You may not know the name James Horner, but there's a good chance you know his work. He's scored dozens of movies over the last thirty-odd years, including the James Cameron megahits Titanic and Avatar. In addition to those films, Horner also scored movies such as Glory, Willow, The Rocketeer, Braveheart, Sneakers, Patriot Games, Apollo 13, Cocoon, Commando, Legends of the Fall, Clear and Present Danger, Ransom, The Perfect Storm, and Apocalypto, just to name a handful of highlights.
Not all of the movies he scored were great films, but more than a few were legitimate classics, and Horner's score made those good movies better, more memorable, films. Even his scores to bad films (Krull, anyone?) were frequently exemplars of the form, helping to establish character, place, and tone without simply instructing viewers on exactly how to feel. Horner was among the elite of Hollywood film composers, and along with John Williams and a few others, he helped define what contemporary movie scores were supposed to sound like—sweeping and grandiose, emotionally resonant without being manipulative.
Horner's best scores added both cultural texture and operatic intensity; I'm particularly fond of two of his early projects, the scores for the 80s sci-fi classics Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. Horner's score for Khan launched his career, and it gives the film, which was conceived as a kind of spacefaring riff on Horatio Hornblower, a choppy, high-seas adventure sensibility.
His score for director James Cameron's Aliens is a classic that captures both the brooding, ambient mystery of the film's slow-building opening hour and the breathless intensity of its final act.
The heart-pounding, last-gasp kicker for the movie's finale is maybe the best kicker in the history of movie soundtracks, and became incredibly influential as it was endlessly recycled in movie trailers for years after. What's even more impressive is that Horner wrote the score, and in particular the final sequence, while facing incredible time pressure due to production delays caused by Cameron's micromanagement. Horner describes the intense, exhausting process in a brief interview from several years ago, which you can watch below.
Sadly, Horner died yesterday in a plane crash in California. He was 61 years old. R.I.P.