INFERNO – Hans Zimmer
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Inferno is the latest in the series of films based on Dan Brown’s immensely popular Robert Langdon novels, after The Da Vinci Code in 2006, and Angels & Demons in 2009. Tom Hanks returns to the leading role as the genius Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology; in this story, Langdon finds himself racing around ancient historical sites in Florence and Venice, as he attempts to uncover the truth behind the suicide of a billionaire scientist, and how it relates to a missing biological weapon, and the various writings and artworks of Dante Aligheri and Sandro Botticelli that define our modern concept of hell. The film is directed by Ron Howard, and co-stars Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Irrfan Khan; also returning to the team is composer Hans Zimmer, whose scores for The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons are amongst his most popular of the last ten years.
In this score’s accompanying press material, Zimmer said “If The Da Vinci Code was me at my most classical, and Angels & Demons was trying to reconcile the idea of science and religion, then Inferno is about disorientation. Ron Howard once said to us: ‘Make sure you don’t shut the laboratory doors too soon…’ I took him by his word and we ended up with reckless experimentation. This one’s more personal. This one’s darker, even for me. This one might not be for the faint of heart”. Zimmer’s description of the score is on the nose, and may come as something of a shock to those who loved the rich, classical elements of the first two scores, and expected Inferno to sound similar, because it doesn’t.
Zimmer has gradually been returning to his electronic roots for many years now, obsessing about new synthesizers and pieces of gear on his Facebook page, and writing electronics-heavy scores such as Chappie, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Interstellar, and Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice, among others. The reception to those scores has been mixed at best but one thing one can never accuse Zimmer of doing is taking an easy way out; unlike many other contemporary exponents of electronic music, Zimmer’s is never anything less than sophisticated. He regularly blends layers and layers of different sound design elements with numerous overlapping rhythms, and then adds acoustic instruments that flesh out the sound palette. Inferno continues this trend and may, in fact, be the best example of this style he has produced in quite some time.
Thematically, Inferno is quite limited. The franchise’s main theme, originally heard in the “CheValiers de Sangreal” track from The Da Vinci Code, has now grown to become the overarching identity for Robert Langdon himself, and the fingerprints of that theme are all over Inferno, albeit twisted and inverted and often buried deep underneath the pulsating electronic ideas. Hints of the theme appear scattered throughout the score: it first appears, peeking out of the bed of dance music-like pulses, towards the end of “I’m Feeling A Tad Vulnerable,” and then comes with a haunted, detached quality in “Professor,” like the music you would hear upon waking from a bad dream. Later, in the second half of “Venice,” the theme is accompanied by the familiar vowel-choir from scores like Crimson Tide and The Peacemaker – a nice throwback! – before it forms the core of the unexpectedly moving “Beauty Awakens the Soul To Act,” where it is anchored by a haunting, emotional solo violin.
It emerges as an action motif towards the end of “The Logic of Tyrants” in quite unexpected fashion, thrust along by the relentless motion of the electronic pulses. The best performance comes in the penultimate cue, “Life Must Have It’s Mysteries,” where a rich solo violin anchors the theme, and vaguely religioso chanting voices add an ecclesiastical bent, although even here the tone remains anchored in an electronic rather than acoustic world.
The only notable new theme is the theme for Elizabeth Sinskey, one of the main protagonists of the film, and her theme is a small, introspective four-note piano motif which receives various allusions and extrapolations in cues such as “Venice,” before receiving its most prominent statement in the comparatively soothing and pretty “Elizabeth,” and combining with the performances of the main Langdon theme in the aforementioned “Life Must Have It’s Mysteries”.
As far as the action music is concerned, Zimmer seems to have been intentionally trying to recapture the sound he adopted so successfully during the early part of the 1990s on scores like Black Rain, Backdraft, and Drop Zone, especially in cues such as “Cerca Trova,” “I’m Feeling A Tad Vulnerable,” and “Remove Langdon”. Here, Zimmer’s familiar unusual rhythmic ideas, changing time stamps with gay abandon, drive the action forward, while the throwback sound of some of the samples create a definite sense of nostalgia. Tonally, the sounds tend to be metallic, pseudo-industrial, and have similarities to the action music from his recent Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man scores, but for some reason the actual rhythmic pulses feel more interesting here, more compelling, with greater depth and complexity. The best of the action cues is “The Cistern,” which has vague echoes of some of the action music from both Sherlock Holmes and The Dark Knight, but it builds up a real head of steam, and at a touch under seven minutes long has a chance to leave a real impression on the listener.
However, some of the moments of pure electronic dissonance are likely to drive many to distraction. The opening cue, “Maybe Pain Can Save Us,” could almost be seen as a challenge from Zimmer to see just how much pain can be endured by his listeners; this is harsh, aggressive, throbbing, at times downright unpleasant music. Similar stylistics appear in subsequent cues such as the nightmarish “Seek and Find,” the more ambient and ghostly “Via Dolorosa #12 Apartment 3C,” and the skull-splitting “Vayentha,” but as challenging as these cues are, you can see exactly what Zimmer is trying to achieve with them – a lot of the plot of Inferno revolves around Robert Langdon’s own faulty memory, and how for the first time in his life his intellect and his thought processes are letting him down, and this is Zimmer’s way of musically depicting this confusion and disorientation.
Reviewing scores like Inferno is a difficult balancing act, because I have to approach it from several different angles. Firstly, I have to commend Zimmer for writing music that is, from a technical standpoint, excellent. The level of intricacy involved in the different layers of electronic sound, and the interpolation of the recurring themes into this web of sound in sometimes quite unusual ways, is to be applauded. Secondly, I fully understand what Zimmer was doing and why the score sounds the way it does; much of the film is all about obfuscation, deception, confusion, and uncertainty, where personal loyalties are unclear and identities are shrouded in mystery. Zimmer’s way of depicting this through this sort of challenging electronic music is interesting and unexpected, which is always a good thing. However, the final thing is to say that, as a consumer, I don’t actually enjoy listening to this score much at all, and that’s purely down to my own personal musical taste and preference for more orchestral, less synthetic sounds. If you have determined that, through reading my reviews over the years, you have similar taste to me, then I can guarantee that Inferno will not be your cup of tea in terms of it being a pleasant listening experience. However, don’t let that dissuade you from seeking it out, because if you also find enjoyment in dissecting the hows and the whys of a film score, there is much to discover and admire.
Buy the Inferno soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Maybe Pain Can Save Us (3:02)
- Cerca Trova (3:17)
- I’m Feeling A Tad Vulnerable (2:08)
- Seek and Find (2:03)
- Professor (4:26)
- Venice (5:44)
- Via Dolorosa #12 Apartment 3C (4:20)
- Vayentha (4:38)
- Remove Langdon (3:17)
- Doing Nothing Terrifies Me (3:24)
- A Minute to Midnight (1:52)
- The Cistern (6:43)
- Beauty Awakens the Soul To Act (5:58)
- Elizabeth (4:33)
- The Logic of Tyrants (5:07)
- Life Must Have It’s Mysteries (3:54)
- Our Own Hell On Earth (6:19)
Running Time: 70 minutes 55 seconds
Sony Classical (2016)
Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Johannes Vogel. Orchestrations by Òscar Senén and Joan Martorell. Additional music by Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski, Richard Harvey, Michael Tuller and Paul Mounsey. Recorded and mixed by Bernd Mazagg and Stephen Lipson. Edited by Bob Badami. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Stephen Lipson.