After a decade during which poorly animated children’s cartoons were the only place they were to be seen, the old light sabres and the Force itself are back in another thrilling visual experience, the seventh episode in the franchise. With this long-awaited return comes a mix of iconic tunes the fans expected to hear again, and new themes struggling to find their place aside titans such as “The Imperial March”.
Perhaps more than ever, the brass section is pushed to the centre of attention, replacing the over-used strings featured in equally famous soundtracks like Pirates of the Caribbean’s’ “He’s a Pirate”. With this emphasis on brass the amount of melodrama in the film is reduced, potentially in response to some criticisms of the prequels, and composer John Williams almost goes as far as mocking the emotional aspects of some scenes, especially when Finn reveals that he is not a resistant and begs Rey to follow him. Here the violins take over, playing a slow and touching melody backed by lower-pitched strings which are occasionally disrupted by a livelier flute. Instead of this more expansive and therefore exaggerated use of the orchestra, most of the soundtrack is based on the earthy sounds of the French horn, reminiscent of the original Jedi theme, and a trumpet that adds well-needed energy to the score. Since the main character, Rey, survives in the desert by reselling bits of metal from the carcasses of old imperial ships, the choice of brass instruments for the solo parts is subtly linked to the screenplay from the beginning, demonstrating a coherence which enables it to stop being simple mood music.
Just like the scenario works around a series of references to the previous films, the music is constructed on variations of a few main tunes that will sound familiar to the audience. This way, John Williams’ new tracks explicitly inscribe themselves as part of the franchise. Rey does not have her own theme yet, but elements of Luke’s are mixed in with the music associated to Jakku. Only in the very last scene is Luke’s air played in its entirety, quickly fading to the famous Jedi theme of the finale. Before that, a slower and more irregular rhythm lets us recognise only a few phrases at a time, mirroring Rey’s young and still hesitant character.
Despite a few allusions to Darth Vador’s story, the “Imperial March” is completely absent in this episode. Kylo Ren, who idolises his grandfather, is given a contrasting fast-paced theme that builds up to bursts of loud brass supported by strings and the occasional rolling percussion. Snoke, on the other hand, appears much less often but always accompanied by a choir similar to the one associated with the Siths in the prequel trilogy. The practically gargling voices sing a slow series of very low notes and are joined – again – by the brass to amplify the tension and mystery. This, of course, shows Kylo Ren as an unfinished villain that still needs to grow in order for him to fully represent the dark side, making him a less determined version of Anakin subordinated to a powerful master hiding in the shadows.
Although not as impressive and grandiose as in the previous episodes, partly due to how fragmented the score is, the soundtrack of The Force Awakens has its own moments like during the attack on Maz’ refuge. Instead of forming an additional reason for the audience to be dazed, it underlines the action and directs our focus so that we follow Finn, Rey, Captain Han Solo and the others’ evolution in their world at their pace. Less memorable overall, the soundtrack of this first part of a new trilogy remains promising.