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It’s fair to say that I’ve not been the biggest fan of music in Christopher Nolan’s films so far.  As he moved into the big time, the bland music provided by David Julyan in his earlier films was “upgraded” to equally bland music provided by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard for the Batman films.  I never really understood it – a director so fine in so many ways and yet he didn’t seem to have any basic grasp of what proper music could do for his films.  Those two Batman films must rank amongst the biggest musical missed opportunities in years.  Because of this, I wasn’t expecting much from the score for Inception, Zimmer working by himself (well, as by himself as he gets) this time round.  

My ears could scarcely believe themselves when they first heard this.  Where was the bland, “atmospheric” soundscape I had expected?  What was this creative, invigorating music?  Surely not from a Christopher Nolan film!  Yet here it is – Zimmer’s finest work in a number of years, music which is inevitably simple from a compositional point of view but which shows a rare degree of intellectual complexity.  It is certainly true that Inception builds upon ideas introduced in Zimmer’s previous scores for the director, but he goes lightyears beyond anything heard there.  The familiar string ostinatos, the rock-based approach to action music, multiple repetitions of the same phrase with gradual development – they’re all here, but this time pulled off in such a vibrant, energetic way.

Hans Zimmer

The main theme, such that it is, sees jabbing strings over bass-heavy whole notes from the brass section.  Zimmer introduces it in “Dream is Collapsing” early in the score, develops it further in “Dream Within a Dream” later on.  It’s an idea he has used before (as in The Da Vinci Code‘s “Chevaliers de Sangreal”) and one he does very well.  That music is certainly exciting; but the most overtly “action” music in the score comes in “Mombasa”, a percussion-lover’s dream, layers of both real and sampled percussion accompanied by strident electric guitar performed by Johnny Marr (of The Smiths).

A secondary theme, with an air of mystery and beauty, also makes its way through the score.  It is highlighted in the terrific “Waiting for a Train”, where the melody is accompanied by the same kind of washing string movements that Zimmer introduced in The Thin Red Line‘s “Journey to the Line” and has used occasionally ever since.  This is the track which famously features a brief burst of Edith Piaf singing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, which Zimmer has claimed he used as the basis for the entire score.  I will leave it to the musicologists to discuss whether that’s true or not.  “Paradox” is a track rich with emotion – not a quantity I would usually associate with this composer – and real beauty, strings sounding like they’re going to go under from the strain.  The score concludes with “Time”, a fuller exploration of the “Chevaliers de Sangreal”-type theme from earlier in the score, and a great way to finish.

I’ve been highly critical of Hans Zimmer in my reviews over the years – not just for the sake of it, but because I’ve believed in what I’ve been saying – almost to the point of dreading having to hear anything new he writes.  It’s been a long twelve years since his only previous truly great score, The Thin Red Line – twelve years in which his domination of film music, the style used not only in scores credited to him and his associates but throughout Hollywood, has become absolute.  Now, at last, the culmination of a style he has been honing for a few years has led to his second truly great score.  With emotional and intellectual depth, Inception is easily his most impressive work since that 1998 masterpiece.  One can only hope it doesn’t take another twelve years to hear this Hans Zimmer again, the one from which creativity rather than laziness seems to simply radiate.  *****

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  1. Mastadge (Reply) on Friday 31 December, 2010 at 15:37

    I didn’t like this score at first. The first handful of times I put it on it put me to sleep. Then I waited a few months and listened again and now I can’t stop listening.

  2. Mikal (Reply) on Friday 31 December, 2010 at 19:12

    This score had me at “hello,” too. 🙂 I first heard it within the context of the film, which I thought it fit perfectly. On album, it’s just as good. The way the textures wash over you is akin to how I feel when I listen to a Mansell score. It’s a very enveloping soundscape, and there’s something ineffably appealing about it. I think I’ve listened to it more than any other 2010 score, with the exception of The Karate Kid, possibly. Fantastic score, in my opinion, and one of my favorites of 2010, beating out such popular choices as HtTYD and Alice in Wonderland.

  3. Michael (Reply) on Saturday 1 January, 2011 at 09:38

    Just to touch on what you said in the Tron review, I hardly think you are predictable. Of the several reviewers who’s opinion I actually do seek before acquiring a new score you are easily the least predictable. I mean your 2 favourite scores of 2010 are Inception and Tron, no one could predict that.

    As for this review, you’re spot on. A fabulous score. One of Zimmer’s very best. A great review to finish off the year.

  4. Leonard (Reply) on Saturday 1 January, 2011 at 10:49

    This score is great, I absolutely agree with this review. Seriously, I don’t understand people giving 2 stars to this score. It worked perfectly in the movie and it wasn’t bad on album. This review is one of the most reliable Inception reviews this year.

  5. Erik Woods (Reply) on Sunday 2 January, 2011 at 21:26

    I gave it two and half stars. It’s a fine album but as a film score I think Inception is one of the worst spotted films I’ve seen in a long, long time and the score was extremely distracting and utterly annoying in the film.

  6. Craig (Reply) on Sunday 2 January, 2011 at 23:03

    I’m a regular fan of this Web site and thoroughly enjoy Mr. Southall’s reviews. Inception is a great score, and so is The Thin Red Line. But did no one else enjoy Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Last Samurai, Tears of the Sun, or Zimmer’s Batman, which I thought was well matched for Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader (I will concede I deleted a lot of cues from the Batman CDs due to long tracks of atmospherics or noisy pointless percussion, but the themes and action cues are fantastic).

  7. Karol (Reply) on Monday 3 January, 2011 at 12:08

    Have you seen the film already?

  8. Karol (Reply) on Monday 3 January, 2011 at 12:20

    Oh, one more thing. I think Frost/Nixon is great too! Not that I’m a Zimmer fan or anything, but he has his moments from time to time. 🙂

  9. A. Rubinstein (Reply) on Tuesday 4 January, 2011 at 09:46

    I didn’t believe at first when you said that Inception was your favorite score of the year, and now, after reading your review, I still don’t get it. I can’t understand how come you gave The Dark Knight 3 stars and this one 5. They’re pretty much identical to me. They both suffer from the same flaws, and enjoy the same advantages. Zimmer still uses the same shticks, still seems decisive not to create anything even remotely melodic, and basically just wallows in the same muddy soundscape like he did in the Batman scores. Those ‘themes’ you’re talking about are nothing more than a basic four-chord progressions (which already appeared, as you mentioned, in Zimmer’s previous scores) playing endlessly in increasing volume. There is no defined construct to the music, no development, it doesn’t go anywhere (and don’t tell me it’s in purpose, that excuse could work only once) and ultimately does nothing except making my room walls shiver. I’m afraid I didn’t find any ‘intellectual complexity’ in the music as well. Piling up layers of static noises does not make your score intellectual or complex, but merely lazy. Plus, the score in the film itself didn’t work for me either. It was too aggressive, too grating, too harsh and too distracting. A film like that deserved a more sophisticated score.

  10. Pawel Stroinski (Reply) on Tuesday 4 January, 2011 at 11:02

    Great review. Inception is finally a score, where Zimmer creates a specific sound for the movie. Yes, other scores are here and the general sound developed, but also there is thought to make the score uniquie, not unique in sense of praising hyperoriginality, but unique in the meaning of specific to a certain movie. While I agree that this is his best score for years, I don’t agree that it’s his best since Thin Red Line. I’d say since Black Hawk Down.

  11. Fabien (Reply) on Thursday 6 January, 2011 at 09:15

    Hi There!
    Great review.
    What is you email adress to make you discover a news score for a rare Tod Browning silent thriller?

  12. James Southall (Reply) on Thursday 6 January, 2011 at 22:46

    Hi Fabien, my email address is jamesATmovie-waveDOTnet

  13. […] review for Movie Wave praised the soundtrack as some of Zimmer’s finest work, crediting the score with intellectual […]