It’s probably happened to you more than once. You’re sitting in the movie theatre, munching on popcorn, when suddenly, it happens. A particular melody begins playing and your ears tell you that you’ve heard it before, which is strange because you’re seeing this movie for the very first time, so how can you have heard the music already?
It’s more common than you might think. Film composers have been reusing music from one film to the next since the beginning of the film industry. It usually happens when a composer is up against a deadline and doesn’t have the time to write wholly new themes. The late James Horner was particularly known for reusing melodies from one film to the next. For me, one of the most well-known instances of this comes in two films, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, released in 1982 and Aliens, released in 1986.
The primary melody that is shared between the two films was originally associated with the villain Khan (brought to life by Ricardo Montalban). The music was written to evoke a sense of Khan’s warlike (and increasingly unstable) nature. In the theme “Surprise Attack,” Khan’s theme begins at 0:20 and repeats at various intervals.
Keeping that melody in mind, fast forward to 1986 and James Cameron’s Aliens. Horner, pressed for time, decided to reuse this melody, only now it is used to represent Ripley racing in to rescue the surviving Marines fleeing the Alien nest. The melody begins at 0:05.
It’s fascinating how James Horner turned a theme originally intended for a villain into a theme that now represents the heroine.
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