Inception and Zimmer

Last weekend I went out with my wife and a friend to see Inception, the “surprise” summer blockbuster from Christopher Nolan, known for his two recent Batman movies. We weren’t sure why this was such a surprise, as the cast includes Leo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and (yay!) Michael Caine, in a minor role. (I am a Michael Caine fan.)

Inception is a mind-bending sci-fi thriller wherein dream worlds are shared between people and used to plant ideas into someone’s head without them knowing. Layers upon layers of reality are woven together until the characters aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. (Ever woken up wondering if you just did what you did in your dream?) Think The Matrix meets Minority Report and you’re on the right track.

Those two films had modern, complicated, but satisfying orchestral scores by Don Davis and John Williams. Would this trend continue?

Nope. But nope with an asterisk. When I saw that Hans Zimmer was the headliner for Inception‘s music, I was steeling myself for two and a half hours of big drums, bigger brass, and no-brainer melodies. (I am not the biggest Hans Zimmer fan.) It seems like each of his films uses that huge brass Pirates fanfare that became so famous, or some replicant of it. Composers are free to repeat themselves, and everyone has their own favorite sound, but this one gets on my nerves. Like a hockey player who does the same signature move every shootout, the act gets old after a while. “Look at me! Here I am again!” Eventually the goalie learns and the superstar gets denied.

So with that in mind I sat down to watch. And got much of what I expected. What I did not expect was the depth of sound and storytelling present in many cues. The usual testosterone-inducing suspense cues were spaced apart with delicate washes of sound and some subtler, more interesting harmonies featuring strings and piano. Zimmer is a master of shaping musical sounds for the theatre, and I found his work to be as much soundscape as score. He combines traditional instruments like piano, strings, and horns, and gives them digital steroids so that they do his bidding. The recordings are larger than life, and this is part of the spectacle of a Zimmer score. He sticks to dead-simple melodies, often only a few notes long (The main theme to Batman Begins consists of a really long, loud minor third.) You probably won’t come out of the theatre humming any tunes, but the score to Inception works within the story, and at the end of the day, that story is what keeps us coming back.

I give this score 9 “jumps” out of 10 dreams… (See the film and you’ll get it.)

Here’s a quick sample of the score.
[pro-player width=”320″ height=”200″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkiKjqgMRek[/pro-player]

ps – I watched the Nicholas Cage movie The Weather Man the week before, which features a Zimmer score that has a few cues consisting mainly of the sound of a pen clicking in and out. It was really effective. Maybe I’m being too hard on him…

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