Look, up in the sky, it’s the 1%!!: Ryan Amon and Elysium

By Michael W. Harris

It is a fact that bears repeating: Elysium is Ryan Amon’s FIRST film score.  Not like first as in he did some student projects in college, or he did some low-budget straight to DVD films, no FIRST feature film score…ever.  Director Neill Blomkamp heard some of his stock trailer music on youTube and decided to e-mail him out of the blue and offer him the job.  These are the kind of stories you hear about happening but almost never happen to you.  And that right there puts Amon in a very small minority, the 1% if you will.

I mention this upfront because I want to stress that, above all else, I am very impressed by Amon’s score and I hope it is the beginning of a long career.  He is clearly a talented composer who deserves the opportunity to continue working in his profession.  That being said, he will need to break out of the mold he is in, which is a fairly typical of everything else being written right now, if he wants to make a name for himself and not just be a Trevor Rabin or Ramin Djawadi; employed but not very memorable.

Which is kind of how I feel about Neill Blomkamp’s first two films (the other being 2009’s District 9).

Don’t get me wrong, District 9 and Elysium and very well made films.  Great f/x, solid stories and acting, and are good examples of hard sci-fi with a social message, but, to me, they are a bit heavy handed in delivering that message.  Rather than subtlety leading an audience down the path which eventually ends with the filmmakers holding up a mirror to our modern society and saying “we can and should be different,” it hits you over the head with it from the very first frame and doesn’t let you forget it for a single second.

Which is also my issue with Amon’s score, it too lacks finesse.  It is almost non-stop Zimmer-esque percussion and rhythms with loud brassy themes (and obligatory nods to world music), pushing the audience along at a frenetic pace and not truly adding much to the narrative beyond standard musical manipulation.  This is all well and good, but as we discussed in the first podcast, Zimmer is able to take these materials and make them work on a much higher level, adding something to the film.  But if you’re not Zimmer (and maybe Amon could be, but he is not in this score), you run the risk of sounding like every other Zimmer clone working in Hollywood…and there are a lot of them.

So what about the message that the filmmaker’s are trying to deliver but tends to be lost amidst the sturm und drang of almost non-stop firefights and explosions (once things get past Act I)?  Well, it is simply saying that the rich get richer and screw over those whose broken backs and sickly bodies they have climbed over to make them rich and that ain’t right.  I would like to think that the ending says that those with the means to help have the obligation to do so, and that we, today, have the means and the duty to do better than we are doing now, but that is just my reading of it.  How the narrative got to that point, though, is a rather muddled thing involving coup plots, smugglers, and a single man who, an old nun seems to say, was destined to change the world.

Like I said, it is all very heavy handed and obvious, which might be good for a movie going public that is used to films delivering very clear and simple messages that they need not think about to discover, but I want more out of my science fiction.  It is the same reason why the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films bug me, too much action, not enough philosophizing.[1]  And I guess that goes for a lot of films and their music.  I want to be challenged; I want to have to think about it; I want to have to sit around afterwards with friends, sharing pints of Colorado beer, and discussing it to unlock what it meant to each and every one of us.  That is what I want, and sadly Elysium did not deliver on any of those levels.  Of course, it was still better than about 90% of what passes for filmed entertainment these days, but it is the problem similar to the uncanny valley: the closer you get to perfection, the more harsh our reaction against.

I have high hope for Alfonso Cuarón and Gravity.  Hopefully after the stunning Children of Men (2006), he can save me from the malaise that has been sci-fi in 2013.

[1] The problem is that while I’m watching the Abrams movies, I enjoy the hell out them but then feel empty inside once their over.  It’s like I’ve just eaten dessert without a filling dinner.

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