The further we get into 2020, the more we hope that Muse’s ‘Simulation Theory’ is actually non-fiction. The idea that Earth is an extremely advanced computer simulation and we’re all simply avatars in a corrupted game called something like Maximum Drake and that this entire year could be reset from a save file from December 2019 becomes increasingly attractive by the month.
So Muse – Simulation Theory couldn’t come too soon. A mind-bursting spectacular merging enhanced footage from their ‘Simulation Theory’ live show with a filmic narrative, it sets out to make the album, already their most consistent and coherent of recent years, into their most fully-rounded concept piece yet. What seemed to start life as a late-out-the-traps ‘80s revival jumble of retro-futurist nostalgia fantasies – lots of fond homages to Tron, Critters, Gremlins, Teen Wolf and the arcade neons of early electropop, a project more concerned with aesthetic than message – has become a self-contained world with depths and nuances worthy of one of rock’s most cryptic and ideologically confrontational bands. As the framing story of the film strives to connect dots between the album’s tracks and videos, the live-show set-pieces and the terrifying current events of 2020, they’ve wrapped up arguably the most creatively successful narrative rock artefact since Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, and might just have reinvented the live film while they’re at it.
Musers will be arguing about the philosophical, metaphysical and political implications of the film until the Matrix snaps, but the basic premise is ‘Alien vs Computer’. A team of scientists track the source of an enormous power surge to a deserted O2 Arena, where an arcade machine sits on Muse’s empty stage. One scientist tries to play the machine and inadvertently rips open a different reality in which a laser-slathered, pixel-goggled Muse are playing ‘Pressure’ and ‘Psycho’ to screaming banks of thousands. Is the gig in a simulated world? The scientists? Both? All we know is that the tear in the fabric of the code has unleashed a digital virus in the scientist’s reality which slowly turns him into a monstrous mutant called the Truth Slayer.
Fans that might previously have just gawped at all the neon ninjas and giant cyborgs at the live show might start to feel a little red-pilled at this point. Of course! This is the origin story of the gigantic mecha-zombie that burst from the stage at the end of the gig. Likewise, the film ties up several other lingering conundrums hanging over the album and tour and, while it’s hardly The Usual Suspects in terms of everything suddenly clicking perfectly into place, the whole concept starts to make a fleshed-out, hodge-podged sort of sense. The arcade machine is revealed to be the “mainframe” of a multiverse of simulations, where all of the album’s videos took place. Matt Bellamy is “The One” capable of breaking through the coding to the data-world beyond. The faceless platoons of dancers are “NPCs” sent by the mainframe to fix the error by wiping clean and rebooting the ‘Earth simulation’ and ‘everyone’ in it. And the sexbots writhing along the ego ramp blasting steam-throwers at the audience during the power-rap ‘Propaganda’ are “fumigators” sent to control the virus.
At which point Simulation Theory stops being merely a sci-fi lark, trying to stitch together a load of random elements from the project’s sprawling aesthetic with the most coherent narrative it can muster, and starts reaching out of the screen at you. As the ‘Thought Contagion’ spreads, London goes into quarantine, over-run by the ‘infected’. Newsreaders and commentators, controlled by the mainframe, begin spreading “disinformation” about the virus being a hoax, robotically repeating ‘there is no virus and there is nothing to fear”. Muse’s retro-futurist vision is suddenly set very much in the present day.
It works as a sly awakening. We might not buy the simulation hypothesis that we’re just cut-and-pasted off some future programmer’s template for ‘overweight rock nerd’, but by the end of the film we can’t ignore how our online realities are moulded, distorted and manipulated so that we only see what major corporations want us to see. That, as an actor’s impassioned screen rant over the closing credits insists, the world we perceive through our phones is being simulated for us.
So Muse – Simulation Theory allows the viewer, if they wish, to delve into the intrinsic nature of modern-day ‘reality’, shriek at the lies and power-struggles behind the current pandemic or consider the techno-spirituality of the ‘God Algorithm’. Or, if they’d rather, they can just sit back and enjoy the raging rock ride. Bellamy shredding and strutting through much of the album, singing ‘Take A Bow’ to a silver skull or riffing the roof off during ‘Mercy’, ‘New Born’ or ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme hammering gargantuan drums on the intro to ‘The Dark Side’. Acrobats in hazmat suits walking down the stage-wide screen with flashlights while Bellamy’s guitar emits gigantic CGI germs.
It’s a film as conceptually ambitious as the show is visually, and it totally re-invents the narrative concert movie. Even concept album behemoths like ‘The Wall’ or ‘Tommy’ told their stories either within the performance, like a musical, or in traditional cinematic format with little or no live footage. Michael Winterbottom’s musical forays such as On The Road used live gig footage as a backdrop to the main thrust of his story; or thrusts in the case of 9 Songs. Bands have previously dotted concert films with scripted scenes or visual motifs, but only to sketch out the briefest illuminative ideas or set a tone for specific songs. Muse, however, weave their Netflix-worthy sci-fi story around the gig until it’s so deeply embedded that they fuse.
You could call it a new creative format, but it’s difficult to imagine many bands aspiring to such an elaborate plotline or grand scale vision. You could, though, picture Nick Cave encasing a live film in some southern gothic nightmare tale. Or Arctic Monkeys setting an anti-gravity love affair in the hallways of the ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ between live performances of its songs. Not you, Bono.
Muse have set the bar high, if a little skewiff, but that it’s there at all could make for a whole new sphere of concert film, as gripping as twist-tangled as a Christopher Nolan blockbuster. And this is all before Muse let the ‘Simulation Theory’ show loose in VR later this year, dragging us even further into the album’s inexorable mainframe. Increasingly, this is Muse’s fabricated reality and we’re all just glitches in it.
‘Simulation Theory’ is showing in IMAX cinemas now – it is also available to watch online