Unsurprisingly to film music collectors, there was a lot of mainstream buzz around Hans Zimmer’s score to acclaimed director Christopher Nolan's Inception. Zimmer himself helped things along by making a few statements that raised eyebrows among veteran collectors (and, inevitably, invoked some ire from Filmtracks reviewer Christian Clemmensen – but I digress). Chief among these was his statement that his score is 'emotional as opposed to sentimental. It's not bullshit heroic; it has dignity to it'. Anybody who followed the similar media circus around Zimmer's The Dark Knight score will be reminded of his much-disdained dismissal of Danny Elfman's iconic Batman theme as “happy” and “jolly”.
How does this non-bullshit-heroicness translate to the score? Well, rather than a diverse musical tapestry with a narrative flow, Inception is a one-tone album of droning, synthetically-aided, atmospheric haze. Zimmer calls on Johnny Marr to provide electric guitar solos, but even they are given so much echo that they’re reduced to yet another atmospheric effect. Put like that, things sound rather dire; they aren't by any means, but don't expect to be impressed by any great big memorable themes. Motifs do exist, and I'll get into them in a second, but it takes a fair amount of digging to really find them, and once you do, they aren't actually all that interesting.
The musical hook that people are going to remember from the film is introduced in the first cue, 'Half Remembered Dream'. Like the Joker theme from The Dark Knight, it’s used intelligently in the film, but is also simplistic and obnoxious on album (though it gets mercifully little running time): repeating pairs of huge brass chords. Zimmer has always had a trademark brass sound featuring a harsh synthetic edge: nowhere is that on better display than here. The half-electronic brass roars with such weighty gravity that it’s hard to really take it seriously on album. It’s woven admirably into the film, though, and is in fact a slowed-down and monstrously morphed rendition of the brass accompaniment to Edith Piaf’s song, “Non, je ne regrette rien” (which is used extensively in the film and makes a cameo appearance at the seventh minute of “Waiting for a Train” here). Like they did with the Joker’s theme, the more obnoxious Hans Zimmer fans (the majority of Hans Zimmer fans) have been quick to use this as proof positive that he is nothing short of genius; it’s clever, yes, but hardly earth-shatteringly so (though the brass waves are so self-important that they give the impression of literally trying to shatter the earth). Huge sonic booms of brass are the most identifiable trademark of this score - the closest thing to a personality.
Of more interest on album are the motifs featured in the rest of the score. They’re all in the vein of “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from Zimmer’s The Da Vinci Code – simplistic neo-classical chord progressions drawn out into lengthy, repetitive statements. Now, this works well when Zimmer slowly increases both volume and instrumental layers as the theme progresses. These extended crescendos constitute the highlights of Inception, especially the conclusive “Time.” That cue’s building structure is an intriguing combination of the “Journey to the Line” cue from The Thin Red Line (especially in the descending string lines starting about a minute in) and the power-anthem stylistics of Crimson Tide and The Rock (especially in the big chopping string chords at 2:30 – a Zimmer staple since things as early as Black Rain ). This progression, seemingly representing twisted realities in general (though its role was foggy to me in the film), is foreshadowed on piano in “Half Remembered Dream”, allowed to build a bit in the second half of “Dream Within a Dream,” gets a subtle nod on high strings at 5:30 of “Waiting for a Train” and a subdued statement at the outset of “Paradox” before its full recapitulation as the album’s emotionally satisfying sendoff, “Time” – the piano solo at the end is very poignant (despite the annoying and unnecessary synthetic sting in the last second).
The simple, repeating chord progression method doesn’t work, though, if Zimmer fails to actually provide any sort of building momentum. This happens for painfully lengthy portions of Inception. Take the cue “Old Souls”, for example, which is based completely on a conversational motif that, coincidentally or not, sounds a lot like “Night at the Opera” from David Arnold’s Quantum of Solace, both in progression and in the echoing electronic ambience in the background. But whereas the Bond cue is a shining example of interesting, yet conversational underscore, Inception’s version noodles along endlessly without really doing a fat lot. Towards the end of the cue things do pick up a bit, with Zimmer’s reliable chopping cello lines adding a dash of extra movement. The first five-plus minutes of the cue are almost insultingly dull, though. To make matters worse, the first half of “Waiting for a Train” is more of the same.
More engaging is the “collapsing dream” progression, which, appropriately enough, appears in “Dream is Collapsing” and “Dream Within a Dream” (with lesser statements at the outset of “Radical Notion” and the last minutes of “Waiting for a Train”). These two cues are the closest Inception gets to traditional Hans Zimmer action music, though even they somehow manage to retain an oddly detached quality. “Dream is Collapsing” builds nicely, starting with some synth and the guitar laying down the basic chords, then adding your basic Zimmeresque string ostinatos and that harsh brass (the slowdown to the massive brass waves at 1:33 might possibly be the definition of self-importance, but it’s quite good fun nonetheless). “Dream Within a Dream” does much the same in its first two minutes (with an added layer of electronic percussion), before segueing into a slightly condensed version of “Time”. Actually, this five-minute cue could be seen as a decent concert suite; it contains full statements of the score’s two most engaging themes…so if you only want to spend a buck at iTunes, this is the cue to go for.
There is surprisingly little action music here, and that which does appear has that all-permeating hazy quality. A singular exception is the very loud “Mombasa”, and whether you regard it as a refreshing change of pace or an irritating break in continuity depends on your preferences. This cue layers a very thick barrage of synthetic percussion over various processed string effects (leftovers from the similarly unlistenable “Why So Serious?” cue from The Dark Knight ) and electronics; the resulting sound is somewhat akin to Black Hawk Down. Personally I find it one of the most annoying action cues Zimmer has ever written; it’s too long, overly-synthetic, doesn’t have any real direction or thematic statements to keep things going and sticks out like a sore thumb on the album. Altogether, there are less than fifteen minutes of action material on this fifty-minute album – representative of its agonizingly slow pacing.
A word should be said about two bonus cues available for download on iTunes, “Projections” and “Don’t Think About Elephants”, which add another twelve minutes of music. The former is entirely redundant, its first half recapitulating the boring underscore from “Old Souls” and its second half providing a slightly extended version of “Dream is Collapsing”. The latter alternates the collapsing dream progression with a Sherlock Holmes-like ostinato and a heightened level of activity from the synthetic drum section, creating an engaging action cue that sounds like something out of a spy thriller.
This score works much better in its film than it does on album. It never really adds a lot to what happens onscreen, though – it drones along in the background, coming forward for the odd blaat or two from the brass, but mainly remaining in a comfortably dreamlike limbo. Dreamlike – that’s the punchline. This quality was almost definitely a request from director Christopher Nolan.
Nolan’s films have never featured pleasant score albums. His earlier films were scored by David Julyan, who provided similarly nebulous, minimalistic scores. When he upgraded to the A-list with Zimmer (and James Newton Howard ) for his Batman scores, that droning, thematically obtuse mentality remained. For Inception, Nolan reportedly didn’t allow Zimmer to see much of the movie beforehand, asking him to write music based on the script alone. And honestly, that’s exactly what this score sounds like; in a way, it’s the antithesis of Mickey-mousing. Instead of following the onscreen action too much, it doesn’t follow it at all. And that would be great if Zimmer took full advantage of it. He could have used this opportunity to create a set of well-developed, fleshed-out, intelligent themes and tie them together into a musical tapestry as layered and complex as the dreams within the movie. But maybe I’m just defending a favorite composer here, but I think Nolan’s just as much at fault as Zimmer – statements about bullshit heroic music aside, you can hardly blame the man for giving the director the dreamlike ambience he requested.
This isn’t a poor score. It’s certainly serviceable: there are a couple themes to cling to and the integration of the Edith Piaf song is cleverly handled. Neither is it a poor album – unless you’re a diehard Zimmer detractor, in which case it will represent nearly everything that’s ostensibly “wrong” with the man. Sans the “Mombasa” cue, it’s the sort of album you can have on in the background while you’re reading or studying. It doesn’t draw undue attention to itself and creates a zoned-out atmosphere that isn’t unpleasant by any means. There’s about ten minutes of strong material to be gathered here that should satisfy fans of Zimmer’s blockbuster sound. But both score and album are, for the most part, uninteresting and, what’s more, a disappointingly missed opportunity.