I saw Avatar twice – loved the 3-D, iridescent flora and fauna, floating mountains, and of course the flying. A lot of critics complained about the story. It didn’t bother me, it even hung together better the second time around.
What bothered me was the music. Now James Horner is no slouch. His breakthrough score – Spielberg’s “An American Tail” – promised a great new talent, who could both write memorable melodies and good songs. Someone to follow in John William’s footsteps. In the years since, Horner has gone steadily downhill, each score more lifeless than the last. By the time he reached “Titanic,” he was phoning it in. But at least it didn’t distract from the movie (love it or hate it – I liked it more than most people I know.)
The Avatar score really brought down my experience of the movie several notches. Some say the mark of a good score is that you don’t hear it. I couldn’t help but hear it – every cliché, every lazy gesture, like the guy can barely lift his pen. Action scene – pounding percussion. Yoga scene under the holy tree – tribal, new age fluff. The moment when Jake Sully gets on the bird and flies (and what viewer doesn’t feel his exhilaration, sense some of that impossible dream come true for themselves – I’m flying!) and what’s Horner got? Big voices chanting/singing, suspiciously reminiscent of that particular style of LIBRARY MUSIC that gets used in every other action film trailer. A pastiche of opera that insults anyone who’s ever appreciated a real opera, boiling that whole proud tradition down to thirty seconds in which the chorus of doom might as well be singing: Action! Thriller! Just like every other one you’ve seen!
And then when you first see those floating mountains – another aha movie moment that won’t soon be forgotten –what’s called for is music of Wonder, Miracles, Chocolate Cake…and all Horner can come up with is a choir of French Horns, the same exact thing Wagner would have done over a hundred years ago.
In his possible defense, maybe James Cameron is such a Prima Donna that he tells Horner to write boring stuff, so that all of the Big Director’s considerable tricks don’t get upstaged. Indeed, those wonderful images stayed with me for days. The shame of that score is that it made itself all too apparent throughout the movie, yet by the time I got to the car I couldn’t hum a note of it.