Dead Beats: “Bishop’s Countdown” by James Horner
We take a look back at this iconic piece of film score history.
By Jay Gervais
You’ve likely heard music by the late James Horner, whose scores have been prominently featured in many major box-office hits like Titanic, Avatar, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Braveheart, just to name a few in his long list of memorable works that span across decades. Horner was a bit of a rock star back in the ’80s and some of his finest pieces were composed during that era. One such work was his score to James Cameron’s Aliens, which was a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien. Sadly, the famous composer tragically passed away in 2015 following an aircraft accident and his wife and two daughters survive him.
For Aliens, Cameron opted on more of an action film than one generally focused on horror, but elements from both genres found themselves expertly weaved together rather perfectly. While it was evident the director clearly respected the source material, Cameron took some liberties to expand on the lore and give more depth to his characters in contrast to Scott’s more questions than answers film, which is something the latter is still attempting to resolve to this very day. However, Aliens does have its detractors and one commonly held theme was turning our favorite aliens into mere pesky ants protecting their queen mother who are easily blown to smithereens with a quick few bursts from a pulse rifle. However, at least Cameron kept things were fairly straightforward and unnecessarily complicated with much too many details to digest.
Cameron was right in selecting Horner to score his film, considering he was already an established action movie composer by the time he began work on Aliens. On his approach for this film, Horner borrowed some of his compositional concepts from previous scores, notably Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and its sequel, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. That’s not to say he just simply recycled themes and went through the motions, but he instead took his ideas and lifted them to an even higher level of mastery.
“Bishop’s Countdown” is easily the highlight piece from this film and it’s so good that Cameron actually used it two separate times in the film. We first hear the piece when Ripley makes her escape from the processing station, where our protagonist has her first close encounter with the Xenomorph Queen, proceeding to the dropship location to be picked up by Bishop before the entire colony is consumed by a nuclear blast.
In its dramatic second appearance, it’s heard just moments after the Queen is blown out of an airlock and into the vast emptiness of space, leaving audiences at the edge of their seats hoping Ripley can shut the airlock doors before she, Bishop, and Newt also fall victim to her daring strategy to rid the creature from the ship. This vital moment wouldn’t have been as memorable if it wasn’t for Horner’s splendid audio cue to compliment the visuals.
Everything from the unnatural but impressive string work to the imposing brass sections, “Bishop’s Countdown” makes an epic statement in the first half of the track and resolves into an elegant piece to bring listeners back down from their heightened sense of emotion. Is it any surprise Horner received an Academy Award nomination for his fine work on Aliens?
While we’ve discussed one of the finer pieces of this soundtrack, why not check out the complete score while you’re at it? You can still grab the deluxe edition of this soundtrack from Varèse Sarabande or check your favorite digital platforms to relive your favorite moments from Aliens all over again.
Are we putting this album on our playlist tonight? The answer to that question is a resounding affirmative.