Sitting in the awesome shadow of the BBC series Planet Earth, 2009’s Oceans felt a little underwhelming—its strengths mere echoes of what Planet Earth had already done so well. Its attempt at following a narrative arch was wobbly; the piece as a whole came across unfocused and haphazardly stitched together.
The one, glowing triumph of Oceans was its majestic orchestral score by French composer Bruno Coulais. Coulais entered the American film consciousness with another 2009 film, Coraline, but as of yet has failed to make a big public splash. If anything warranted a tsunami of recognition, it was his score for Oceans.
Coulais takes the underwater world—its inhabitants and its ecological plight—deadly serious. With his trademark pluck and humor he does intermittently bounce between marine species and their amusing antics, but at the heart of the score is a stirring, reverent homage to swelling waves and the ancient creatures that patrol the deep.
An upward spiraling motif is a central theme in Oceans. Coulais drops it in incrementally, developing it throughout the course of the score. It is often performed on French horn, gracing the waters with an air of regality.
Among my favorite motifs is found in a somber, nearly heartbreaking ode to dolphins. Coulais teases by offering a brutally short statement of this motif on clarinet in its most gorgeous form, and never takes it much further than this beautiful, fleeting moment.
Another major theme, deceptively simple in its rise-and-fall structure, is dabbled in and decorated in passes, until Coulais gives it a legendary treatment sung by a haunting chorus in the track “Les Massacres”. The tune was actually penned by French singer Gabriel Yacoub, who delivers a powerful performance in the final track, “Oceans Will Be”.
Another highlight of Oceans is the mournful cello solos throughout, reminiscent of the violin melodies in James Newton Howard’s The Village. They further weave the elegant tapestry that comprises this submarine tone poem.
Haunting, regal, somber. These are the best words to describe the overall tone of Oceans. There are hints of playfulness here and there, but ultimately the music glides slowly and sadly along, like a beautiful whale marked with scars from a vicious attack many years before.
I didn’t care for Coulais’ quirky, Elfmanesque Coraline, and the only other work of his I’ve heard is for The Secret of Kells (which, despite some strengths, failed to stir me like Oceans). I’m not sure if it is budgets or style that has dictated Coulais’ lean towards small-scale, quirky scores. But if Oceans is any indicator, his voice shines brightest when given an extensive orchestral palette and sober dramatic material.
This is a score you need not see the film in order to appreciate. Coulais paints a striking picture of the deep with his music, music that sits in your subconscious long after the final note.