Steve Jablonsky's score to the 2004 epic anime adventure Steamboy is one of my absolute favorite scores, and easily the best work to ever come from the man best known for the sadly hack-a-minute Transformers. His signing onto the most expensive South Korean film of all time, known as Dragon Wars or, more commonly, simply D-War, intrigued me no end. Unfortunately, Jablonsky chose not to extend the high-flying, speedy ostinato-driven, adventurous and all around awesome Steamboy sound for this movie - rather, he took the road more traveled, and extended his own Transformers sound (and, as we all know, that score was an extension of Hans Zimmer in the first place). The result is a typically enjoyable Media Ventures/Remote Control romp that contains not a scrap of flair or intelligence in its bass-heavy rumblings. In fact, like Transformers, it contains a shocking number of fairly direct temp-track references that, unsurprisingly, point to Papa Hans.
The album opens with by far its best cue, "Imoogi", a power anthem backed by an echoing, Signs-like rising three-note piano ostinato. The theme itself, when it comes in, is a decent entry into the Jablonsky canon, not as instantly memorable as anything in Transformers and nowhere near as lovable as anything in Steamboy, but much better than anything in The Island or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. As an additional bonus, there seems to be some kind of ethnic flute backing the rumbling choir for the cue's first minute or so, a nod towards the film's Asian origins. But after a minute or so, we are treated to the first of this score's many temp-track rips - the theme evolves into a middle section that is nothing short of a blatant quotation from Hans Zimmer's love theme in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The end is a big, bombastic requotation of the original theme that should give Media Ventures fans plenty to salivate over. This theme, by far the best on the album, represents the mythical dragons of the film.
Jablonsky heightens the fantasy element of the (awful, by the way) film in the typical MV way: by cranking up the choral input with pleasant results. There's a pleasantly ethereal moment during the first minute of "The Legend Awakes" in which the Signs piano tinkles away beneath a female chorus. The rest of that cue, though, devolves to boring underscore - it's best to skip to "Village Attack", the album's first and longest action cue. And a good action cue it certainly is, but there's no ignoring the fact that it quotes everything under the sun, from The Peacemaker to Tears of the Sun to The Last Samurai to, umm, Dies Irae. That last one crops up pretty often in this score, actually, as a motif for evil. Effective and enjoyable, and who's to argue with an idea that the great Basil Poledouris used in the great Conan the Barbarian, but one can't help but feel that Jablonsky should have tried to come up with a villain theme of his own.
But for D-War, we've got a re-imagining of a 12th-century Gregorian hymn as our villain theme. Jablonsky shows it off in its most full form in "General and his Army", a sort of evil, male-choral mini-power-anthem that plods along attractively but doesn't move me at all. Definitely nothing compared to Jablonsky's original villain theme in Steamboy's "London World Exposition" or "Two Delusions".
What else is there? Well, the love theme (heard in, um, "Love Theme") takes orchestrations straight from James Newton Howard's books (piano and strings), and adds to it a theme that sounds like rejected material from The Last Samurai. Again, it's just lazy for Jablonsky not to try and come up with something of his own. Let's drag out the Steamboy comparisons again...the energetic, playful and poignant theme in "Scarlet", "Crystal Palace Waltz" and "Fight in the Exposition Ground" is not only simply a better composition, but is brilliantly orchestrated with pan flutes and a cimbalom adding badly-needed color.
Let's gloss over the middle section of the album, which contains little more than entertaining, but utterly standard Media Ventures action music distinguished only by some good chanting choral work in cues such as "D-War". The final cue, "Arirang", almost promises to revive the choral, anthemic power from "Imoogi". It opens brilliantly with what I'm told is Jablonsky's re-working of a Korean folk song. Odd how this Korean folk song becomes a rousing major-key Media Ventures theme once given the choral Stevie J treatment, but it's the closest this score ever gets to the adventurous spirit of Steamboy, which coming from me is the highest of praise indeed. Unfortunately, Jablonsky can't help but leave us with a sour taste - from 1:45 to 2:10, the chord progression is a carbon copy of the end of "No Sacrifice, No Victory", from Transformers. Sure, the awesome choral sendoff that follows is as epic as anything Jablonsky's ever written, but as with "Imoogi", one wonders why the composer had to insert a little derivative section that rips off a previous work.
On that note, I must add that Jablonsky probably didn't have a huge window of time to compose this score in. He finished work on Transformers in late June, and D-War came out in late August of the same year (2007). That leaves less than two months, so stylistic and motivic similarities to Transformers are understandable. The director of the film ( probably hired Jablonsky with the sole intention of getting the ubiquitous Media Ventures sound to rumble along beneath his film - unlike Steamboy's Katsuhiro Otomo, who clearly gave Jablonsky enormous leeway and musical freedom, thank God. But I digress.
This score shares astonishing similarities with Transformers. Like the much, much more well-known score for the Bay-flick, this album is pure guilty-pleasure, Media Ventures enjoyment of the highest order. Ungodly stupid, but still a solid and at times pretty darn epic listening experience. If you hate Hans Zimmer, avoid this one - a good five minutes of the album quotes him pretty much directly. But if you collect Media Ventures albums the way doggy-doo collects flies, this is a worthy addition to your collection. As I suggested for Transformers, subtract two points for the constant imitation...but if that kind of thing doesn't bug you, it's 7/10.