STANDOUT SET PIECES #7: COCOON’S THIRD ACT
0. Bringing you up to speed and architecture of the score
This seventh episode in the Standout Set Piece series is a bit different, as it will not concern itself exclusively with one standout cue. Even though this article will go into the score’s final five cues in greater detail, the emphasis will mainly be on the general architecture of the score, given James Horner’s remarkable talent as a storyteller and the faithful adherence of Cocoon’s script to the three-act structure as it pertains to the “beat sheet” Blake Snyder outlines in his influential book Save The Cat. If we are to grasp the architecture of James Horner’s score and if we are to gain an understanding of the ways in which the composer allowed his own musical story to either dovetail with the screenplay or depart from it, we need to understand the basic three-act Hollywood screenplay.
It is important to remember that Blake Snyder did not invent the three-act structure. Rather, he analyzed hundreds of movies, going as far back as Casablanca (1942), and realized the vast majority of them were constructed in surprisingly similar ways. Snyder’s wake-up call was Syd Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Whereas Field proposed just the three acts, Blake Snyder’s work led him to identify 15 steps (“story beats”) within these three acts. The result is the Blake Snyder beat sheet, which is now widely used by Hollywood scribes as the succinct outline of a screenplay. What Blake Snyder found inductively from painstaking analysis has now become the Hollywood storytelling template. James Horner’s acknowledgment of this template and his efforts to reflect it in his score will make up the first and lengthiest part of this article. It deals with the score for Cocoon as a whole.
The second part will concentrate on the five cues that make up the score’s finale, which is so overwhelming and memorable that it amply deserves to be called a standout set piece.
Ron Howard and James Horner
Kicking off a fruitful relationship between director Ron Howard and composer James Horner, Cocoon is a story about mortality. The story’s heroes are residents of a retirement community confronted with human decay occurring all around them. Following the screenwriting imperative that a story’s protagonists need situations and antagonists which cause maximum conflict, the old geezers come into contact with an immortal alien race that does not even understand the concept of “forever”. Even though the alien Antareans are a far cry from the classic bad guy, their immortal lives effectively make them the antagonists of the mortal (and dying) humans. With these fertile elements in play, the stage is set for all kinds of narrative and visual fireworks: a fountain of youth, rejuvenation, questions about the desirability of immortality and so on. Even though Cocoon is first and foremost a slick yet endearing product of Hollywood’s dream factory, it punches well above its weight, since it touches on lofty and weighty themes, even though it never really develops them in any great detail. As often, philosophical meditations of a more serious kind are found in areas of moviemaking which are more abstract and which more readily accommodate these lofty ruminations. One of these areas is the realm of the underscore. As we will see, the greatest achievement of James Horner’s work in Cocoon is his ability to take the story’s philosophical seeds and nurture them into a meditation on life and death so profound that it belies its pop-corn purpose.
Scripted by Tom Benedek and based on a story by David Saperstein, Cocoon is a classic Hollywood three-act story. This is its outline.
Opening Image: should be an arresting moment that draws the audience’s attention. Cocoon starts with a fantasy sequence during which the Antareans arrive on Earth. Through point-of-view storytelling, ominous light effects and excited dolphins acting as a welcoming committee, the filmmakers deftly and rightly refrain from actually showing us either the aliens or their spaceship at this early stage. The aliens’ presence is only hinted at by the visuals. Film music being an exercise in abstraction, however, different rules of suggestion apply, and in Through The Window, James Horner very explicitly introduces the alien mystery theme and a two-note motif of awe, two foundation stones of his own musical storyline.
The Opening Image should always be the opposite of the Closing Image. During Cocoon’s opening, the alien spaceship arrives on Earth bringing immortal life with it; at the end, it leaves Earth taking mortal life away.
Set-Up: During this fairly lengthy phase, all of the A story’s protagonists and elements are introduced. We enter Sunny Shores Retirement Community, a nursing home in rural St. Petersburg (not far from Tampa) and meet its residents: Art Selwyn (Don Ameche), who falls for local dance instructor Bess McCarthy (Gwen Verdon), and three couples: Ben and Mary Luckett (Wilford Brimley and Maureen Stapleton), Bernie and Rose Lefkowitz (Jack Gilford and Herta Ware) and Joe and Alma Finley (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy). The story’s heroes are coping with old age: Rose is slipping away, Art can’t accept his ageing body, Joe is diagnosed with cancer, and as Ben’s eyesight weakens, he loses his driver’s license. He half-heartedly takes care of his grandson David (Barret Oliver), who prefers hanging around with old people and can’t seem to find a friend his own age. Art, Ben and Joe occasionally break into a nearby vacated property and go for a swim in its pool house. By definition, nothing dramatic happens during the Set-Up, which is why the score generally stays away from it: the sometimes funny, sometimes painful exposition usually takes care of itself. James Horner only intervenes briefly with some non-dramatic jazzy music during Going To The Pool.
Theme Stated: Around minute 5 in a standard 110-minute movie, some phrase or detail should state the story’s theme, and sure enough, five minutes into the movie, Art and Ben are confronted with a patient dying in the emergency ward. Cocoon is a story about mortality.
Catalyst: Once we know our way around the movie’s Thesis world, and usually around minute 12, the story proper should kick in. The Antareans, now disguised as humans and led by Brian Dennehy’s Walter, enter the story. A hundred centuries ago, the Antareans had an outpost on Earth before “the first upheaval”. Walter was forced to leave a ground crew of twenty behind in Atlantis, which subsequently ended up at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Florida. (Hey, it’s Hollywood…) Now Walter and his party have come back to retrieve the ones left behind. They hire a boat from down-on-his luck skipper Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg) and temporarily move into the vacated property next to Sunny Shores, which means Art, Ben and Joe are out of a clubhouse and a pool. James Horner acknowledges the Catalyst with the cue Pool Is Closed. A clear-cut three-act structure makes it very easy for the composer to construct the architecture of his score: all James Horner had to do was follow and highlight the fifteen story beats. You would logically expect the soundtrack album to reflect this structural build-up, and yet Pool Is Closed largely remained under the radar of film music fans until Intrada released the complete score in 2013. However, many soundtrack albums have been conceived as standalone listening experiences, containing just a number of cues selected mainly on their musical merits and often presented out of chronological order. While this kind of presentation highlights and even reinforces a score’s purely musical qualities, a world of meaning is lost – but that inevitably happens when the score is divorced from its movie.
Debate: Confronted with a destabilizing event, the protagonists debate as a decision must be taken: should they continue sneaking into the pool house? When Ben says he can’t remember the last time he took a risk, the three decide to move forward.
Break Into (Act) Two: This is the moment when the protagonists choose to leave the Thesis World (Act 1) and step into the Antithesis World (Act 2), an upside-down world where everything is different. Even though three large cocoons now lie at the bottom of the pool, the three heroes jump in. However, the pool is now energized, allowing the aliens inside the cocoons to regain their strengths before heading home. Benefiting from the pool’s energy, our three heroes instantly feel rejuvenated. The score responds with I Feel Great, an eighties disco cue so awfully dated that the Intrada release extracted it from the chronological score presentation and relegated it to the extras. One can only hope for James Horner’s sake that this cue was composed at the insistent request of some producer or other. Later in his career, Horner never ever again scored a scene as vital as the Break Into Two with a cue that stuck out like a sore finger.
Fun and Games: The start of the second act sees the screenwriter realizing the “promise of the premise”. The premise is a couple of old men magically rejuvenated, something which sets the imagination on fire and inherently promises all kinds of imaginative set pieces. When the screenplay realizes the promise of the premise, during the Fun and Games section, it cranks out a number of striking and often funny scenes which usually end up in the movie’s trailer. Joe is in remission overnight, Ben has 20/20 vision and wins back his driver’s license, Art treats Bess to a late-night serenade, all three of them leave the boat-house with a boner…. Well, you can see where this is going. Meanwhile, old Bernie refuses to go into the pool and captain Jack has the hots for Kitty (Tahnee Welch, Raquel’s daughter), who he will soon find out is a glow-in-the-dark alien. In superhero stories, at least the first one of the series, Fun and Games corresponds with the superhero going to town, using or practicing his superhuman strengths for the first time in the real world. In The Rocketeer, it is the cue The Flying Circus, in The Amazing Spider-Man, it is Becoming Spider-Man. In Cocoon, James Horner was not really given an opportunity to compose an iconic cue, since most of the Fun and Games scenes had pre-existing music in them, whether it be Dancing In The Dark during a ballroom dance or Gravity in a montage scene.
B-story: In the upside-down world, the protagonist meets a number of characters which are the fun-house mirror versions of the A story characters: in this case, the Antareans are immortal, as opposed to the dying residents of Sunny Shores Retirement Community. The B-story repeatedly offers an interval of relief, during which the Theme comes to the fore, in this case mortality versus immortality.
Midpoint: Situated midway through the story, the Midpoint is where the stakes are raised and the story takes a serious turn. In this case, the A and B stories cross as Ben, Art and Joe are discovered in the pool house and realize they are up against aliens. James Horner responds with Discovered In The Poolhouse, in which he appropriately allows the score to open up a little, as it presents the first hints of action and pizzicato writing that will return more fully in the spectacular cues of the third act.
The three heroes are denied access to the pool and quickly start to lose their youthful energy. The first signs of death start to appear left and right: Bernie rejects immortality and Joe experiences a relapse, after which Ben begs Walter to let them keep using the pool. Walter agrees and a sort of peaceful co-existence develops between humans and Antareans. During the obligatory montage sequence (set to a delightfully cheesy eighties pop song called Gravity), we see both species playing cards and Art going for a bit of breakdancing in a night club. Meanwhile, Jack has a freakishly absurd love scene with Kitty – “Antareans don’t call it sex, they call it sharing themselves” – a fairly intense special effects affair after which Jack chuckles: “If this is foreplay, I’m a dead man.” Horner wisely refrains from scoring all this as a love scene. In fact, the second part of The Lovemaking is more akin to horror music.
Bad Guys Close In: Everything has a downside, however: at the end of a night on the town, Joe sends his wife home with his friends and hooks up with a comely sixty-something shop assistant. Joe’s wife Alma realizes “it’s not the first time” and moves out. Meanwhile, Bernie shouts Fountain of youth! in the dining room and everyone rushes out, jumping into the pool and thereby draining it of its energy.
The Antareans being mysterious at worst, the real bad guy here is death itself, and James Horner acknowledges this with his beautiful, tender Mortality theme. When the theme is applied to the humans, it is often played by down-to-earth guitar and piano or a plaintive oboe. When Horner uses it for the Antareans, he resorts to the mournful resonance of the French horn. The theme is introduced in A Relapse, when Joe’s cancer reappears after he is briefly banned from the pool house, and it will become a surprisingly major player from here on in. The use of this theme is where James Horner really leaves his stamp on the score and the movie.
All Is Lost: It’s the moment when the protagonist is thrust into the dark depths of despair. Invariably, this moment has what Blake Snyder calls a whiff of death. In a standard 110-minute movie, All Is Lost occurs at minute 77 – it’s when E.T. dies, it’s when Lex Luthor cripples Superman with a Kryptonite necklace, it’s when Maverick’s wingman dies in Top Gun and so on. In a story about mortality, whiff of death is an understatement: two Antareans die as a result of the pool being drained of energy, Walter tearing up and experiencing for the first time the pain that death brings, while on the human front, Bernie loses Rose and vainly tries to resuscitate her in the pool. The All Is Lost is always an opportunity for the composer to interject a comment of his own, and James Horner more than rises to the occasion here with a devastatingly beautiful pair of cues: First Tears and Rose’s Death.
Dark Night Of The Soul: anywhere from five seconds to five minutes, this is the scene when the protagonist mourns his losses and licks his wounds. Ben apologizes to Walter and both ponder the nature of mortality. In Cocoon, the Dark Night Of The Soul is very short and transitions directly into the next story beat, which is why Horner did not have an opportunity to acknowledge it with a separate cue.
Break Into Three: In the darkest hour, there is a glimmer of hope. The only way to save the remaining eighteen Antareans is to take them back to the ocean floor and let them recover, because they are too weak to travel. However, there is no time, because Walter and his friends are leaving the very next day. Ben says: “What if we do it tonight? We’ll help you.” This kicks off the third act, in which Thesis and Antithesis will be resolved in a Synthesis. Since Returning To Sea is the start of the third Act, Horner allows the score to open up considerably here: he draws on a more sizeable part of the orchestral resources, he conjures up more vivid orchestral colors, he uses themes in counterpoint and indulges in more forceful thematic statements.
The very start of the cue shows the early contours of James Horner’s personal storyline. As humans and aliens join forces in returning the cocoons to sea, the composer appropriately plays their respective themes in counterpoint. However, the choice of themes is somewhat surprising: the aliens – no big surprise here – get the alien mystery theme (the score’s dominant alien idea), yet the human presence is conveyed by the Mortality theme. By presenting this melody as the humans’ de facto main theme, James Horner reminds us, the audience, that mortality is an essential part of our human condition. At the same time, the composer lays the foundation for what just might be his very personal interpretation of the climactic ascension scene.
Returning To Sea – Cocoon – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
© 20th Century Fox – 1985
Finale: Lest the third act should be too short, the Finale should always play out in two parts. Blake Snyder gives this example: having hatched a plan, the heroes storm the palace in order to free the princess, but when they arrive in the tower’s highest room, they realize the princess is gone. The bad guy is always stronger than anticipated, and only when the heroes muster every last bit of strength can they defeat the enemy. In the case of Cocoon, our heroes and a bunch of residents are invited to join the aliens back to Antares. They sneak out of the retirement home in the middle of the night and board the Manta III, captain Jack’s fishing boat. However, David’s mother gets wind of the escape attempt and alerts the authorities. The Manta III is intercepted by the coast guard and the escape attempt appears to be a failure. At this point, a deus ex machina appears, quite literally: the Antarean spaceship arrives and produces a thick mist in which the coast guard loses track of the Manta III. Jack says his goodbyes, the entire boat is lifted out of the water by a kind of tractor beam and the spaceship whisks away. Horner scores the last part of the third act as one continuous and fantastic 18-minute cue, with David Runs To The Boat, The Chase, The Ascension and Theme From Cocoon (for the epilogue and end credits) following in uninterrupted succession. This is the standout set piece that the second part of this article is mainly concerned with.
Closing Image: While at his grandfather’s funeral, David looks up into the sky realizing that old Ben is en route to an alien planet. We see the alien spaceship travelling through space before the end credits roll.
1 Themes and motifs
At the time, James Horner said about Cocoon:
"There is a before and an after Cocoon, because Steven Spielberg loved this film and my music. My career really took off with Cocoon and An American Tail. I walked into the Hollywood tradition at that time."
The Hollywood tradition Horner walked into, of course, was the Golden Age methodology, which we explore in great detail in our article James Horner’s place in film music history. In short, the Golden Age sound is about explicit emotions, extensive and therefore “inaudible” musical accompaniment (to the point of becoming wallpaper music), romantic tonality, judicious dialogue scoring and the use of the standard symphony orchestra. Cocoon generally fits this description.
Not that Cocoon is a particularly lengthy score by Horner standards, quite the contrary. The composer was only 32 at the time and had made a name for himself with Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan just three years earlier, so understandably, the young James Horner was still shaping the contours of his musical style and scoring methodology. While lengthy cues were a Horner hallmark from the very beginning (Star Trek 2’s Battle In The Mutara Nebula runs a whopping eight minutes), Cocoon is a comparatively short score (just under an hour), because during the spotting sessions, James Horner and Ron Howard consistently and conspicuously delayed the start of a musical cue until the scene absolutely needed it. Sad Goodbyes is a good case in point: most of Ben’s goodbye to David is left unscored; only near the very end, when the grandfather gives his grandson a hug, does the music start. The refusal to replicate musically what is already evident on screen lends this cue a sense of emotional integrity. Moreover, this spotting decision has an added dramatic bonus: since the musical cue plays through the subsequent scene, when Ben and Mary say goodbye to their unsuspecting daughter, Horner gives this rather matter-of-fact scene an unexpected depth. He presents it as a seemingly casual afterthought and yet the emotion elicited during the very end of Ben’s goodbye to his grandson feeds the next scene.
Occasionally, Cocoon is also somewhat more restrained than what Golden Age composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold would have come up with. During the Set-Up, Art, Ben and we, the audience, learn that Joe has been diagnosed with cancer. Art and Ben are briefly taken aback, but then, with a dismissive wave of the hand, Joe says: “Ah, doctors don’t know anything.” James Horner chooses the jazzy side of the score for this scene; a more sentimental orchestral comment would likely have been overly emphatic and could have ruined the moment. These three men realize that death is something of a given at their age; the score acknowledges that realization, and it is all the more emotionally correct and honest for it.
James Horner equipped himself with a large number of musical building stones to draw from during his comparatively short score. Since aliens and humans represent both sides of the movie’s central theme, mortality and immortality, both are afforded significant thematic building stones.
Let’s start with the humans. First up is a long-lined melody (heard at 1:15 in Theme From Cocoon), whose thematic progression prefigures Legends Of The Fall. Although many have identified it as the score’s primary identity, Horner only uses it just this once, and what’s more: as the conspicuous start of the end title sequence, it never once occurs within the framework of the movie itself! (Only the B-theme appears regularly.) However, the composer explores the theme’s potential in the sequel score, Cocoon: The Return. This would happen again later in Horner’s career: a fanfare that was used only three times in The Mask of Zorro ended up as one of the cornerstones of The Legend of Zorro.
At 1:20 in Returning To Sea, Horner introduces a yearning figure, a theme of hope. Thereafter, it is featured when the old folks are talking about going to Antares, or thinking about going there. It represents their hope of not dying. The theme also recurs when the characters subvert mortality not only literally, but simply though living their lives more fully, whether death is inevitable or not. In this respect, the theme is the antithesis for the inevitability of loss and endings. The Hope Theme recurs throughout the third act and is given two spectacular statements during the Finale, in The Chase (1:13 – 1:30) and The Ascension (2:24 – 2:36).
But most importantly, Horner’s simplest, most delicate and emotionally direct idea of all is the Mortality theme, first heard six seconds into A Relapse. As stated before, it is orchestrated for piano, guitar and oboe in scenes about human loss and for French horn when it accompanies the dying Antareans. Horner uses the Mortality theme more frequently than any other in the score, and given the even greater role it plays in Cocoon The Return, it is the de facto main theme of the Cocoon saga. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with James Horner’s oeuvre: this is a composer who relished opportunities to compose melancholy, beautifully sad music and who excelled at scoring countless death scenes during his distinguished career, either tender (Bicentennial Man, Iris), violent (Samuel’s Death from Legends Of The Fall, Rogue Wave from The Perfect Storm) or sweeping and operatic (Jose’s Martyrdom from For Greater Glory). Horner instinctively responded to the essence of the human condition: we are the only living creatures on this planet who realize that we must one day die, and our lives derive meaning and urgency from that realization. The second part of this text will point to the surprisingly frequent and meaningful use of the Mortality theme.
The aliens get at least four ideas, chief of which is the seven-note alien mystery theme that bookends the score and the movie, playing ten seconds into Looking Through The Window and right at the start of Theme From Cocoon.
The second element chronologically associated with the aliens is a two-note motif of awe, heard between 1:03 and 1:31 in Looking Through The Window and returning when we see the aliens’ supernatural workings, such as the spaceship’s approach during the first 25 seconds of The Ascension or Walter’s alien hand energizing the pool (between 1:22 and 1:56 in Discovered In The Poolhouse).
The third theme is a fluttering woodwind motif, sixteenth notes merging into one continuous whole note. It is Horner’s metaphorical “telegraph” for the Antareans, whose main purpose is to get back home. In a way, the “telegraph” motif ties in with the “ghost call” motif from Project X, composed three years later and also orchestrated for woodwinds. The composer mainly uses the motif in two kinds of contexts. One is anticipation, like in The Lovemaking, where the figure rises in somewhat unconsummated fashion and repeats as the music around it builds. The second context has to do with the acceptance of endings, where it resolves with an accompanying descending cadence.
Finally, there’s an exuberant, almost religious melody that the full orchestra swells into three times during The Ascension, at 0:25, at 1:46 and at 5:16. Horner lays the groundwork for these sumptuous statements with a soft introduction of the theme between 3:28 and 3:59 in Returning To Sea, when Walter invites Ben, Art and Joe to join him on the trip back to Antares. I’ll call this the Space Travel Theme, and it makes its final appearance between 3:53 and 4:40 in Theme From Cocoon.
2 Standout set piece: the movie’s final 18 minutes
The older James Horner would have dared to record the final 18 minutes in one single uninterrupted take, but even at the age of 32, Horner handled the movie’s finale in truly admirable fashion. The four cues that combine to form the uninterrupted finale are David Runs To The Boat, The Chase, The Ascension and Theme From Cocoon, but for reasons that will soon become clear, this overview starts with the cue preceding them. The timings mentioned below are as in the movie unless stated otherwise.
2.0 Sneaking Out
At 1:30:11, the residents who have decided to go to Antares sneak out of the retirement home in the middle of the night. Horner scores Sneaking Out with the pizzicato material he introduced in Discovered In The Poolhouse. It makes sense to bring out the comedy element of this scene, a lengthy row of old geezers filing out the hallway and onto a jetty. At 1:30:31, the movie cuts to David looking through his telescope for a sign of the spaceship his grandpa told him about. Horner appropriately features the alien mystery theme in French horns as David’s mother tries to coax the truth out of her son, as she is already aware something is amiss. At 1:31:17, Horner introduces rhythmic material that refers to the fantasy elements of the story. Whatever you may have heard, Cocoon is definitely not a science-fiction story. Its use of aliens as an element of fantasy and its exploration of themes like life and death place it in a category halfway between what Blake Snyder would call Out Of The Bottle (as in Aladdin’s genie) and Rite of Passage (stories about characters coping with real-life problems like disease, death, alcoholism, puberty, mourning, you name it). Ron Howard’s movie tends to favor the fantasy element, James Horner’s score tends to favor the rite of passage part. In fact, when Bernie arrives on the pier, Horner dials back the energy and immediately brings in the Mortality theme. When urged to join them, Bernie says: “No, this is my home.” From Bernie’s perspective, Earth is the place where he lived with and ultimately lost his beloved Rose. It is a place that brought meaning to his life and where he will die, a fate he completely accepts. All of this truly makes this planet his home. Mortality imposes time limits on us yet drives us to organize our lives in meaningful ways, and this dichotomy is also present in Horner’s theme: although he uses it for scenes of death, the theme’s first phrases are two rising series of three notes celebrating life. Perhaps even the number three is no coincidence, possibly tying in with the organ Horner uses during the ascension scene and creating a subtle religious undercurrent which is otherwise wholly absent from the visuals.
This last exchange between Bernie and his friends is a wonderful example of dialogue scoring: Horner states themes and snippets of themes during the pauses between lines and makes sure that the music never gets in the way of the dialogue. As a result, the sound editor did not need to dial the score down and James Horner’s wonderful comment is realized to its full extent. Of particular note is the single French horn note during Bernie’s goodbye to Art, the leader of the pack. It’s an incredibly subtle touch and a wonderfully distinctive idea.
At the end of the cue, Bernie turns and leaves. James Horner responds with a beautifully subdued string sustain, his own restrained and therefore touching adieu to the character.
2.1 David Runs To The Boat
During the two minutes separating this cue from the previous one, David and his mother walk into the nursing home and inform the night guard that many of the residents have gone. Responding with disbelief, the night guard checks room after room, only to discover that the beds are empty. This building panic is left unscored, which makes the start of the next cue all the more effective.
When the cue does start, at 1:33:16, it is perfectly timed. Composers usually time their cues to coincide with a cut (this is especially true of stingers), yet here the cue starts as David, alerted by the sound of an engine revving, starts running. Horner takes his cue (excuse the pun) from David starting to move, not from the cut that follows just one second later. The split precision with which Horner proceeds here shows just how intricately a scene can be spotted. It also bears testament to Horner’s astute understanding of a scene’s psychology.
If Sneaking Out relied on comic pizzicato for movement, this next cue trades in movement for outright action, but minus the bass region for the moment. David is a kid, and Horner keeps the action magical and light, providing exciting rhythmic material but relying mainly on woodwinds and strings, a judicious orchestrating decision. In the build-up to The Ascension, Horner reminds us that this is only step two.
The first thirteen seconds of the cue are another wonderful example of psychological scoring: as the truth gradually dawns on David, Horner starts a crescendo with xylophone runs (the same xylophone he used for the alien mystery theme that opened the movie on images of David peering through his telescope). David starts running and the music follows suit. Keeping all the fluttering action together is the alien mystery theme, which in fragmented or complete form is given several forceful French horn statements.
Horner appropriately changes gears on the cuts to and from Walter and captain Jack trying to fix the Manta III’s engine. The composer keeping the momentum of the cue going but supplies the static scene inside the engine room with slower rhythms.
The Manta III is already detached from the pier and David narrowly succeeds in jumping aboard. He is greeted to grandpa Ben helping him aboard. Horner again uses the Mortality theme here and does two interesting things. The first one is the use of the theme itself: it reminds us that David’s place is not with his grandfather, the composer’s musical voice echoing Ben’s voice earlier in the story, when he asked the boy when he was going to find a friend his own age. This is the mini-arc of David’s character: he finds comfort in the caring and loving old people, but must learn that this is not his world. And amazingly, it’s all in the careful placement of the Mortality theme here.
The second interesting thing is Horner’s admirable balance between being scene-specific and maintaining musical integrity. David’s brief reunion with his grandfather is interrupted twice by the flurry of activity back on the pier, yet Horner plays through the first one and only acknowledges the second one. This gives him enough time to enunciate a comfortably complete statement of the Mortality theme, especially when a mere hint of it would not have been enough here. Keeping his eye on the ball, Horner quickly supplies the second and lengthiest shot of the bystanders on the pier with the requisite agitation and gets back to the Mortality theme as soon as the movie cuts back to Ben hugging his grandson.
2.2 The Chase
At 1:36:49, Ron Howard cuts to the Coast Guard boat. It marks the start of the score’s most fully developed and grandiose action cue. This is step three, and Horner takes his foot off the brake. We’ve had pizzicato, we’ve had fluttery woodwinds, now is the time for full-blooded action, brass, bass, timpani and all. The Chase cranks out exciting action riffs all the while rotating through sweeping thematic material, especially the alien mystery theme and the elusive Hope Theme introduced in Returning To Sea. The former, successively in its basic form and in variations, plays over insistent and often irregular rhythms – at 1:39:37, the melody becomes a rhythmic device in itself. A little note for Horner fans: the composer would return to the agitated strings presented here in the second part of Metamorphosis (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Comet Sunrise (Deep Impact).
Yet even amidst the frenzy of this wild action cue, Horner finds a spot to interject the Mortality theme when, at 1:39:59, David jumps overboard and Ben throws him a buoy. David is now finally ready to let go of his grandfather. When the boy is fished out of the water and reunited with his mother, Horner calls into play the alien mystery theme, a somewhat puzzling choice.
2.3 The Ascension
When the last note of one cue is the first note of the next, chances are the composer wants to splice them together in the editing room. This is exactly what happens here, and in the movie, The Chase segues seamlessly into The Ascension.
By now, I have pointed to nearly all the elements that turn this cue into the pinnacle of the score: the unbridled grandeur of the Space Travel Theme, the impassioned performance of the orchestra, the spectacular appearance of the motif of awe that kicks off the cue, the flawless balance Horner strikes between adhering to the visuals and preserving the integrity of the musical flow.
But there’s more. Somewhere in the cue is Horner’s most romantic statement of the alien mystery theme. He uses it for Jack’s goodbye to Walter and especially Kitty. Horner realizes correctly that this is the only sensible place for a love theme of sorts – the obvious place would have been during The Lovemaking, but romantic music would have been ill-advised in a scene so freakishly absurd.
Another distinctive moment occurs at 1:44:20, when the spaceship’s tractor beam lifts the Manta III out of the water to the fluttering sixteenth notes of Horner’s telegraph motif. The airy and light woodwinds are a perfect fit for the gravity-defying moment.
The second part of the ascension proper is where it gets really interesting. From 1:44:57 to 1:45:28 (4:10 to 4:41 on the CD), the composer switches to the Mortality theme. After two full statements for the oboe, relaxed and serene, the theme is handed over to the solemn French horn. These 31 unassuming seconds merit special attention. In Act 2 cues such as Rose’s Death and A Relapse, the Mortality theme was performed by the plaintive oboe because it commented on human loss; in First Tears, the theme was played by the French horn because it spoke to the death of aliens. Now at last, the oboe and the horn both play the theme in intimate succession. The subtle yet unmistakable presence of the Mortality theme during this crucial moment makes you wonder if James Horner decided to reinterpret the ascension to immortality as the transition from life to death, which is the exact opposite of what the filmmakers are saying. Film music as a storytelling device has the potential to add new meanings to visuals: would Horner have been so bold as to let his own narrative lead to the exact opposite of the filmmakers’? Even though Horner hides his potential antithetical interpretation in plain sight (there are hardly any sound effects during these 31 crucial seconds), he gets away with it because of the Golden Age principle of “inaudibility”: since the music is continuous and since we, the audience, do not pay attention to it because we are so engrossed by the visuals, the music becomes “inaudible” and the composer has a free pass to construct his own narrative and supply his own interpretation of the scene.
The Ascension – Cocoon – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
© 20th Century Fox – 1985
After these mysterious thirty-one seconds, Horner neatly transitions to the third and final grand statement of the Space Travel Theme. Rather than ending on a powerful tutti, the cue gently works its way down to a single string note which bleeds into a funeral scene attended, among many others, by young David.
2.4 Theme From Cocoon
As the priest mourns the deceased, David looks up smiling. Horner reprises the xylophone statement that started Through The Window and the score comes full circle. After a thunderous interlude that plays while we get a last glimpse of the Antarean vessel travelling through space, the movie fades out and the end credits start rolling. The meditative movement between 5:10 – 5:30 (on the CD) is interesting in that Horner would reprise it thirty-three years later for The Spiderwick Chronicles. The second part of that end title cue is perhaps the most conspicuous of James Horner’s many attempts to capture silence in music: the Cocoon reference lasts from 4:59 – 7:20 and is followed by one more full minute of ultra-slow unwinding.
It is very tempting to consider the four combined cues discussed above, so sweeping, adventurous and grand, as James Horner’s answer to John Williams’s E.T. Only three years apart, Cocoon and E.T. offered their respective composers a chance to craft their definitive space opera finale. Both lengthy movements are supremely heartfelt, all the major themes of the respective scores come to fruition, the mood is grand and expansive and the cymbals crash with jubilant bombast and shameless pride. Only composers like John Williams and James Horner are capable of emotions this grandiose and talented enough to get away with presenting them in such unbridled fashion.
On the other hand, there seems to be a fundamental difference between E.T. and Cocoon. While E.T. dies and is resurrected, that movie’s final six minutes are about saying goodbye (in fact, the most monumental goodbye in the history of cinema). In Cocoon, however, James Horner stubbornly keeps focusing on the Mortality Theme right until the very end of the end title cue. Compare the formal crescendo closing Williams’s score on a delirious high and the subdued final notes of Theme from Cocoon: Horner cannot resist finishing the end titles with two quiet oboe statements of the Mortality theme, an ending which is characteristically meditative.
Theme From Cocoon – Cocoon – Original Soundtrack by James Horner
© 20th Century Fox – 1985
True, there is room for discussion. If Horner intended the finale to play like a passage from life to death, why did he use the Hope Theme twice (once in The Chase, once in The Ascension)? On the other hand, how does one explain the extraordinary weight afforded to the Mortality theme, which is the very last element heard at the end of the score’s very last cue?
It is too late now to ask the composer what exactly he meant, but even with the mystery intact, it is not hard to be amazed by the sheer power and overwhelming emotional impact of Cocoon’s finale. It stands as one of the finest moments in the career of a young composer who would go on to craft an impressive series of musical and storytelling masterpieces.
Photo credit: © 20th Century Fox – 1985
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