I recently watched “Blade Runner” and “Palm Springs” back to back. These are two movies that, while both technically being sci-fi, are very different in tone and worldbuilding. And when viewed so close together, it becomes a lot easier to compare elements of the two, such as their soundtracks.
For all the flying cars and flashing button panels of “Blade Runner”, the world depicted is not an optimistic version of the future. Characters are lashed with rain the moment they step outside into a grimy world of corporate overlords and murderous androids, and all of this is evoked in the soundtrack. Composer Vangelis was playing with synthesizers before it was cool and from the get-go his mark was made on the movie. “Opening Titles”, the iconic theme, hits with the intensity of a heavy guitar solo but with a futuristic bent that never veers into cheesiness, instead ringing out over the bustling streets and feeling if not triumphant, at least pioneering.
The presentation of “Palm Springs” is in sharp contrast to this. Where the rainclouds of “Blade Runner” felt like a weight on that movie’s shoulders, there is barely a cloud in the California sky, with bright and warm colors that contribute to the movie’s generally upbeat atmosphere. The soundtrack mirrors this with a playful backing that glides over the unfolding scenes. The track playing during the movie’s climax (whose title I won’t give away because it’s kind of a spoiler) was the high point: a subtle melody not so much propelling the action along as matching it step for step.
These are distinctly different experiences, but there’s a reason I’m comparing them here. Both stay with the listener long after the credits roll with sneaky but very present earworms present. Being soundtracks, they rely heavily on repeated motifs and even tracks being used multiple times to create a narrative just through music and to call back to earlier scenes. “Blade Runner” uses these thematic threads to turn up the tension as the titular android hunter closes in on his targets. “Palm Springs” does this in a similar fashion, but as this is a romantic-comedy first and foremost, it races alongside the plot towards the inevitable conclusion without ever feeling formulaic.
A soundtrack is maybe a movie’s most underrated asset. When a soundtrack really hits, you often won’t consciously notice it because of how interwoven it is with the events onscreen. “Blade Runner” and “Palm Springs” both use music to skillfully walk the line between letting the plot play out without interruption and enhancing the emotions the audience takes away from the movie. The dark dystopia of 2019 Los Angeles and the sunny, maybe even too sunny, titular desert come to life with strings and synthesizers and without the works of Vangelis and Cornbread Compton, these amazing movies wouldn’t be the same.