James Newton Howard has scored every M. Night Shyamalan film dating back to 1999's The Sixth Sense. The two have developed and sealed a remarkable ebb and flow that brings out the best in each of them. Where a Shyamalan film might be lacking, Howard is able to step in and elevate the images with his incredible music, and in turn whatever Shyamalan produces ends up inspiring the best out of Howard. They are one of the best director-composer collaborators and deserve to be mentioned among the greats. 1999 also marked the year of Howard's shift in compositional style. I hear a very noticeable shift in his writing at the turn of each decade. 2010 marked a new era for Howard to many fans' dismay; shifting from his eloquent and mystical writing in the 00s to something more contemporary and rhythmic sans thematic unity. The Last Airbender, while having elements of that new style, was still an outstanding score that proved he was still inspired by Shyamalan at his worst. After Earth unfortunately steps even further away from Howard's past glory, but it still has faint echoes of beauty and magic.
The first thing that one notices with After Earth, like many other recent scores by Howard, is the absence of a strong main theme. However, where the music is lacking in melody and unity, it more than makes up for in rhythmic percussion and somber triumph. This film is about survival, and the music evokes a sense of dread and yearning quite well. Howard's contemporary action signature is propulsive percussive rhythms that fuel the action from a more primal standpoint, layered with rising strings and drums. It has never been more appropriately suited for a film until now, where the protagonist, Kitai, is on his own on an Earth overrun with jungle and evolved animals. "The History Of Man" starts off the album with a recurring piano motif that quickly moves into action material that you can anticipate to hear later on. Things really start to take off with "Baboons" and the subsequent "Kitai On Earth," in which Howard dishes out some of the more beautiful material that evokes a sense of discovery and longing. The five track string of "Bird Attack," "Nest Battle," "Safety In The Hog Hole," "Saved By The Bird," and "The Tail" represent the highlight of the action material for me. The first and last of those featuring some really great choral work, while the middle cues create more of an ambience with spurts of tension and suspense rather than the full on action of some of the other cues. Regardless, the highlight and climax of this musical journey is the brilliant, "Ghosting," with its impeccable build and release in pure Howard fashion. Unfortunately the album does not have a strong and lasting closing as "After Earth" just ends in a disappointing fade out. I imagine the full score in the film works to much greater effect than this presentation can offer.
Despite lacking a central theme and the overflowing majesty and awe of Howard's earlier scores, After Earth is a solid effort that balances contemporary action formula with the emotional core the composer is renowned for. It is without a doubt his best score of the decade since The Last Airbender, further cementing that Shyamlan's work conjures the best in him even though the final product is a far cry to what used to be a flawless collaboration.
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