Mortal Engines (Tom Holkenborg) – Film Score Review

Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie  XL, has had a quick ascenscion to the upper echelon of film scoring, having worked on some of the biggest films since his debut with Mad Max: Fury Road. While his work since that breakout action score has tended to leave film music critics and fans underwhelmed, his music for the would-be blockbuster Mortal Engines is a refreshing improvement and one of the guilty pleasures of the year.

Not usually known for writing memorable melodic material, Holkenborg surprises by fashioning a rousing theme-driven score. The album’s opening track, “London Suite in C Major,” immediately announces that this score will be a step forward for the composer, showcases the theme for the mobile city of London in a dramatic chase setting. The idea is clearly based on Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” but its blaring presentation on brass instantly makes an impression in film and as a standalone.

The score  features at least four (!) other themes for characters or ideas, none quite rising to the memorability of the one for the city. The idea for the evil Valentine and his weapon is a four-note rising and falling melody, performed by a wailing female voice when representing the weapon in an apparent nod to campy sci-fi films of the past. The album’s second track, “No-One You Know,” debuts this idea alongside several others for our protagonists, which are unfortunately the least memorable of the bunch.

All of these themes get a decent workout early on as “The Chase” and “Welcome to London” feature some of the clearest and most impressive action writing of Holkenborg’s career. The latter track is especially noteworthy in its ability to maintain excitement while cycling through the various ideas before ending with whirling strings and dramatic brass in a blockbuster finish. “Miss Valentine” succeeds for the opposite reason, morphing the London theme into a mournful tune for the villain’s daughter.

From this point on, action dominates both the film and album, with the tracks sadly not presented in chronological order. While it never really drags, this middle section does become a bit redundant as Holkenborg struggles to innovate. The action tracks all contain the same soundscape of themes blaring out over pounding percussion and string ostinatos, while the underscore for the villainous plot cycles through its theme with little variation. The introduction of a repeating two-tone theme for the resurrected man and a heroic idea for Ms. Fang and the Shan Guo rebels do add some freshness, but are afforded few non-action moments to shine.

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“Shan Guo” begins the final phase of the album as our heroes band together with the rebels to take on the city of London. Tension is effectively built throughout, relying on the same percussion and ostinato sound, but also peppering enough majestic performances of themes to instill the requisite dramatic weight. Our characters’ resolution’s receive appropriate musical support as Valentine’s theme plays to mark his demise in “The 13th Floor Elevator,” “Windflower” underscores Ms. Fang’s, and our hero’s theme accompanies the happy ending in muted fashion in “Alive and Together.”

Much like the film it accompanies, the music for Mortal Engines is pure dumb fun. Working with orchestrator Conrad Pope, a frequent collaborator of John Williams, Holkenborg’s talents are finally given a chance to shine with more instrumental diversity and fuller orchestral presence. The result delivers all of the adrenaline-pumping thrills of modern blockbuster techniques in addition to the drama and grandeur of old school thematic writing. Two things do keep the score firmly in the “guilty pleasure” category, though. The first is the aforementioned inability of the score to innovate beyond the same soundscape for each type of track. Action tracks are practically interchangeable, as are the tracks underscoring the villainy, causing the album to drag at times.

Perhaps more hurtful is the general lack of style. Holkenborg has made great strides with this score, but remains a generally anonymous composer. While Pope does his best to enliven much of the writing, a score with more personality would have gone a long way to help smooth over the film’s narrative problems and inject a real sense of adventure.

As it stands, Mortal Engines provides plenty of rollicking action tracks and thrills to standout amidst all of the season’s blockbuster scores. It represents both a step forward for Holkenborg’s career and somewhat of a missed opportunity for the film itself. One hopes that the composer will continue upon the musical path he has set out here, including more work with orchestrator Conrad Pope and a desire to create a more unique sonic identity.

Mortal Engines: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is now available from Universal Pictures.

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