CD Review: Inception

I stayed away from all the hints and hype about INCEPTION. I didn’t read any early reviews of the film or any interviews with Hans Zimmer before I heard the score so that I could approach the movie and the music with fresh eyes and ears.

To explain the plot, this blog post would be an unwieldy length. Let’s just say that the dream-snatching and implanting film is one trippy ride. “Trippy”…that’s the word I used to describe it on Facebook and Twitter and the word I keep coming back to. I can’t think of a better one. And while the film isn’t the Second Coming that some critics have portrayed it, it is thoroughly enjoyable, thanks in no small part of Zimmer’s score.

INCEPTION is Zimmer’s first solo score for Nolan after working with James Newton Howard on BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. This time around, the composer went back to the film’s, ahem, inception—the script—for inspiration, composing the entire score before seeing the film. Perhaps it was that freedom from the images onscreen that allowed Zimmer to take some risks.

We get hints of the score’s main theme, a belching two-note motif in the lower brass, over the studio credits. But the theme emerges full-blown as Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio) explains to Ariadne (Ellen Page) that the “Dream Is Collapsing”. The electric guitar ramps up the sound over pulsating quarter notes in the low strings, and violins pick up the tempo with eighth notes as the lower brass signal a musical apocalypse. If there is a Judgment Day, this is the kind of music I imagine accompanying it. The effect is primal and frightening as we realize that our dreams may not really be our own.

Inception soundtrack
“Dream Is Collapsing”

With its short melodic, rhythmic and harmonic cells, the score is Herrmann-esque in its economy. In the score’s quieter moments, the gently pulsing electronics echoe the sounds of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for BASIC INSTINCT. Zimmer works in a major plot device, Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne regrette rien,” into the harmonic structure. Shimmering strings and electronics provide the backdrop in “Old Souls” for the lovely piano love theme for Cobb and Mal (Marion Cotillard). With its pulsating accompaniment and Johnny Marr’s (of the Smiths) electric guitar, the exciting “Mombasa” captures frenetic energy and danger as Cobb is chased through the crowded city streets.

Zimmer has said in interviews that the score needed to merge with the film’s sound design, and it does feel like an organic element. But kudos to Nolan for allowing the music to play such a crucial—and prominent—role in the film.

Readers of this blog know my dislike of electronics and rock in film music, even when the score calls for it. It’s just a matter of personal taste.  But Zimmer successfully blends the two with the orchestral complement and ambient sounds to create a surreal, and surprisingly emotional, musical vision. Listen to the score on headphones to capture all the nuances in the music.

INCEPTION is one thrilling and trippy (oh, there’s that word again!) musical ride.

  1. While the the score is fascinating on CD I felt that the music as heard in the film distracted more than complemented. I found most of it to be sonic wallpaper at times wondering why in the music was even there. It played almost over everything seemingly non stop for 2 and half hours. At times I just wished the music would have stopped. Plus, it was battling the sound effects over the course of the final act which make Zimmer’s incredibly annoying synths (I’ve never liked them) even more intolerable. It was a battle over what could be louder… the music or the sound effects. It nearly gave me a headache. If I were teaching a course on the use of music in film THIS score would be near the top of my list of how NOT to score a film.

    1. I can see your point, Erik. But I’m not sure that the issue is how to score or not to score. Perhaps it’s more a case of when to dial up or dial down the score, or just leave it out in various spots. Had the score been written to picture instead of script, it may have turned out very differently.

      I never cared for Zimmer’s synth work either, but I thought it worked really well in this. And even in high decibel IMAX sound, I was just so happy to hear MUSIC booming out of the speakers, that it didn’t bother me. For me, it helped ratchet up the tension and suspense and the quieter moments made the subplot with Cobb and Mal more poignant than I expected.

      You and I usually agree on scores (hello, UN HOMME ET SON CHIEN!), but this one seems a rare disagreement. :)

  2. Even as a longtime Zimmer apologist and fan, I was pleasantly shocked by the brilliant score he turned in for Inception. This is as good as it gets in terms of successfully marrying rock, electronic, and orchestral elements into a score. But it’s so much more than that; there are moments in this score that i keep rewinding over and over again. There is a moment, at 1:26 of Mombasa, a four note figure in the brass that he only repeats once, that sums up for me, what makes the cue soooo good. In “Dream Within A Dream”, he builds an amazing chordal figure not unlike his great Da Vinci Code material that sounds like an apocolypse, as you put it Jim. The segment “Time” completely drives the film’s final moments just as my favorite cue from 2006 “Chevaliers De Sangreal” did for the last scene in The Da Vinci Code. Hans Zimmer’s place in film music history gets more pronounced every year,and i can’t wait to hear what he does next.

    1. I was never keen on THE DA VINCI CODE score, or many Zimmer scores for the last decade for that matter. That’s why I’ve been so surprised that I’ve enjoyed ANGELS & DEMONS, SHERLOCK HOLMES and now INCEPTION so much. I’m enjoying being back in Zimmer’s camp.

  3. I almost spilt my coffee when I read your review Jim. I was expecting a bashing ;) Glad I was mistaken because I truly love this score. My headphones has been on meltdown alert lately because of it and I fear my ears will suffer. Maybe I can send Zimmer the bill for my medical troubles in the future?

    1. Jørn, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say you weren’t running through my head as I wrote the review. LOL I’m just happy that I can surprise on occasion. I hate being so predictable.

  4. Well, this is just great. I make a decision to not purchase this soundtrack, and then you go and write a glowing review. I’m right back to square one! :D

    (actually, not really, because I would probably have picked it up anyway :-P )

  5. Jim, I listened to the album twice this morning (after reading your review) and I completely agree. The score “pushes my buttons” in ways many Zimmer scores have not! If things go to plan, I hope to see the film this weekend – it would be good to hear it again in its intended context.

  6. Excellent review. While some reviewers have let an anti-zimmer bias corrupt their reviews of inception you have given an impartial and fair review. I found the score to be good without being great when i first heard it on album prior to the film’s release. However it grew on me, and after seeing how powerful it was in the film it has grown on me further. I feel Zimmer really captured the emotion of the film, and of course the major theme (found mainly in dream is collapsing) is very impressive.

    1. Thanks for commenting and the kind words, Michael. Glad you enjoyed the review. I can be guilty of letting my biases get the best of me as well (contrary to published reports, I AM human…hehe), but I try to point out the pros and cons of things when reviewing.

      It took me awhile for the music to grow on me, but it certainly helped to hear it in context of the film. Then I went back and relistened again and again, finding new layers in each listen. That’s the mark of a good score: music that reveals more and more every time you listen to it.

  7. Time is my personal favorite but I found the entire score to be hauntingly beautiful. But then I’ve always been a Hans Zimmer fan.

  8. I’ve not been enthusiastic about Zimmer’s work for a long time, and while I’ve only heard around a third of his total output this is the most compelling music I’ve ever heard from him. I’ve been playing the album several times a day since I got it. It does help to see the film and like it of course, but the film is a masterpiece operating at a level of brilliance I’ve not seen before in cinema and the score is the icing on the very wonderful cake.

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