How Hans Zimmer Changed Modern Film Scores

Big film scores have changed over the past decade, and Hans Zimmer may be the reason why...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It would seem that for every moviegoing generation, there is a film composer who ascends above all others and comes to encapsulate the sound of their era. In the 1940s and 1950s, the brooding and mysterious tones of Bernard Hermann would define a generation of suspense cinema. Decades later, it was John Williams who ushered in the blockbuster era with a series of bold and iconic melodies, from Jaws through to Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. Today’s cinema has its own musical zeitgeist. When future archaeologists uncover the buried ruins of our civilization, they may well refer to the movies left behind as the “Hans Zimmer period.”

Hans Zimmer is a movie composer of singular acclaim. He is one of the only such artists with the clout to fill concert arenas across the world, his name having escaped the domain of movie buffs and into the mainstream. His aggressive, wall-of-sound style has come to characterize what the modern blockbuster should sound like, from superheroes, to science-fiction, to war.

While it is impossible to deny Zimmer’s gargantuan talent and the brilliance of his scores, his influence has undeniably brought about a degree of homogeneity in contemporary movies. Both the Guardian and Noisey have complained of Hans Zimmer fatigue, and it speaks to a more systemic lack of innovation in Hollywood. To this end, much has been written about the scourge of so-called ‘temp tracks’ or placeholder tunes which are used in post-production before a film’s soundtrack is complete (Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line” from The Thin Red Line score is apparently an industry favorite). The result is that a multitude of imitators and collaborators have echoed Zimmer’s work across the reaches of Hollywood, fundamentally changing the sound of big budget moviemaking.

The dominance of the Zimmer style in action movie scores can be broadly traced to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, as the much parodied “Inception Horn” sound effect quickly reached epidemic status. This, however, only represented the tip of the iceberg.

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The most obvious impact of Zimmer’s influence is the gradual decline of melody. Instead his soundtracks are often littered with percussive, cyclical beats, an approach typified by his recent efforts on Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk, but also found in his acclaimed scores for the likes of The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and Interstellar. Where the arrival of superheroes and spaceships used to be signposted by the rousing, brassy tones of John Williams or Danny Elfman, Zimmer’s themes tend to announce themselves more subtly, and then accelerating to a crescendo which never quite arrives.

This style of composing is particularly powerful when there is close coordination between the music and the events on screen, as demonstrated by the partnership between Zimmer and Nolan. Most recently in Dunkirk, the score propelled the action forward with an ever-present ticking clock motif, while some tracks echoed the familiar growl of a Spitfire’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. These tunes are undeniably less hummable than those of classic war films, but they can have an exhilarating impact when employed correctly. The trouble is Hans Zimmer is a master of his craft, and few competitors can emulate this technique with the same degree of panache.

One need only survey the recent entries in the James Bond franchise to appreciate the negative impact of the Zimmer effect. Composer Thomas Newman’s work on Skyfall and Spectre has seen Monty Norman’s iconic James Bond theme take a back seat in favor of considerably duller motifs, often emphasising droning, generic action beats. A similar story is true of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which, as YouTube video essayist Tony Zhou has pointed out, is almost entirely devoid of recognizable themes. Even Michael Giacchino, who showed so much promise with the retro stylings of Pixar’s The Incredibles, has recently succumbed to regurgitating similarly generic themes across his work on the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel franchises.

read more: How Lion King’s Classic Score Was Updated

There’s a sense that novelty or experimentation is being actively discouraged in modern movie scores in favor of a flatter uniformity. It is only when looking beyond the trappings of big budget cinema that more innovative music is allowed to flourish. Many of the last decade’s most interesting scores have come from composers with backgrounds in rock and electronic music, including Clint Mansell, Jonny Greenwood, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. These artists have brought with them alternative and often challenging approaches to film music with memorable results. They may be better versed in more intimate features than they are in action-packed spectacle, but they have nevertheless demonstrated an alternative way of building excitement and tension through music.

It might be unrealistic to expect every blockbuster to feature a hummable theme in the vein of Lawrence of Arabia or The Great Escape, but the ubiquity of the Zimmer style has left this writer longing for the return of more memorable musical refrains. Monotonous cacophonies of drums, brass, and strings might be en vogue, but they’re no match for the simple joy of leaving the cinema with a heroic melody lingering in the ears.