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Elysium
  • Composed by Ryan Amon
  • Varèse Sarabande / 2013 / 72m

Perhaps there’s some subtle social commentary in here, I don’t know – Elysium is set in the future, when the richest 1% of the population live in complete luxury aboard a space station orbiting Earth, while the other 99% live in abject poverty in various slums on the planet itself.  I just can’t tell, it’s far too subtle for me.  Matt Damon plays one of the 99% – after he suffers severe radiation poisoning, he needs urgent medical assistance of the kind only available to the orbiting few – so needs to find a way onto the space station to get it for himself.

The director Neil Blonkamp turned to newcomer Ryan Amon for the music.  Previously Amon had written music for trailers and adverts but Elysium is his first film score.  At first glance the score appears to be little more than an extension of the 2013 Remote Control sound – and in fact the opening cue, “Heaven and Earth”, prominently features Hans Zimmer’s ludicrous HORN OF DOOM more loudly than even Zimmer or his disciples have used – but closer inspection does reveal it to have a little more going on than that.

Ryan Amon

Ryan Amon

After the rather textural opening, action dominates the early stages – the synth percussion, various electronic stingers, HORN OF DOOM and cello ostinati are familiar from Zimmer and co, but what’s different is that there’s a certain clarity to the orchestra which makes this slightly more engaging.  I must admit that the first time I put this album on, I quickly turned it off again, assuming the worst – and you have to navigate through this rather unappealing opening section of noise and bleeps.

Things begin to change in “Things to Come”, the sixth cue.  In this, Amon creates genuinely interesting electronic textures – it’s dark, tense music but has a compelling sound, instrumental solos vividly highlighted against the electronic gloom.  The following cue, “You Said You’d Do Anything”, brings in another new idea, namely throat singing.  There’s an old axiom that says there are two kinds of people in the world when it comes to throat singing – those who hate it, and those who’ve never heard it.  But it does have a certain otherworldly quality to it that is effective in context.  ”A Political Sickness” is an extremely dark piece of action which takes no prisoners but then Amon goes far more expansive in “Arming Projectile” and “Zero Injuries Sustained”, which is when the music really starts going, with slightly Goldenthalian growling brass, for an exciting action sound.  It’s still very Zimmerish but is entertaining, the action continuing over a sustained period.  The synth choir of “You Have No Idea” may be a little clichéd, but it’s really enjoyable.  Things do get brought down a few notches when the composer just focuses on the electronics – the throbbing “The Raven” is really rather unpleasant, for example.  ”I Don’t Want to Die” sees the appearance of something that happened in virtually every film score from around 1999 to 2003, but has been rarely heard since – the wailing woman.  Used sparingly, it’s still a valid technique I think, and there’s a soulful quality to Francesca Genco’s Lisa Gerrard-style vocal.

The score’s best section is the extended sequence of action cues which make up the finale, over twenty minutes of music spread over the last twelve cues, beginning with the pulsating “Heading to Elysium”.  ”I’m Right Behind You” is a very enjoyable piece, featuring an interesting little background device that will be very familiar to fans of the Bourne soundtracks – but not the bit of the Bourne soundtracks you might expect.  The wailing woman’s back in the passionate “Breaking a Promise”, then a simple – but tender – piano solo dominates the mournful “Elysium”.  The score closes with “New Heaven, New Earth”, with a few glimmers of light emerging from the general darkness which has pervaded much of the music.

Elysium is a slightly unusual album, really – about half of it is disposable, often downright unpleasant Man of Steel-era Zimmer stuff; and the other half is really entertaining, sometimes quite creative music that’s really very enjoyable.  It’s certainly not subtle music, most of it is rather simple, but there’s enough there to suggest that Amon could have a decent career in film scoring ahead of him.  The worry would be that most of the powers-that-be would think that because of the unpleasant half rather than the other half!

Rating: ***

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  1. Craig Richard Lysy on Sunday 11 August, 2013 at 18:08

    The action cues were interesting and propelled the film, that is where my appreciation ends. The lack of a thematic identity for our hero, the two villains and a love theme exposes the grave weakness of the score. In scenes of tenderness and intimacy it is although Amon does not understand or perhaps lacks the ability to translate these emotions musically. For me there had to be soundscapes which juxtaposed the impoverished terrestrial life to the idyllic life on Elysium. Amon did not create this. Innovative textural writing and creative instrument use aside, are not sufficient in and of themselves in conveying emotions. This film had a heart at its core, but the music was a barren as the earth. Too bad.

    I am glad you persevered and revisited the score. One should always take the journey. Thanks for the review.

    All the best!

  2. Jason Farcone on Sunday 11 August, 2013 at 19:01