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Pixels (Henry Jackman)

July 26, 2015


Henry Jackman, 2015, Varese Sarabande
21 tracks, 38:10

I’m liking Henry Jackman’s output lately. Yet, the cover for “Pixels” sums up this score in a single image. Nice colour, but… is that it?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

When intergalactic aliens discover video feeds of classic arcade games and misinterpret them as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth, using the video games as the models for their assaults – and now-U.S. President Cooper must call on his old-school arcade friends to save the world from being destroyed by PAC-MAN, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Centipede, and Space Invaders. Joining them is Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten, a specialist supplying the arcaders with unique weapons to fight the aliens.

Scoring duties fall to Henry Jackman, who output I’m really enjoying lately. His “The Interview“, “Kingsman” and “This Is The End” are hugely enjoyable, lively and memorable scores. “Pixels” continues very much with that sound and style… but, there is a ‘but’.

What does it sound like?

On the surface, Jackman appears to be pressing all the right buttons. It’s a big orchestral score, we got strings, brass, percussion, everything including the kitchen sink. There are lovely twinkly melodies, as well as bold brass ones. It’s a solid composition, well structured, the orchestrations are fine and the recording sounds good. In terms of sound and style it fits right in with Jackman’s recent “The Interview” and “Kingsman”. And yet… I find it nowhere near as enjoyable as those.

It feels like it could have been made in the 80s,” said Jackman, who chose not to score “Pixels” comedically because, “the comedy in the film speaks for itself.” Henry Jackman worked with a 40-voice choir, live percussion with five players, and a full orchestra of 75 members to create the “Pixels” score.

There’s something “Aliens” about the opening cue “Invasion”, with its echoing woodwinds and dark combination of strings and brass. It introduces the aliens’ motif, which at its core is a two-note descending motif. It’s funny though how Jackman occasionally tags a 4-note motif behind it. Woodwinds continue to play an important role in “To The White House” and in “Conspiracy Theory” (where it echoes the opening cue). A lyrical brass theme for the movie’s heroes is introduced in “The Arcaders”.

A familiar-sounding military riff leads “Hand-Eye Coordination” which is a lively, yet slow-paced cue utilising the score’s heroic theme. “Centipede” is an impressive cue for full orchestra, build around the aliens’ theme. Racing strings and bold brass aside, there is a lovely passage for woodwinds reminiscent of Williams and Horner. “Call in the Cavalry” repeats the military rhythm and combines it with the theme for the arcaders.

The album offers a few moments of respite, such as “Unconditional Love”. The glockenspiel here will undoubtedly remind some listeners of Elfman’s ‘fairytale’ writing. Another quiet moment is offered in “Sweet Spot”, where the strings and oboe are more reminiscent of Horner. The score continues with it’s action-adventure material, which relies heavily on string ostinatos and heralding brass themes. It’s nice… but all a bit same-y. “Trophy for the Victors” offers a new ‘victory’ theme, which stands out for its rising figures.

The score is colourfully orchestrated, yet frequently feels ‘thin’. It’s something that Michael Giacchino does really well, but Jackman doesn’t seem to pull it off quite as convincingly (though I doubt this was even his intention). That said, there is a very pleasant, very likeable sound and style to “Pixels”. It is at times reminiscent of John Williams, James Horner, Alan Silvestri and David Arnold; though never too literally (well… maybe not never, but not too often). There are moments when every bar seems to trigger a memory of another score – make of that what you will.

The alien invasion cues sound more sophisticated,” Jackman described. “It almost feels like something you would hear on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, not the action scores of today. “Pixels” makes for a modern refreshing take of a classic entertainment film.

“Mothership” combines beautiful, mysterious writing for woodwinds with noble brass themes and racing strings. “Roll Out the Barrels” is a lengthy and lively action cue, though it’s still quite fragmented, before “High Score” brings the score to a noble end with a wonderful string-led variation on the arcaders’ theme. The album closes with a synthesized version of the arcaders’ theme, using retro beats and arpeggios, which is really neatly done.

Is it any good?

Henry Jackman’s “Pixels” is one of those scores that ‘sound’ fantastic and will undoubtedly please many fans, yet I feel a little disappointed. Orchestrated by Stephen Coleman it offers a soundscape similar to “The Interview” and “Kingsman”, but melodically I find the score a lot less interesting than those. There are at least three different themes at play here, but they don’t really stand out from each other (perhaps deliberately). The score also feels oddly slow, as if there’s just no urgency to it at all. The shortness of the cues (21 tracks in 38 minutes) prevent the score from building any form of momentum; and often cues end without a full resolve. Of course this is a familiar (and sometimes neat) filmscoring trick, but it’s one that is applied far too often here. The redeeming factor is that the track sequencing is pretty good so it helps the flow of the music, especially if you shorten the pause between cues (I tend to play most album through WinAmp with a 3 second cross-fade between cues, which improves the listening experience nine out of ten times).

I can’t help but feel I’m being unfairly harsh towards Jackman’s work. It’s ticking a lot of boxes, yet for me “Pixels” is missing the proverbial x-factor. However, if you’re not bothered by those things that bother me than “Pixels” should be a nice follow-up to “Kingsman”, offering a slick and bold orchestral score, with a handful of themes and rich orchestrations.

Rating [2.5/5]


1. Invasion (01:32)
2. The Arcaders (00:56)
3. To The White House (01:29)
4. Conspiracy Theory (01:35)
5. Level 2 (00:42)
6. Hand-Eye Coordination (01:28)
7. Centipede (03:02)
8. Pest Control (00:38)
9. Call In The Cavalry (02:04)
10. Unconditional Love (01:22)
11. Power Up (01:34)
12. Gobble Or Be Gobbled (03:00)
13. Trophy For The Victors (01:05)
14. Sweet Spot (02:25)
15. Q*Bert (01:04)
16. Shoot ‘Em Up (01:54)
17. A Dream Come True (01:43)
18. Mothership (01:52)
19. Roll Out The Barrels (05:29)
20. High Score (02:04)
21. Arcaders ’82 (Bonus Track) (01:34)


Out now.

One Comment
  1. Track 7. Centipede (the same track that is played during the credit roll of the film) is oddly familiar. I was thinking it sounded like portions of either some of the KOTOR soundtracks or Indiana Jones but I was as of yet still unable to find it back.

    Especially if you play minute 0.40 into the track. Anyone who can place it?

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