In the history of film music, we have not seen many collaboration works involving high profile composers. 1954's The Egyptian comes to mind, in which Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman united to create one of the true classics of the Golden Age, but other than that, the list of such collaborations is short. But now, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have joined forces to score the fifth film of the Batman franchise: Batman Begins. Is now this score all that we expect it to be – a merge of these two composers’ styles and at the same time a worthy successor to the great Batman scores of the past, by Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal? Well, both yes and no. While Batman Begins actually quite successfully merges parts of Howard’s and Zimmer’s styles, it plays through to the end with a feeling that so much more could have come out of the collaboration between two so talented composers. Even though Batman Begins has its moments of both thematic beauty and brilliant action writing, I find that it in the end does not leave much of an imprint – at least not with me.
Overall, Batman Begins is rather low-key, dominated by strings and subtle electronics, as well as some Matrix-like sustained brass chords. It is in its core a quite dark score, with no cheerful moments whatsoever, and the outright melodic moments are few. This is not very surprising though – Batman Begins is essentially a very low-key film, focusing very much on how Bruce Wayne deals with the death of his parents, and a more heroic score would have been entirely wrong for the film. It is not a themeless score, however, but it moves in the dark thematic territories of scores like Hannibal and Snow Falling on Cedars – slow and sombre, and not really that memorable, to be frank. Actually, I find that Batman Begins lacks much of the thematic work which usually is so prominent in many of both Hans Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s scores. It has to be given to their credit though that the lack of melodic moments in the film makes the few thematic outbursts very emotionally powerful, which really lifts some of the film’s scenes. The melancholic string theme in “Macrotus” and “Corynorhinus” is very beautiful and does the trick on both film on album. The other most notable thematic element in the score is a motif of two ascending sustained brass chords, which surfaces frequently and is the only thing this score has that can be considered any kind of main theme. This very simplistic yet effective motif does work well as a unifying element of the score, together with the aforementioned string melody, but more than that, as a theme, it has little to offer.
While much of the score, as mentioned, is quite low-key material, there is a fair share of action material as well. This is mainly the Zimmer kind of action music – electronic percussion, string ostinatos and thematic brass lines. Very rhythmic and indeed entertaining for the most part, though nothing we have not heard before. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course, and Zimmer fans will surely love this action music – and honestly I do too. It is both exciting and very listenable, and with the appropriate dark character to go with the rest of the score. Tracks like “Myotis” and “Molossus” are great action tracks and among the highlights of this score. And it is this, together with the emotional string writing, that makes this score worth the listen.
Sometimes though, I feel that the score just lingers deep in low strings and electronics, not really progressing, not making any statements; merely existing as a subdued background. Thankfully, the aforementioned strengths of the score are featured frequently enough, so the album never really grows boring – even though I for one feel that there are moments when you just wait for the next action sequence or thematic movement, not really enjoying the parts in between. And this definitely detracts from the overall entertainment value of the score.
It should also be understood that this in its overall style and feel is a Zimmer score, and for a less experienced listener, I am sure that the whole work could be mistaken for a Zimmer solo work. It is quite clear that James Newton Howard’s main contribution is the thematic string statements – clearly heard in cues like “Eptesicus”, “Macrotus” and “Corynorhinus”, three wonderfully sad and emotional cues that ranks among the highlights of this album. The action music is as mentioned more or less solely a Zimmer effort, judging by the sound, and I suspect that even if Howard surely has been fully involved in the whole creative process of writing the score, most of what we hear comes from Zimmer’s pen.
Conclusively, Batman Begins is absolutely not a bad score, and I say that it is very well worth investing some time in listening to it. It has a lot of things to offer, James Newton Howard’s great string writing being the primary treat, and its dark character really grows on you. But on the other hand, I feel that it would have benefited from a more thematic approach, and I am quite sure that these two composers could have created a much more complex and layered dark score for this dark film than this final product is. I also felt in the film that the few moments of calmness and harmony could have been better taken care of with lighter scoring, in contrast to the dark and brooding drama of the rest of the film which needed this dark scoring and benefited from it. In addition, Batman Begins lacks the personal voice that ultimately ties it to its movie – there are not many characteristics that say “Batman Begins” – I just feel “dark action film”. Therefore, the score fails to reach heights which I feel that it otherwise could have reached. I really wanted to place it up in those heights, but ultimately, I can’t. It is a good, decent score, but unfortunately nothing more.