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INCEPTION – Hans Zimmer

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

An action thriller dealing with the manipulation of dreams, Inception is the latest film from Batman Begins and Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan. Leonardo di Caprio stars as Cobb, one of an elite group of corporate espionage specialists who have mastered the technology of ‘dream invasion’, which allows him to literally enter the dream world of a subject while he is asleep. A man with a tortured past, Cobb and his cohort Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) are hired by wealthy industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), a corporate rival, and perform an ‘inception’, a dangerous procedure where, rather than extracting information, an idea is surreptitiously placed into the subject’s subconscious without them realizing. After assembling his team (Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao), Cobb begins his journey into dreamworld, where he not only has to contend with the dangers presented by the task, but also his own personal demons, in the form of his long-dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard).

One of the more unkind reviews of Inception I read – and I’m paraphrasing here – said it was “considered a clever film by people who don’t usually watch clever films, because they want to congratulate themselves for watching something with a brain”. While this perhaps a little flippant, it’s true that Inception is not as mind-bending and confusing as it purports to be, despite its dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream setup, which is actually surprisingly easy to follow. What it has instead is a great deal of excellent action (notably a James Bond-style sequence on skis and an astonishing zero-gravity fight in a hotel hallway), slick pacing, and some great conceptual ideas, even if they are in many ways stolen from previous films, notably The Matrix, Alex Proyas’s Dark City, and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

The conceit in Hans Zimmer’s score for the film is its origin: Édith Piaf’s classic 1960 song “Non, je ne regrette rien”, which is used as a marker throughout the film itself, and from which Zimmer also derives the majority of the score’s recurring thematic elements. The score’s most recognizable motif – a big, booming, foghorn-like brass bi-chord – is actually the opening bar of the song slowed down so it becomes almost unrecognizable, alluding to the idea that time inside a dream unfolds slower than it does in the ‘real world’. It’s a clever bit of thinking, along the same lines as Zimmer using the chimes of Big Ben during his action sequences in Sherlock Holmes, and reminds the listener that, no matter what else he is, Zimmer has always written intelligent music.

Beyond this central idea, however, Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly conventional, heavily rooted in the increasingly ubiquitous Dark Knight action style, in that it is low on themes and motifs, but heavy on rhythms and Lorne Balfe’s ambient sound design elements. It follows the musical thinking Christopher Nolan applies to all his films, in that music and sound effects should more often than not be indistinguishable from each other. While this often creates a seamlessly organic listening experience in the context of the film, it often renders the subsequent soundtrack album a little dreary; unfortunately, this is the case here. Furthermore, Nolan actively prevented Zimmer from seeing edited cuts of the film before he wrote his music, instead instructing his composer to write blocks of music based on his impressions of the screenplay and the dailies, which were then edited together in post-production. Although this ‘tailor made library music’ approach is not new top film scoring, and although it allows Nolan to edit his film and music together in a seamless way with one mirroring the other, the side-effect of this is a lack of specificity in the scoring, emphasizing overarching moods rather than specific emotional points within a scene.

The score oscillates between two or three styles, all of which inhabit a similar harmonic world, and all of which seek to blur the lines between reality and the dream-world with generous layers of electronic pulses and synthesized chords, not too dissimilar from the music composers like Vangelis and Brad Fiedel wrote during the 1980s. Gentle ambiences for strings and glassy sampled electronics characterize the opening and closing moments of “Half Remembered Dream”. The opening cue segues into a vaguely-nourish, slightly John Barry-ish piece for a soft string wash, guitars and more grinding electronics in “We Built Our Own World”, which seems to represent the mysterious relationship between Cobb and Mal which forms the emotional core of the film. “Old Souls”, large parts of “Waiting for a Train” and the conclusive “Time” build on these two styles of writing, incorporating subtle piano performances and guitar licks performed by guitarist Johnny Marr of the rock band Modest Mouse, but in general presenting little more than a set of moody, distant textures which almost lull the listener to sleep.

The action sequences that feature strongly in the second half of the album are dominated by bass-heavy motifs featuring Da Vinci Code-style staccato rhythms, throaty brass chords that build outwards from the Piaf motif, and muscular string writing which shares musical similarities with other pop-minimalist pieces from other scores, most notably Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream. These stylistics form the core of cues such as “Dream is Collapsing”, the grinding “Radical Notion”, the propulsive “528491”, and the relentless “Dream Within a Dream”, while the one standout action moment is the frantic, frenetic “Mombasa”, which adds a layer of pulsating tribal-style percussion over the orchestra/synth/guitar combo, and provides a fresh sense of genuine excitement to a scene in which Cobb is chased all over the Kenyan city by rogue agents.

While all this sounds quite promising in prose, the reality is that, for quite significant portions of its running time, Inception is unexpectedly dull. Despite adding an appropriate internal tempo to a film in context, scores that rely almost solely on rhythm and texture suffer from a lack of personality outside it, and that is the case here. Whole minutes of score just drift by aimlessly, lost in their own musical fog, occasionally changing timbre, occasionally changing tempo, but providing very little actual musical content for the listener to latch onto. To make matters worse, the one truly memorable musical element – the Piaf motif – becomes so insistent that, at times, it becomes obnoxious to the point of being unintentionally amusing, accompanying every moment of revelation with an earth-shattering ‘whonnnnnnkkk’ of doom. The latter half of “Waiting For a Train” is especially guilty of this, despite interpolating an actual sample of Piaf’s voice into the score around the 7-minute mark. Christopher Nolan clearly has a penchant for simplistic thematic statements such as this, as the Inception motif is clearly a cousin to the Joker motif from The Dark Knight.

It’s a real shame, because Inception is clearly a film filled with concepts and ideas which in other circumstances could inspire a composer to write truly great music. With a director other than Christopher Nolan holding the musical reins, Zimmer himself would likely have produced a score of greater scope than he has; clearly Zimmer was entirely influenced by Nolan’s personal musical tastes and thoughts about how music and film work together, which is why parts of the score are as insubstantial as they are. Admirers of Zimmer’s work on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and to a lesser extent The Da Vinci Code scores, will find much to their taste in Inception. Others, unfortunately, will find themselves dreaming of a time when Zimmer actually wrote scores which linger longer in the memory – for the right reasons.

Rating: ***

Buy the Inception soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Half Remembered Dream (1:12)
  • We Built Our Own World (1:56)
  • Dream is Collapsing (2:24)
  • Radical Notion (3:43)
  • Old Souls (7:44)
  • 528491 (2:24)
  • Mombasa (4:54)
  • One Simple Idea (2:28)
  • Dream Within a Dream (5:04)
  • Waiting For a Train (9:30)
  • Paradox (3:25)
  • Time (4:36)

Running Time: 49 minutes 20 seconds

WaterTower Music/Reprise 524667-2 (2010)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Elizabeth Finch, Walter Fowler, Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kaska, Suzette Moriarty, Ed Neumeister and Carl Rydlund. Additional music byLorne Balfe. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Ryan Rubin. Album produced by Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, Christopher Nolan and Alex Gibson.

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