One of the best Christopher Nolan films is Inception. Hans Zimmer, probably the most accomplished composer of our day, composed the score. After analyzing two songs from the score and judging their function in the film, I’m giving this soundtrack a 5 nacho rating.
The first piece I’ll analyze is called “Dream is Collapsing.” The scene it plays in, (hallway fight) may be more iconic than the song itself but it clearly serves the scene well. The piece starts with cellos rapidly playing pizzacato, indicating suspense and foreshadowing tension. It crescendos as more things go wrong within each dream. These elements alert the audience that something bad is about to happen, lending itself to both logos and pathos. When the sustained violins reach their highest pitch, there’s a shift in the music and the scene. We see that Arthur and Yusuf are forced to fight against the enemies alone: the mission’s fate is in their hands.
The music shifts with the addition of brass instruments, resembling importance (as a fanfare announcing royalty would.) This lends itself to the audience’s emotion as it pulls us in and makes the situation direr. I don’t think the scene would be as effective, nor would we understand the urgency, if we didn’t have this soundtrack. During the freefall of the van, the percussion is suspended in the music and there is more harmonic discord. This indicates it could be a make or break moment in the action – the climax. If Yusuf doesn’t land this car or if Arthur doesn’t defeat this random guy, the mission is doomed. Finally, when the string instruments reach their highest pitch, it takes the suspense, experienced by the audience, to the highest level. When Yusuf lands the van and Arthur shoots, we feel relief, revealing how powerful the pathos of this soundtrack was.
As if that wasn’t intense enough – fast forward to the last 4 minutes of the movie. The piece, “Time” wraps up the film. This is one of my absolute favorite soundtrack songs and clearly it is utilized very well in the film.
So the ending scene (*spoiler alert*) picks up after Cobb is with (super-old) Saito in the Japanese Villa. Then he wakes up; we don’t know if this is reality. The purpose of the soundtrack is to guide us to conclusion. It consists of long, sustained string instruments, creating this mystical, miraculous feeling. It juxtaposes Cobb’s confusion as he awakens into “reality” (although we’ll never know for sure). The piece builds in volume and density (adding more instruments and melodies) as Cobb tries to make sense of it. The sentimental appeal is evident here because of the amazing feat they just pulled off. I think “Time” also serves logos in order to help the viewer believe that this really could be real life, it’s not a dream. After Cobb successfully passes immigration at the airport, an electric guitar adds to the piece making his homecoming even sappier. The instrumentation, volume, tempo, and structure all build to the final environment of Cobb and Mal’s home where Cobb sees his kids playing. This is building just as our emotions are; we are dying to know if this is a dream or not. When his kids look up (and we finally see their faces !), the instrumentation changes to just a piano and a violin, indicating what a delicate and sweet moment this is for Cobb and his family. This is pushing the audience further to believe this is real. As the totem is spinning in the final shot of the movie, the music suddenly builds in volume until it is cut off.
This part has ruined minds, lives, and probably families as we will never really know if it was a dream or not. Personally, I think the soundtrack serves a greater logistic purpose in this part of the movie to push us towards thinking this was indeed real life. A major thing factor is that this is the only song on the soundtrack that includes piano. Piano is typically associated with clarity, therefore I say Zimmer strategically used it in the ambiguous scene to sway you to the side of “it is reality.”