Hans Zimmer’s early career pushed the envelop of the use of synthesizers and electronic tones in film music, most prominently in his groundbreaking score for Crimson Tide, for which he won a Grammy. His more recent collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, first with the Dark Knight trilogy then Inception and Interstellar, have expanded the use of electronics in a different direction, blurring the line between film score and sound design through the use of percussive electronic elements and ambient chords. Many film music critics dislike this approach, and it is certainly not the style of score one would get from a more classically inclined composer like John Williams. However, the benefit of Zimmer’s approach to such films is a complete fusion of the score with the sound design, low bass synth chords lacing the atmosphere as in The Thin Red Line, and percussive elements enhancing the firefights in Black Hawk Down. Electrified cello and strings add rhythm and melody, such as in The Dark Knight Trilogy, without removing the audience from the setting or soundscape of the film by a classical musical theme. Rather than using an orchestra to highlight moments and emote aspects of a film, Zimmer’s fusion with the sound design maintains a consistent tone in the film while providing enhancement of certain tonal elements, rhythm, and even themes in certain capacities, as an underlying tonal backdrop against the picture.
Reviews of Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, a World War II drama highlighting the rescue effort of British soldiers stranded on the beaches of France by British civilians across the English Channel, have labeled the film as intense and relentless. Zimmer’s electric and percussive score certainly plays a major role in this effect, perhaps the leading factor in that sense. The film is unrelenting as it jumps between the beach, the Spitfires, and the yacht heading to the rescue, but the pace is not rapid; it is the droning, percussive, and unsettling underscore that produces this unease. The Dunkirk score is inspired to a great extent by Zimmer’s past works, combining the droning chords of The Thin Red Line with the percussive sound design elements of Black Hawk Down’s “Synchrotone” and the more recent tones developed with Nolan for Inception. However, many parts of the score reminded me more of the Joker scenes in The Dark Knight in tone than any of his other work. Zimmer also brings back some of the textures used in previous scores, like the tense string ostinatos from The Dark Knight and Black Hawk Down, and pulsing high string and flute rhythms from The Thin Red Line, but they are used less prominently here; the major rhythmic element early on in the film is a simple pulse in the bass.
I am still unsure of my feelings toward the Dunkirk score. It does the job Nolan intended for it to provide the tension and unease – maybe even stress for the audience – during the dire circumstances of the characters trying to escape Dunkirk in 1940. However, I can’t help but feel that some sort of thematic presence would have contributed a great deal to the film. Black Hawk Down’s hard electrified guitar and synthesizers were dampened by the inclusion of African vocals and other world music elements and The Thin Red Line’s atonal score was brightened by periodic moments of beauty like “Journey to the Line”. Dunkirk has neither.
Thus, the soundtrack album is a difficult listen. “The Mole” starts out with the sort of clicking percussion heard in The Thin Red Line, seguing into a pulsing, almost siren-like motif as the track slowly builds. A brief moment of trumpet for color plays over staccato notes in the short cue “Shivering Soldier”, then the album picks up with the behemoth “Supermarine”. This cue, released early as a single from the soundtrack, starts with electrified low string beats and a vibrating roll of percussion slowly building again into siren-like wails in an unrelenting 8-minute cue. This two-beat high, two-beat low rhythm producing the siren tone underlies much of the score, adding to the unease, and driven by the fast-paced clicking synth percussion made famous in The Dark Knight score. “Supermarine” builds nicely, but nowhere in the film is this cue played in its entirely, likely more a suite Zimmer wrote that was diced up in editing.
Slow pulses of sound appropriately bring in the cue “The Tide” while more trumpet and horn are used for color in “Regimental Brothers” co-credited with Lorne Balfe. The structure of the album is like Tears of the Sun where Zimmer credits his co-writers with credit for certain cues. Benjamin Wallfisch contributed to “Home” with Zimmer, a darker, more percussive cue with metallic percussion and pulsing chords until the last two minutes where a string ensemble comes in with the first bright chords of the score underlain by percussion reminiscent of Thin Red Line tones, later adding horns. The siren pulses return in “The Oil” but in a subdued manner that slowly builds in intensity to close out the score.
The final two cues are variations on the Dunkirk score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Sir Edward Elgar, again taking a page from the Tears of the Sun structure that featured variations by Steve Jablonsky. “Variation 15” removes the electronic and percussive aspects and plays on the finale of “Home” and the somewhat triumphant but exhausted feel of the film’s end with some horn chords for color. The “End Credits”, contributed to by all four composers, brings in synth percussion reminiscent of TRON under the strings, but the cue moves into the more frenetic cues in the middle before closing out the album on a quiet note with a solo trumpet over rumbling bass.
Dunkirk comes in for me as a functional score. Zimmer did an excellent job of providing the intensity and feeling of unease director Christopher Nolan wanted to help drive the film for the audience. That mixed with the stunning IMAX shots makes the film a powerful experience. Zimmer’s skill at layering sound is showcased here, but when returning to the score as a listener on the album, it is a bit much. The “Supermarine” cue is enjoyable as a frenetic action cue and I expect we will see it pop up as trailer music soon. As a fan of the Zimmer/Nolan collaboration especially with The Dark Knight and Inception, I do find myself wanting something with a bit more identity; both of those films’ scores are so integral to the thematic core of the pictures, whereas Dunkirk seems to be replacing narrative with noise, using it as a crutch to drive the film forward for the audience when the story was fairly linear. Overall, Dunkirk is a visual and sonic masterpiece that is deserving of the accolades it is sure to receive, but lacking in the thematic staying power that Zimmer has produced with other works of his impressive career.