The removal of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson from the anticipated sci-fi sequel may send its soundtrack into generic territory.
The recent glut of science-fiction films and TV series (both new and in established franchises) is great, but troubles with the upcoming round of Star Wars films show that Hollywood may still be iffy about letting tentpole nerd-action blockbusters stray too far from the enormously successful template that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films set. That, or they feel it's just a fad and are eager to return to rah-rah pro-America narratives that they're content to repeat forever. In any case, it seems that even Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott's genre-defining original, isn't immune to this kind of administrative turmoil, but this particular shift might be disastrous for this particular film.
Pitchfork reported yesterday that composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has been dropped from 2049 for as-yet unknown reasons and that his at least partially-completed score would be discarded. This news is surprising because Jóhannsson is a frequent collaborator of 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, supplying ominous scores for his past films Sicario and Arrival. The choice of minimalism worked for those tense, unearthly movies, but Blade Runner is a different beast. It has more to do with hardboiled detective stories than the grand space battles or alien horrors that typically define big-budget sci-fi. A lighter, more melancholy touch is probably best, which is why Hans Zimmer is maybe the least-fitting person you could pick for this job.
Zimmer, probably the best-known and hardest-working film composer today, was brought onto 2049 as an additional musical hand (along with It's Benjamin Wallfisch) earlier this year. His sound—deep horn blasts, percussive strings, and a prioritization of urgent mood over melody—is the sound of modern American blockbuster films. Even in films where Zimmer is not composing, his presence is felt. Like the Lex Luger (the rap producer, not the pro wrestler) of cinema, Zimmer's scores have been massively influential but incredibly easy to replicate, resulting in a homogenized soundscape across multiple industries. The Marvel films sound like Inception which sounds like every major video game. Now that Jóhannsson is out from 2049, the possibility of Zimmer stepping in as a quick replacement seems certain as the movie approaches its release next month. This choice, in simple terms, would suck because it would mean the spirit of this world would be subsumed and replaced by the imposing but now-generic Zimmer Sound.
What's weird is that other choices around 2049's production and promotion seem to jibe with the original's vision. Chief among these is the announcement today that Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe would be helming a short anime prequel to the film with a score by Flying Lotus. This makes a lot of sense: the original Blade Runner codified the subgenre of cyberpunk, which has strong ties to Japan through years of anime series and movies that tackled its themes of technology, and Flying Lotus makes music that incorporates both buzzing electronics and lush jazz, perfect for Blade Runner's fast-paced but lonely world of artificial humans. Perhaps Villeneuve should look into a FlyLo score for the main event, as well. Anything to save Blade Runner 2049 from sounding like a Dark Knight remake set in the future.
Phil is on Twitter.