I wander through scrubbed aisles almost every other week in search of music echoing off the walls. I hear bursts of violin and the twitter of a piccolo, but can’t find the source. The J.C. Penney is abandoned. After several minutes, I discover an alarm clock wedged between vacuum cleaners. I stare at it and pull it from the shelf. The music deepens. It’s speeding up. It comes from the alarm clock. Then I wake up.
Yes, it’s clichéd, but only because it happens frequently. When my dream self winds up in that J.C. Penney, its first response is “not again.” But there’s nothing to be done except to wander the aisles in search of the alarm clock until my subconscious catches on. Even when I do wake up, the fact that real music entered my imagination in such a way blurs the lines of consciousness. This frightens me – the fact that a false experience can incorporate truth. It’s no wonder that Hollywood backed a movie about dreams and reality: director Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
It’s time for me to step away from franchises into the world of stand-alone films. Well, sort of. Nolan’s fame for Interstellar and The Dark Knight Trilogy is such that he might be considered his own franchise by now. Nolan wrote the script of Inception over a span of ten years. He paid meticulous attention to detail throughout the process, including his work alongside Hans Zimmer, the legendary German composer. Fair warning: this post will analyze Zimmer’s work in the final scene of the film. Spoilers lie ahead.
A quick recap of the film: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) runs tests on exploring dreams within dreams alongside his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). After living in their own subconscious for years, Cobb wants to return to reality but Mal believes the dream is real. Cobb plants the idea in his wife’s mind that their world is imaginary and they kill themselves to wake up. Once awake, Mal continues to believe that her world isn’t real and commits suicide. Cobb flees his small children in the United States to escape from inevitable murder charges and lies low until the head of a wealthy corporation hires Cobb to perform Inception (to plant an idea in somebody’s head through their dreams) again in exchange for amnesty. Cobb and his team take the job, but Mal appears in the dreams as a projection of his subconscious. She sabotages the operation, putting the lives of everyone at risk. In the end, Cobb learns to let go of his guilt and confront his wife, finishes the job, and returns home.
Or DOES he? (To be read in your cheesiest movie trailer voice.)
Cobb owns a metal top called a totem. In dreams, the top spins infinitely, proving the world isn’t real. At the end of the movie, Cobb spins the top, obviously worried that his happy ending might be a sugarcoated fantasy. His children soon distract him, but the camera focuses on the top. The camera cuts to black before the audience can see if it topples or not (you can watch the final scene here.) Upon the movie’s 2010 release, internet forums exploded with the same question: Is Cobb still dreaming?
I held on to the furious hope that Cobb wakes up, and followed every bit of evidence people found to prove it. Some pointed out that Cobb’s wedding ring only appears in dream sequences, and he’s not wearing it in the final scene. Others noticed smaller details, such as how his children have aged and the spinning top starts to wobble just before the screen cuts to black. I embraced this evidence but felt that hints in Hans Zimmer’s score were widely overlooked. From the time Cobb and his team presumably wake up en route to the United States at the end of the film, Hans Zimmer’s score is subtly different from the music used during dream sequences. The background piece, “Time,” sounds more substantial than earlier pieces. For Inception, Zimmer composed his music with a synthesizer, played it back to a real orchestra, and asked the musicians to imitate the artificial sound. That way, he ended up with a synthetic sound produced by what he called “human organic playing.” This symbolically played into the idea of dreams – a false experience generated by a real human brain.
In “Time,” the orchestra begins with soft synthetic tones, as though echoing through layers of dream. This is consistent with dream sequences in the film, but as “Time” progresses, the instruments gradually begin to take on more of a classical sound and less of an electronic one (with the exception of the electric guitar, for obvious reasons). As I listened to “Time,” I felt that in this piece, more than any other, I could pick out the individual instruments. I could appreciate the difference between the strings section and the substantial brass section, one of the largest ever used in cinema. To me, this gradual transition symbolized waking up. Just as it always takes me a few minutes to realize that my alarm clock is real, so too does it take time for the reality of the music to solidify. By that logic, Cobb is awake.
Another musical hint that seemed to support my theory is the name of the piece itself. In an interview on YouTube, Zimmer explained how he felt that Nolan created the perfect time travel movie, rather than just a movie about dreams. The movie establishes that we experience time differently in a dream. So, too, is Zimmer’s “Time” in a different tempo than pieces that feature mostly in dream sequences, such as “Paradox.” It is mostly a steady beat. Still other pieces are much faster while in a dream sequence, but I felt that this symbolized the fantastical nature of the situation. “Time’s” measured pace seemed to fit my idea of reality, though this was a longer stretch than the solidification of the orchestra, as the piece “Mombasa” is very quick and takes place in reality.
But then good old Nolan himself had to go and throw not just a wrench, but an entire toolbox in my theories. He stated in 2015 that whether the top falls or not is beside the point. He said “The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps all levels of reality are valid.” In other words, Cobb becomes less obsessed with the definition of reality and becomes more concerned with his happiness.
Hogwash, I thought. Nolan’s explanation didn’t seem to jibe with the logic of the plot. It seemed completely out of character for Cobb to simply drop his qualms about choosing the right reality all at once. He just let his wife go and refused to see his dream children just so he could make it home to his real children, for goodness’ sake. As his children’s ages on IMDb prove, he had been on the run for two years. If he had just wanted to choose his own subjective reality, he would have chosen Mal and his children in the idyllic dream world, as she tempted him to do. I would not accept Nolan’s version of the ending. It was a front. A cop-out. A desire to generate more controversy among his audience.
But then I remembered a scene when Cobb and his team are discussing strategies to perform Inception. Cobb says that they should play off of their mark’s positive emotions rather than negative ones. He justifies this by saying, “We all yearn for reconciliation. For catharsis.”
Reconciliation. Catharsis. The exact things I wanted to get out of the ending of Inception. What I want to get out of any movie, truth be told. I started to wonder whether Nolan’s and Cobb’s jobs are the same – whether they both perform their own variations of Inception. What is a movie if not the means to plant an idea in somebody’s head? A simple little idea that wins Oscars? And if it is true that positive emotion trumps negative emotion, than what better way to end the film than to hint that Cobb is still awake, to plant that idea in the audiences’ head? Details such as the disappearing wedding ring could be a subliminal means of faking the audience out.
According to this theory, if Nolan performs Inception, then Hans Zimmer works as his Architect, the person who builds the world of the dream. Zimmer creates the both mathematical and romantic sounds of the film, the merging spheres of science and imagination. But his music would also become a means to Nolan’s end – to plant ideas. The “real” quality of the music might just be another method of convincing the audience that Cobb is awake. Is this a stretch on my part? Not necessarily. Zimmer is acutely aware of the psychological impact music can have on his audience. His incorporation of the song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf proves this (see this clip for more details.)
Now, here’s where my brain really starts to hurt. What ideas does Nolan plant in our brain through Inception? When I go on my nightly stroll through J.C. Penney’s, the music is based in reality, but in what reality does Nolan base the idea of Cobb’s consciousness? Cobb is a fictional character. In fact, how can we ask if the top falls or not, as the story does not exist outside the limits of the film’s run time? Real life does not permit people to infiltrate dreams. Real life does not have a musical score or a composer. And yet these things are necessary in Nolan’s work. I’m no closer to discovering the limits to what Nolan could plant in the audience’s head in a world with no rules. He could even be trying to plant the idea that this world is not real, as Cobb did. And I still haven’t answered the question of whether Cobb is truly awake or not. I guess it is up to the discretion of the viewer. It’s relative to your experience of reality…
Oh. Relative reality. Just like Nolan said…
Ultimately, I have no conclusions to make about the film score. That is the entire point – the film and the music have no definitive resolution. If you’re an A-type like me, you’ll find that hard to swallow, but it’s something you’ll just have to let go. Just as art can have various interpretations, so too is Inception and its score designed to spark questions rather than to answer them.
That doesn’t mean I have to like it.