Lance Drake | 90 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15
Often cited as one of the best live acts around, for their latest concert movie British rock band Muse have attempted something a bit different: rather than just footage of them performing songs in front of a massive audience, Simulation Theory attempts to tell a sci-fi narrative… driven by and/or interspersed with the band performing songs in front of a massive audience, natch.
It begins with a slow track into a television set playing a news station where the presenter is talking about some kind of global events that have been traced back to the O2 Arena in London. Cut to a team of hazmat-suited scientists entering said arena, which they find deserted. Then, an arcade machine rises from the stage. One of the scientists approaches it, tries to play it, and is transported to another time/place/something, where the arena is full of screaming fans and a certain band begin their show. From there, the film cuts back and forth between Muse performances and a storyline about alternate simulated worlds, a highly infectious disease, and a few other bits and bobs. Frankly, it’s not the most coherent tale ever told.
Combining a concert film with a sci-fi narrative is the kind of concept that immediately piques my interest, but I’m not sure how well Simulation Theory really pulls it off. Ultimately, it’s kind of just a few scenes sprinkled between the songs. Occasionally there’s a link between the music and the story, but not as often or as clearly as one might expect. This isn’t akin to, say, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, where the music is like a soundtrack just waiting for its visual accompaniment. Indeed, despite the title and ’80s-style retro theming being taken from Muse’s 2018 album, fewer than half the songs performed come from that EP. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that the album wasn’t exactly waiting for the movie treatment. If that’s what they wanted to do, previous albums — like 2009’s The Resistance or 2015’s Drones — are concept albums more ready to be converted into a narrative.
Setting aside the narrative aspirations, judged as ‘just’ a concert film, Simulation Theory is still only a mixed success. Perhaps because of the desire to connect it up with that cinematic storyline, the actual concert footage, editing, and sound mix are all a little too slick, feeling more like a big music video than a replication of the “in the room” experience. In fairness, that doesn’t seem to be the goal at all, with the film mixing up the order of the set list and even ditching half-a-dozen songs (more on that later). Eventually, it can no longer half-ignore the crowd. That doesn’t come until the ninth track played, Uprising, but suddenly you can really feel that Matt Bellamy has a connection with the audience, which then resurfaces in later songs (not least Mercy, aided by Bellamy going for a little off-stage walkabout).
For me, Muse were at their creative peak back in the ’00s, so it was often when those songs emerged that I felt their performance was at its most enjoyable, with the likes of Supermassive Black Hole, Starlight, and the aforementioned Uprising. That said, the film gave me a new appreciation for some of their more recent songs, like Mercy, Algorithm, Dig Down, and Madness (I say “recent” — Madness is from 2012), although others primarily work thanks to the theatrical staging — Propaganda, for example, looks impressive on stage, but I still think it’s an odd track.
As noted, the film has dropped several tracks from the live show, meaning we miss out on some of their very best material, like Plug In Baby, Hysteria, Time is Running Out, and Knights of Cydonia (actually the closing number in real life). That’s a shame — I’d rather the film had given us the full track list than spent time on the interstitial narrative. But why not both? Surely there wasn’t a restriction on the film’s running time? (And if there was, why?)
Despite all these nits I’ve picked, overall I enjoyed Simulation Theory. It’s not wholly a success as a narrative, and, in my estimation, it’s a long way from being any kind of “greatest hits” gig for Muse; but the ambition is admirable, and most of the music plays well in situ. Plus, the finale involves a giant evil puppet hovering over the stage, so that’s got to be worth some bonus points.
Muse: Simulation Theory is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months.