Music and science fiction go together like hot fudge and ice cream, Tango and Cash, peanut butter and bananas (hey, you like what you like and I’ll like what I like.) Whether it be the biggest, baddest John Williams score or the harshest of riffs from Rage Against the Machine, tunes and sci-fi are integral.
Now what works better, the score versus soundtrack, is a tough nut to crack. John Williams has this on lock as evidenced by his slew of Academy Awards but even he has woven strands of pop culture into his musical narrative (See "Close Encounters" theme with bits of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”) John Williams' original score is the best part of the prequels, who knew all it took to add a bit more drama to a scene was to add vocals. John knew, plus he does more with a few notes than many composers do with whole orchestras. Take the theme to the Harry Potter films, you know exactly what you’re getting into three notes in and it makes a damn good ring tone. Oh, and he also wrote the music for "Superman", "Indiana Jones", and "E.T.". Boom. Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore are hot on his heels, but John Williams is in a class all his own.
For my money, sticking popular songs into science fiction is tricky busines,s but when it works it’s AMAZING. My personal favorite being Rage’s “Wake Up” at the end of "The Matrix" accompanying Neo flying for the first time. Brilliant, poignant, and damn, damn cool, especially at Mann’s Chinese Theater where I saw it. The song itself invokes revolution and melded perfectly with the final image of the film.
The most subtle and satisfying use of a song in science fiction has to be “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan which was masterfully crafted into "Battlestar Galactica’s" season three finale. Bear McCreary (best name ever) had been smart enough to include the original television theme on a couple of occasions but layering Watchtower not only into the reveal with members of the Final Five but throughout the final season is extremely admirable. And yes, I know Zack Snyder used Hendrix’s version in "Watchmen". Nope, didn’t work for me. Covers rarely do except in "Donnie Darko".
There have been missteps in the use of popular songs. Do I need to mention “Hero” from the first Spider-Man? I just did. Sidebar: I’ve met Chad Kroeger and he is the coolest, nicest dude. Not a fan of tunes but a lot of people are and it’s cool he’s not a douche. “You Could Be Mine” in "Terminator 2" is a throwaway Guns N Roses song and so was the video. But I will gladly take any AC/DC, specifically “Shoot to Thrill” in Marvel’s "The Avengers". Super funny and very consistent with Robert Downey, Jr.’s (RBJ to his friends) Tony Stark character. And speaking of the Avengers, Soundgarden over the end credits? Really? Seems like a missed opportunity. Anyone can tell you it should have been “Power” by Kanye West. Think about it, then smash something.
Steven Smith has too many songs on his computer to make iTunes Match work, his podcast Going Off Track is weekly and you should listen to it, and he really means it, Chad Kroeger from Nickelback is an awesome guy, no foolin’.