocence and the view of suburban bliss through an outsider’s eyes. Edward Scissorhands is peak Elfman. The score is whimsical, cold and frightening. “Introduction” and “Storytime” gently pull us into the fantastical world, introducing the recurring themes. “The Cookie Factory” and “Ballet of Suburbia” have elements of Elfman’s score to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure but it’s the delicate “The Dance” that melted hearts as Edward’s love interest Kim (Winona Ryder) dances in the falling ice shavings from his ice sculpting. Quirky yet breathtakingly romantic, this score is a must-have for Elfman fans.
Romance, fantasy and science-fiction drama, The Fountain (2006) can be a hard movie for some people. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, the film combines three storylines set in the past (a conquistador looking for the Tree of Life), present (a scientist searches to cure his wife’s cancer) and far-off future (the scientist travels through space). Complicated and at times infuriatingly vague, it’s also a very beautiful movie with an equally beautiful score composed by Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos Quartet but with contributions also made by post-rock band Mogwai. The universal themes of love and death mean Mansell had to compose music which evoked the intimacy of love and the transcendence of accepting mortality. More than just a compilation of score cues, The Fountain plays like an album, the Kronos Quartet serving as the interlacing tendril, with layers added as the emotions and action heighten, as in the battle where the conquistador fights to get inside the Mayan temple, or as the future space traveler meditates or as Izzi tries to convince her husband to accept her fate. Honestly, you don’t even have to watch the movie to appreciate this score. It’s just that good.
Legend (1985) is a fantasy film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Tom Cruise as a forest-dwelling hero off to defeat evil and rescue his love, Lily, played by Mia Sara, all while saving a unicorn. Fairies, goblins, magic and love, it’s a strange film that not only focuses on the hero’s quest but on the captured Lily and her struggle to resist the temptations offered by Darkness, played by a pretty badass looking Tim Curry. There are actually two scores that were composed. One, by Jerry Goldsmith, was used for the European release of the film but the studio commissioned another by electronic legends Tangerine Dream for the U.S. release. It’s become fashionable lately to prefer Goldsmith’s score, to deny the ’80s feel of Tangerine Dream, but the otherworldliness of their score is where it’s at. “Cottage” is innocent, “Unicorn Theme” is majestic melancholia mixed with stately synths and “The Dance” is a twisted waltz as Lily is seduced by Darkness’s trinkets and decadent delicacies. The juxtaposition between the fairy tale and the modern synth-heavy score actually gives Legend a more cerebral grandeur. A traditional score like Goldsmith’s unnecessarily grounds it, Tangerine Dream gives Legend flight.
OK, John Williams makes it onto this list after all. With the state of movie technology and special effects nowadays it’s hard for younger audiences to know what it felt like to see Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) in the theater as a kid and be as amazed as the main characters at seeing the awesomeness of dinosaurs. The ho-humness of it all even gets made fun of in 2015’s Jurassic World where the genetically engineered dinosaurs of yore are boring; they need to be bigger and badder to make park-goers interested. But what helps keep the magic alive in repeated viewings of the original Jurassic Park is Williams’ score. Like the emotional puppet master he is, Williams inspires with “Theme from Jurassic Park” and other cues like “My Friend, The Brachiosaurus” and “A Tree for My Bed.” The dinosaurs here aren’t monsters out to get everyone but animals to respect. And when the big nasty carnivores do what big nasty carnivores instinctively do, Williams appropriately gets the goosebumps going with cues like “The Raptor Attack” and “T-Rex Rescue & Finale.” A masterpiece of inspiration and chills.
The movie may have bombed in the theaters but Tank Girl (1995) lives on in our cult film-loving memories — in a post-apocalyptic future, an evil corporation controls the water and oppresses the surviving inhabitants but Tank Girl and Jet Girl fight back. Irreverently led by Lori Petty as Tank Girl, this movie is ’90s girl power through and through with a soundtrack to match. I’m not talking about the score this time, I’m talking about the various artists’ contributions to the soundtrack. With artists selected by Courtney Love, we’ve got acts like L7, Belly, Portishead, Hole, Veruca Salt, Björk and Devo. And in true mid-’90s fashion, many of the film’s scenes that feature these songs play like music videos – Portishead’s “Roads” as Tank Girl takes a sand shower after a hard day’s work in prison, Björk’s “Army of Me” as our heroines infiltrate a sex club to rescue a young girl. You know how some soundtracks just capture the essence of a movie and somehow become even more popular than the film? Tank Girl is one of those. Released on vinyl for the first time this year, you have no excuse.
As of this writing it may be the only one of the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks to be released on vinyl (and it should be noted the complete recordings make up this set) but I would still choose The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) over the others even if the other two were on vinyl. Howard Shore’s compositions for this first installment are just that good. This is where we first hear the motif for the One Ring; where we hear the lilting melody of “The Shire” and bracing theme of the fellowship of heroes who set out to destroy the Ring. Like the film, the score progresses from lighthearted village happenings to increasing danger on “The Nazgûl” and “Weathertop” with occasional respites like on “Rivendell.” But it’s this mounting suspense (“Moria,” “Gollum,” “Khazad-dûm,” “The Fighting Uruk-hai”) that heightens the stakes for the trilogy. The journey begins here. The resolve of Frodo’s mission oozes out of “The Road Goes Ever On… Pt. 1.” And as if we needed a further salve to our anxiety over the peril our heroes face, Enya bursts in with the angelic “May It Be.” The score is more epic than the film, if that’s even possible.
The soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is not an original score, it’s a collection of classical pieces, but that doesn’t make the music for this film any less iconic. Dialogue was sparsely used in Stanley Kubrick’s space epic about a mission to Jupiter, an unhinged ship’s computer, and the possibility of extraterrestrial intervention in human evolution. Pretty heavy stuff, huh? Imagine what the folks in 1968 thought. With little dialogue for audiences to hang onto, the emotion of the movie was centered on the music, anchoring the film’s imagery to these pieces. Can anyone hear Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” and not imagine the scene of the man-ape discovering another use for bones or the Star-Child appearing on screen? Or the space-station docking set to “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II? And can anyone not picture the monolith when hearing György Ligeti’s “Requiem?” This soundtrack made these pieces popular and classical music enjoyed renewed interest by the mainstream public as a result.
Action scores that scream overwhelming odds and scrappy underdogs are the best and Junkie XL’s score to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) delivers and then some. Holy shit, this movie is pure adrenaline. The bleak post-apocalyptic landscape of the previous Mad Max movies continues: in a brutal compound where leader Immortan Joe controls a water source and a subjugated people, one of his lieutenants, a tough-as-nails Charlize Theron as Furiosa, helps Joe’s wives escape in a massive rig on wheels so they can raise their children in a safe place. They team up with Max who somewhere since Thunderdome is in pure survival mode and has lost his grip on sanity but along the way rediscovers his humanity. Composer Junkie XL makes great use of drums and guitars, describing with sound the massive terror of an unrelenting force, as Joe and his minions chase Furiosa and company down. The ultimate road chase through a gauntlet of doom paired with a score to match? Yes, please. And if closer “Let Them Up” doesn’t inspire you with its solemn strings and brass then listen again.
Labyrinth (1986) stars Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a teenager who wishes away her baby brother but immediately regrets it and has to defeat goblins in order to save him, and David Bowie in one of his most iconic film roles as Jareth the Goblin King, a frighteningly sexy antagonist that fluttered many an adolescent heart. Not only does he sport some killer costumes, he wrote and sang several of the movie’s original songs. Personal favorites include “As The World Falls Down” where Jareth tries to tempt Sarah away from her quest in a lavish ball, and “Within You” in which Jareth sings his loneliness and longing in the film’s climax but is ignored as Sarah tries to reach her brother. These coupled with Trevor Jones’ synth-based fantasy score make the Labyrinth soundtrack of its time and oh-so-’80s, but that’s okay. As Sarah says to the dwarf Hoggle at film’s end when she’s putting away her toys and treasures, every once in a while she needs him — that accepting adulthood and responsibility doesn’t mean we can’t look back fondly at those things that helped define us along the way. And c’mon, it’s freaking Bowie!
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.