Inception's musical secret

Inception is one of the two best science fiction movies I've ever seen (along with Gilliam's Brazil) -- in fact, it's one of two sf movies that I'd rank with the very best sf novels.

Here's a YouTube clip showing some of the nice attention to detail in the film: the two major musical stings in the movie (a threatening, bassy throb and a grainy Victrola of Edith Piaf singing "Je Ne Regrette Rien") are, in fact, the same song, played at very different speeds.

Inception Music Comparison (via Super Punch)


  1. Cory, surely you’ve missed Children of Men then. I’d have to put that one at #1, although Brazil and Inception are certainly going to show up high on my list.

    1. I really enjoyed Inception, but remembering ‘Children of Men’ now, I realize it might be one of my favorite movies of all time, SF or not.

    2. Whether or not you include “Children of Men” depends on how you define science fiction. There’s nothing particularly SciFi about it other than that they needed to arrive at a particular setting and used “the future” to get there.

  2. I love that kind of hidden musical thing. As I remember it, the theme tune for Inspector Morse on UK TV a few years ago incorporated his name in morse code.

    1. iirc, the ending of the opening theme of inspector morse added a clue to the criminals identity in morse code, except for one episode where its the first name of the main character (how is never referred to as anything but morse during the whole series).

  3. I love how this works within the dream-logic of the film itself, too. It clearly comes from a deep, deep place-within-a-place…

    There’s the meta-filmic angle to it, too- who could forget Marion Cotillard’s (Mal) portrayal of Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”?

    (Bonus Easter Egg: Nolan’s earlier film, “Following”, also features a burglar named Cobb…)

  4. It’s not just the fact that they are the same, but what that means:

    –> We as viewers are experiencing the dream architected by Christopher Nolan, and are hearing our cue to get ready to wake up.

    My opinion of this movie was already very high, but it just went even higher… Wow!

    1. There is this, which I agree is superb, and there is also the fact that the movie opens in medias res. There is a quote in the film about how you never remember the beginning of a dream, you just find yourself in the middle of it.

      Geiko – yes, that’s another cool thing about this, but actually a coincidence. Nolan had the music picked out well in advance, and actually considered changing it to something else after Cotillard was cast.

      I’ve seen it twice already, I think I might need to go at least one more time.

      1. @alisong: yes, I’ve seen it twice too, and I wouldn’t mind a third outing. It’s just a matter of with who at this point. Maybe a daytime matinee showing or something. The movie is outstanding, and I loved it. Thanks for the info on the song choice.

        1. Heh, the first time I saw it was alone. I have plenty of friends I see movies with, but I’ve been happily watching movies solo since I was 12.

  5. I love both the movie and the sound track.

    The great thing about this is that the dramatic build up cue music is that this is what all the dreamers would hear, since they perceive things much faster (thus hear the slowed down version of the song).

  6. You guys are missing the even bigger picture here, and the one that most French people (or people who listen to French music) knew the whole time: Marion Cotillard (Cobb’s wife) played Edith Piath in the film “La Vie En Rose”. I smiled when I heard it the first time, and I was probably the only one in my theater doing so for that reason.

  7. Please note that the slowed down version is not identical to the first slow passage in the sample. The first music you hear is monotonic, then you hear the happy sounding piece, then the slowed down version of the happy sounding piece. I’m fine with calling the ideas “borrowed” and there may be literal time stretching someplace in the movie score, but these aren’t identical.

  8. Just got back from seeing Inception. WOW.

    One question… Did anyone else notice tthe slight smile on Arthur’s sleeping face during the (frequent) cuts to him throughout the van’s fall?

    At one point it struck me that Arthur was somehow either in cahoots with Cobb to get him home (whether home is a dream or not) or working on his own to end Cobb’s misery by sending him to a preconstructed limbo in Cobb’s subconscious so that he could be “home” with his kids.

    Damn, this film invites over-analysis!

    Can’t wait to see it again!

  9. I haven’t seen the movie yet (damn lingering cough that makes it too rude to go out to movies), but the fact that Je Ne Regrette Rien is in it lets me know that something in the movie goes slowly yet unavoidably disastrously wrong, like the scene in Babe: Pig in the City with the fire in the children’s cancer ward, where the same music plays.

    1. Oh god, thankyou. You must be the only person left in the world who actually still has manners.

  10. I couldn’t help notice that the scenes in the lowest level of subconscious prominently featured a Yamaha CS-80 brass sound, probably a tribute to Vangelis and Blade Runner.

  11. The more I think about the movie, the less interesting it seems. The plot was complex, but I don’t think it is as “deep” as many are saying. I think the ambiguous ending and all the easter eggs (including the music) are to blame for that.

    Most of the movie was spent explaining how the dreams work. The rest was action scenes. You got a gun fight in city streets, a gun fight in a hotel, and a gun fight at a snowy military base. Hardly the most imaginative dreams.

    Cobb was the only character with any depth (intentional?). Why am I supposed to care about Cobb anyway? He’s a dream-crafting corporate spy who ruined his life by distorting his wife’s sense of reality. The main conflict is based on his guilt from that. He SHOULD feel guilty, though. It was his fault. The whole inception scheme has no moral leg to stand on. I felt bad for Fischer, who was about to have HIS life ruined just so Saito could make some money.

    It was a cool concept and I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m not willing to call it a masterpiece.

    1. Dear God, I wanted to love this movie. Instead, I thought it was terrible. The characters were all boring sketches, the dialogue was really clumsy in places, and it didn’t even follow its own scatter-shot logic. (The van rolled down a hill and yet it “didn’t upset the inner-ear?” I call mega-BS.)

      The whole film was a great concept that didn’t deliver.

      There were so many missed opportunities, particularly with Ariadne, who is supposedly the most brilliant architect at the Sorbonne, and yet ends up making a fortress that looks like something we’ve seen in every Bond movie ever.

      As you say, soongtype, it just doesn’t hold up to too much thought. The ending was, as the blog fourfour said, very “College Junior Film Student who just read a bunch of O. Henry stories.”

      I have a feeling this movie is very much the Matrix of our time- crazy cool to some now, who will look back in five years and wonder how they ever thought it was profound in the first place.

      1. Rolling van wouldn’t wake them up, as it occurred in the first dream layer, not in real life.

  12. Can anyone explain why, when the truck falls from the bridge, the characters all go into a weightless, floating state in the dream’s second-level in the hotel, and yet they revert back to normal gravity in the third-level state in the snow fortress, even though the truck is still falling?

    1. I think it’s because in the second level they feel weightlessness because the van is falling in the first level, but in the third level they don’t feel the floating of the second level because really nothing is physically different for their bodies in the sleeping state – there’s no feeling of falling (which is a better idea of what they’re experiencing in the second level, slow falling, rather than weightlessness) because they are only falling in the first level.

    2. Simply because the dreams are a cool excuse to make crazy stuff happen onscreen, and primarily an excuse for the hour-plus-long end, one of the best action sequences in the history of cinema. Read literally, it’s silly, like the guy having to pee and then the rainstorm in the first dream: this is dumb, a simple excuse to turn on the rain machines.

      Nolan’s work here is a lot like Hitchcock’s use of motifs–the wrong man, the chase, madness, etc.–that are incredibly hokey in themselves (and so much more so decades later), but that leverage the audience into a state of what Hitch called “pure cinema” (like with The 39 Steps): if deconstructed and taken literally to the nth degree, the dream falls apart; if seen as an excuse to do what cinema does best–montage, cutting, showing bodies moving in space across time–it can be rightfully seen as what it is, pure cinematic sublimity. Inception is properly regarded as a dream about the movies, not as a movie about dreams.

      Which would you prefer, a literal explanation for everything in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s fight scene, or the simple, balletic, explosive impact of the whole? It’s just pitchas on a screen, y’know? :D

    3. I think you have to treat it as another quirk of the dream-reality, just as time moves differently, the effects of the gravity shift don’t seep down that far (to the third level).

    4. The spinning van thing is also obliquely addressed in the movie when Saito (I think) asks Eames (I think) if the bumpiness in the hotel is due to turbulence in the plane, to which Eames replies that that’s too far away and that it is due to Yusuf’s driving, implying a pretty heavy dampening effect across levels.

    5. Yes. One of my big problems with the so-called ‘logic’ of the film. Have been asking about this in other places and have yet to hear any explanation.

    6. Either 1) these sorts of effects were only applicable one level down, or else 2) the 1:20 time ratio made the gravitational differences unnoticeable…

  13. I’m surprised nobody else has mentioned the parallels to Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight. He uses inverted themes for the leitmotifs of Batman (D minor-F Major) and the Joker (D minor-C Major). Same root, different second chord. The characters are the same, but different…! Well, I thought it was cool. /music nerdism

  14. I must agree with soongtype on their assesment. This was a disappointing film. It had much less to do with dreams and much more to do with banal cinematic tropes repackaged in some mildly interesting strutural devices, branded with a simplistic Cartesian assessment of the mind/body, Deceitful Demon question.

    It looked terrific, but was ultimately an empty experience.

    Put it up against Eternal Sunchsine of the Spotless Mind, for a film that truly inculcates the experience of the dream…

  15. I’ve seen Inception twice, and I really liked it and all, but one of the top 2 sci-fi movies ever made? This is crazy talk! It’s better than 2001, Solaris, Blade Runner, Metropolis, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ect?

  16. I think this movie is what is known as a flawed masterpiece.

    But it certainly leads to a lot of discussion, interesting reviews and thought – which can only be a good thing!

    It’s one of those rare movies where an intelligent review can really change your perception of it.

    For example, David Thompson wrote this great review which really frames the emotionless action-sequences in a whole new light:

    Remember – it’s a dream – things might get a bit silly and ridiculous!

    1. What really works in Inception—and means so much to the future of movies—is its grace, its ease, its happiness in being an entertainment and a game.

      Ah, someone who understands cinema!

  17. ahem.. blade runner final cut number one for all time. lolwalllolwalllolwall(repeat until annoying enough then cap with an @chu)

  18. I also noticed that during the scenes where Ariadne and Cobb goes into Cobb’s dream that Mal is listening to what sounded like Edith Piaf. I didn’t think any of that was a coincidence but used my Nolan to enhance aspects of the dream worlds.

  19. This got me thinking. Why didn’t they hear the musical cues for the kick slowed down from one level of the dream to another?

  20. Was a great movie, though it means that if Dick’s “Ubik” is ever made into a movie they’ll say it was a swipe from Inception. Was clearly a “this is what great science fiction movie could be”, and also deliberately had no recognizable icons of sci-fi fantasy, though since they were in a dream, no reason not to have jetpacks, lightsabers and hot elf babes.

  21. Cory, thank you for saying that Inception is one of the best sci-fi films you’ve ever seen. I agree.

    I’ve been exasperating myself arguing with friends who think it was merely an OK summer action film, and that the Matrix was far more philosophically rich.

    The people are divided on this question, apparently.

  22. It was a terrible movie. I thought I was being tortured with long pointless scenes. Cut here, cut there, lots of lingering! Also, the action scenes felt like were a filler and that’s never good. This movie isn’t even close to being one of the best sci-fi movies.

  23. I think I might be the only one who thought it was ok.

    I don’t think it needed the “corporate espionage caper” bit at all and that that storyline distracted from the truly interesting bits. My reaction to the movie was meh.

  24. I think a lot of people would be a lot calmer if they didn’t equate fun logic puzzles and mind games with philosophy, and philosophy with good movies.

  25. “Inception” was much funnier when it was called “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. The biggest problem with “Inception” is that while the characters are adequately drawn, they don’t interact, they don’t affect each other, and they simply don’t have anything resembling a relationship. This is the one thing that’s always saved Charlie Kaufman’s films from being a gimmick – the relationships are always real and in the end the most important thing in the movie. “Inception” doesn’t get any further than its gimmick. “Inception’s” crack team of thieves are more like the quirky but professional group in “Munich”, never letting their unique personalities interfere with business (or in “Munich’s” case, the message).

    Another weakness is that in order to stay at the top of the Hollywood game these days, filmmakers are required to feed the audience a steady stream of action sequences, but Nolan is a lousy action director. It’s evident in his “Batman” movies, and it’s painfully evident in the blandly directed James Bond-styled ice fortress sequence. The one part of the movie that needed to leap off the screen and be stunning turns out to be the most uninteresting and predictable part of the film. His idea of action is to simply surround the heroes with a dozen baddies with machine guns and have them fire off a thousand rounds and not hit anything, while the good guys fire back with pistols and take them out one-by-one – all of it edited so you really don’t know what’s going on. The film’s one “big gun” joke was old 15 years ago (and so desperate for humor is this movie that they use it in the trailer).

    This action style carries over into the editing, where emotional moments are never given the time they need. Nolan heaps all the emotional weight on one character with some unconvincing schlock about wanting to see his kids again. The truth is, this is not an action movie. The dramatic pacing is too fast, and Nolan could make a better film if he just slowed down and let it breath and let us into these character’s heads – but then all the Batman fans would say it was boring.

    On the story side, the MacGuffin that drives this film is trite and weakens any substance the film strives for. It’s the one place that could have used the standard heist twist like “Oceans 11″ did so well.

    But perhaps my biggest complaint is how a brilliant concept that promises mind-blowing reversals could end up being so predictable. You’d think the dreams would get more interesting the deeper you go, not less so. There were many hints that this movie would turn nutty at the end, and so many creative possibilities, that it seemed even the ambitious and serious-minded Nolan was too overwhelmed to go that far. Charlie Kaufman would have gone there easily.

    Ultimately, it’s just more summer fluff, but at least it’s the kind of fluff that gets people interested in what movies can really do. Now go watch “Synecdoche, New York” and see how deep a movie can go.

  26. One thing about Inception that’s been overlooked: some of it replicates the processes of mind control as it was practiced in MK Ultra and what was believed to have been developed since that program was exposed in Congress in the mid-70s.

    Mirroring in developing split personalities, the use of drugs, the ultimate use of a split personality for murder and even corporate espionage.

  27. great movie, though nowhere near as deep or thinky as i’d been expecting.

    but i sure wouldn’t put it up there with the best sf movie.

    here’s a few off-the-cuff favs

    1. sunshine of the spotless mind
    2. primer
    3. through a scanner darkly

  28. Wow, Cory. I mean, I respect your right to like whatever you wish, but wow. I’d rank “Inception” as one of the worst SF films of all time, if it could even be classified as SF. It’s certainly one of the worst films in general I’ve ever seen.

    This film failed on almost every point but sfx:

    — Poorly examined, poorly utilized story premise

    — Arbitrary, inconsistent story rules

    — Mindless, roaring action pieces for the sake of action

    — Mindless, yawning boredom pieces for the sake of drama

    — Poor acting by clearly confused actors

    I would’ve fallen asleep in the middle of this turkey, if it hadn’t been so loud.

  29. I mean sure everyone I work with seems super into inception, and boy did I like memento in the theater. But Blade Runner and Alien are the greatest SCIFI stories ever told on screen if you ask me :P Notice they are both by Ridley Scott…

  30. Ever think it could be just a coincidence? Hans Zimmer is a musical genius- I doubt he would do that completely on purpose.

    1. Seeing as Zimmer mentioned it in interviews, I think it’s safe to say it was not an accident.

  31. It’s a good soundtrack, and definitely Zimmer’s most creative work…unfortunately the film suffers from a bit of the over-scoring he’s also infamous for. There’s a few scenes where there’s dialog accompanied by completely unnecessary ‘suspense’ cues – enough to make the audience noticeably irritated and distracted in the screening i went to.

  32. I’m um, sorta, gonna have to disagree with that (homage to Office Space) as to the goodliness of Inception. Dumping us right into the story, pulling ideas out of their a@*, total discontinuity of the logic of the world in the film all sent me right to level 3 sleep during the movie.

    I won’t even talk about the ending – sheesh. bshock #45 hit it right on the head.

    Unfortunately, I don’t even remember the soundtrack so I will have to have a listen. But it’s no John Williams I do remember.

  33. I’m really surprised at the attention this movie is getting. I was looking forward to it, but 2 hours in I was fairly bored. Not a good movie, let alone a good SF movie.

    Transparent characters, almost endless exposition, bland action scenes for the sake of injecting some pace…I don’t mind discussing minutiae and ‘alternative interpretations’ blah blah blah, but a movie has to earn that with, you know, some decent storytelling, or 3 dimensional characters with convincing motives. I’d rather just watch Ghost In the Shell SAC again.

  34. That’s funny. Composers have always “played” motifs at different speeds to get more mileage out of them (and the fractal similarity helps coherence). Now it’s the whole damn orchestra that’s played slower.

  35. I would have thought Inception was a brilliant film if I had not seen Dark City tackle the same themes with a lot more style twelve years ago.

  36. That movie blew my mind! I saw it at a tuesday without any knowledge of it, en wednsday I got there right back with my girlfriend cause I definetly want her to see it. (it blew her mind too lol)

  37. The really cool thing is that this music was made famous by Edith Piaf, and Marion Cotillard played her in her life story, la vie en rose.

  38. Not bad. But Robert Altman’s movie of The Long Goodbye was amazing. The entire score is the song “The Long Goodbye” … seven different versions of the song!

  39. very cleverly noticed…
    …strangely the orchestral adaptation suggest to me a minor scale in contrary to the Edith Piaf song based on a major one ?

  40. I read half of the comments here, so I don’t know if anyone mentioned the fact that the lyrics to “Je ne Regrette Rien” are directly linked to the lesson learned by Cobb (hopefully, at least). And maybe that lesson’s meaning is what Nolan is gently poking the audience to take away from his film? Of COURSE this is why Nolan chose NOT to change the song when Cotillard was cast in the role of Mal, Cobb’s wife. I’ve heard the lyrics sung in English in the past, & I found this English translation online (I don’t speak or read French) — I hope it’s pretty close. As I recall, it close enough to give you the overall feel and intent.

    I Don’t Regret Anything

    No, nothing at all,
    No, I don’t regret anything!
    Neither the good that’s been done to me,
    Nor the bad;
    It’s all the same to me!

    No, nothing at all,
    No, I don’t regret anything!
    It’s been payed for,
    swept (away),
    I don’t care about the past!

    With my memories
    I have lit the fire!
    My disappointments, my pleasures,
    I no longer need them.
    Swept away are the loves
    with their trembling,
    swept away forever!
    I start again at zero.

    No, nothing at all,
    No, I don’t regret anything!
    Neither the good that’s been done to me,
    Nor the bad;
    It’s all the same to me!

    No, nothing at all,
    No, I don’t regret anything!
    Because my life,
    because my joy,
    begins with you!


  41. Also, I forgot to mention the links to Greek mythology in my last post:

    Ariadne guided Theseus through the labyrinth (uh…remember the maze quiz Cobb gave to Ariadne? She flipped it into a more complicated circle maze, or labyrinth). Ariadne (in mythology) taught Theseus how to track his path through the labyrinth & find his way out using a ball of red string (some versions say it was a ball of golden thread). This string-as-the-way-in-&-out seems somewhat like the dream sharing device in the film. This may be a reach, but Theseus’ father is Poseidon, god of the sea…the ocean scenes seemed quite important to possibly symbolizing the ocean on which we float & dream.

    And how about this — In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus says:

    The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
    Are of imagination all compact.
    . . .
    And as imagination bodies forth
    The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
    Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
    A local habitation and a name.

  42. Awesome! Does anybody know any other discussions of soundtrack trivia like this? I find it fascinating…

    It’s too bad that this thread turned into straight “I loved it, I hated it” commentary, but since people are jabbering on about Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, how abouts “Eternal Inception of the Spotless Mind?”

  43. Finally saw the film!
    Shut up with the soundtrack, Hans!
    Can you create one moment in the film where you don’t have one fncking drone or clever sound design moment???
    Did you ever learn anything from Alfred Hitchcock’s idea of creating tension without music (may BH, with all do respect, RIP)?
    C’mon’ man! Great concept with the slowed down Edith Piaf, but maybe, just shut up with the incessant music, for once.

    Yours truly,
    John (who never learned) Williams.

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