How sci-fi soundtracks shape our imagining of the future
Books and movies set in the future tell us not just what we think will happen in the future, but also what we hope and what we are afraid will happen in the future.
So, what does this mean for music in film? What does the future sound like?
We’re close to the year 2020, which means we’ll soon be living a reality that so many people always pegged as the far-away future. “Twenty-twenty” has long been full of targets, hopes, and terrors.
More specifically, we’re close to 2019, the year in which the original 1982 Ridley Scott Blade Runner film was set.
An adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis (also famous for Chariots of Fire) was nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe as Best Original Score.
It was a pretty big deal for the progress of electronic music – in particular it heralded an explosion in the use and legitimacy of synthesisers like Vangelis’ beloved Yamaha CS-80.
Listening to the soundtrack now, the warping, fuzzy tones are offset by the undulating, non-stop keyboard arpeggios. It is both tense and dragging. Almost entirely in minor chords, of course, it follows the same building of dread and unease that the film cultivates with the decrepit, almost-recognisable post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
Replicants (synthetic humans) aren’t here yet and we don’t have off-world colonies, but some people in 2019 will still live in police states and we all ought to be anxious about Big Pharma.
Which brings us to Blade Runner 2049. A film that imagines the world 30 years after the original Blade Runner was set. What do people now think the future sounds like?
It’s muddled by throw-backs, for sure (Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch used a Yamaha CS-80, and they like a good dash of pitch-bending) but it’s also very different.
Like so many of the terribly spectacular landscapes in the film, these tracks are vast – borderline sparse. There isn’t the same excitement for the keyboard to be ever-present. It renders the unease more melancholic than panicked.
I’m not going to sink my teeth into the unimaginative projections of the gender binary in Blade Runner 2049. Nor will I delve into how fascinating I find the costume department’s decisions with regards to how we’re all going to dress in another couple of decades.
What I will say is this: if you care enough to watch these movies side by side, do yourself a favour and listen to the soundtracks side by side as well. Consider what sound means to our imagining – our envisaging – of the future.
There’s a lot of “retro-future” aesthetic I’m skipping over here; the going-back to go-forward. Think of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack by Daft Punk. We go: neon lights, superfast bikes, robot helmets, synthesizers, 80s sneakers. Somehow simultaneously the past and the future collide, with not-yet-realised technology alongside nostalgic arcade machines.
This is what we have in the Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 films and soundtracks too. The Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack includes a few tracks by golden oldies Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, for example.
There’s also a phenomenal sax solo in ‘Love Theme’ from Blade Runner which is basically someone 1982 presuming that in 2019 humans will still think sax solos are sexy. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
At the core of all of this is the combination of orchestral and electronic sound. The ultimate human-meets-machine dichotomy. The past-and-present. Our collective imagining of the future is so shaped by these cultural projections – images and sounds we are excited and afraid to see realised in the years to come.
When so much sci-fi considers the moral implications of such dichotomies, doesn’t it make sense to have a string quarter alongside a synthesizer? Maybe in 2049, from an off-world colony, my uploaded consciousness will disagree.