Collapsing Dreams: The Best of Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan
If and when Tenet is released, it will mark only the second time in the past fifteen years that Hans Zimmer has not scored the newest Christopher Nolan movie. From Batman Begins all the way through Dunkirk, Zimmer has — with the exception of The Prestige — been at least partially responsible for the sonic landscape that has become nearly as integral to the concept of a Nolan film as anything on the screen. As Nolan turns to Black Panther Oscar winner Ludwig Göransson and Zimmer attempts to pull a 2011 Jessica Chastain by scoring everything (including Wonder Woman 1984, Dune, No Time to Die, and Top Gun: Maverick), let’s take a look back at the greatest hits of their partnership to date.
Batman Begins (2005)
“He’s flying on rooftops!” / Molossus
Zimmer and fellow composer James Newton Howard worked together to create the score for Nolan’s first Batman outing, with Howard reportedly taking the lead on the Bruce Wayne-centric drama of the film and Zimmer focusing on scoring the action. The best of the lot is “Molossus” (cleverly, each track is named after a different genus of bat), an action theme that is unmistakably Zimmer through and through, an alternatingly pounding and soaring number that backs one of the film’s most successful setpieces, a rooftop chase through Gotham City. Though not Batman’s official theme, it’s arguably the most recognizable and associated motif, continuing to appear in various forms throughout the trilogy to signal the appearance of the Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight
“I kill the bus driver.” / Bank Robbery (Prologue)
Zimmer and Howard reunited for The Dark Knight, splitting up composing duties for the film’s two primary antagonists. Howard’s theme for Harvey Dent hints at the rise and fall of a good man pushed beyond the breaking point, but it’s Zimmer’s work scoring the Joker that truly stands out. First heard in the film’s prologue — an elaborate, Imax-ready heist sequence — it’s a skittering, jarring theme, designed to put the viewer on edge from the get-go. Doing justice to the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was always going to be a tough feat, especially after his tragic passing, but Zimmer — despite considering rewriting the score in light of the news — comes as close as imaginable to matching the controlled unpredictability Ledger brought to the screen.
“Welcome home, Mr. Cobb.” / Time
Inception’s lasting auditory legacy is likely the BRAAAM sound effect: designed by Mike Zarin, reworked into the score by Zimmer, and briefly omnipresent in movie trailers following its use in the Inception marketing campaign. But the relatively restrained “Time” is the beating heart of the film’s score, a hopeful yet melancholy melody that plays over the film’s epilogue, underlining the themes of love, loss, and letting go — and cutting out as abruptly as the image of the spinning top on the screen, leaving us to wonder how that particular melody resolves even as we realize that in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
The Dark Knight Rises
“Then I will break you.” / [N/A]
This is a cheat, but I promise it’s not a slight against Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises, which I find quite excellent, especially when it comes to the new themes composed for Catwoman (“Mind If I Cut In?”) and Bane (“Gotham’s Reckoning”); rather, the scene above speaks to the canniness with which Nolan deploys sound in a medium that’s as much about the auditory as the visual. For the most part, Nolan and Zimmer’s collaborations are scored nearly wall-to-wall, layered with other sound effects in such a way that dialogue can become inaudible at times — which, if you believe Nolan, is an intentional choice — making the absence of music particularly resonant in the right context. Having Bane and Batman’s first fight play out sans score highlights the viscerality of every blow, the sickening thuds as the hero is beaten down and, eventually, broken — only at the end does the score return to remind us that we’re still in a movie.
“It’s necessary.” / No Time for Caution
While also brilliantly used in Dunkirk, the ticking clock motif is at its peak in Interstellar given its literal thematic resonance. When it’s all said and done, this may be Zimmer’s best score (give or take The Lion King or The Thin Red Line), melding an otherworldly essence with his particular brand of bombast. “No Time for Caution” is the high point, blending that persistent ticking countdown with a sense of impossibility that — somehow — segues into soaring triumph by the end. Combine that with one of the most exciting and visually stunning sequences in Nolan’s filmography and you have the essential summation of a collaboration that’s consistently firing on all cylinders.
“He’s coming back ‘round!” / The Oil
Dunkirk is the final (at least for now) evolution of Nolan and Zimmer’s obsession with the Shepard tone. Far more knowledgeable people than myself have explained the concept, but the short version is that it’s a musical illusion that tricks you into feeling like the pitch is constantly rising, making Zimmer’s score responsible in large part for the unending anxiety you probably felt watching the movie. The masterstroke of the score occurs in the scene above: Nolan’s three temporalities finally converge, and with them the separate motifs — three separate themes, each built around an endlessly crescendoing Shepard tone, overlapping to amplify both the tension and the chaos, all at once. I doubt we’ve seen the last of the Zimmer-Nolan partnership, but in case we have, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting note to go out on.