“Subterranea”: Concept Album turned Movie

(this review is also available on my Letterboxd profile)

British neo-prog rock band IQ’s 1997’s “Subterranea” is my favorite concept album of all time. Yes, I heard “Days of Future Passed”, “Lamb Lies Down…”, “Scenes from a Memory” and “De-loused in the Comatorium”. I know the musical universes of both Ayreon and Coheed and Cambria. If you look at my favorite movies, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is right there at the top. And yet, when it comes to albums, this little known British band’s double album from late 90s is still my favorite concept album.

Maybe it’s its melodic variety, much wider than most other concept albums which are more monochromatic. Maybe its range of styles from gentle love song (“Speak My Name”) to solemn contemplation (“Sense in Sanity”, “Capricorn”) to angry hard rock (“Infernal Chorus”) to epic prog (“Somewhere in Time”, “Failsafe”). Maybe its ingenious use of musical themes scattered through the whole album, including cleverly placed instrumental pieces. Finally maybe the lyrics hiding an interesting, Kaspar Hauser-inspired contents under poetic verses so convoluted it’s really hard to get what the story is about while still absorbing the emotions.

All this made “Subterranea” my favorite concept album of all time and for many years has driven my imagination in how this album would look illustrated by a “The Wall”-like feature length music video. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, as I learned some 4 or 5 years ago that a small American indie movie company want to make it info a feature movie. Backed by a successful Kickstarter campaign (which I was too late for) the making of the movie began and it was released in 2015 to several film festivals.

Subterranea-movie-poster-1.jpgI avoided the reviews as much as I could, wanting to see it completely blind, but couldn’t avoid to glimpse at the ratings alone, and they… weren’t promising. But – as recent surprise with “Solo” exemplifies – low expectations could help the reception of a movie, so finally, years later, I sat down to finally watch the movie (sadly, unavailable via any legit streaming platform anymore).

Some 15-20 minutes into the movie I began to show signs of hope, as I have to admit it was very competently done for an indie movie. It’s well acted, beautifully shot, masterfully edited, appropriately scored (by none other than Mike Holmes, IQ founder and guitarist) with music that uses musical cues from the album in very clever but not too obtuse ways. Its dialogue was also very well written and avoided being too vague and full of Words With Capital Letters (compare: “Ink”). At the same time I had to admit it was pretty slow and I’m afraid it would be just plain boring for anyone not familiar with the album. So while I entered the movie expecting a 4/10 “meh but has its moments” (them being probably the direct references to the album in dialogue or music) it was starting to look more and more promising.

Unfortunately, much like the album – which builds up in the first amazing 80 minutes only to fall flat with the concluding, 20-minutes long song (“The Narrow Margin”) which tries so hard but ultimately fails at being epic – the movie lost me completely in the utterly dissatisfying and confusing finale. Not only does it shy away from some pretty heavy elements from the album (a fall in and subsequent disillusionment with a religious cult, several gruesome deaths, storming of the bad guy’s lair ending with a fire and pyrrhic victory) but also it fails to deliver any sensible explanation to why the main hero was put through all his ordeal, what was the ultimate point of the cruel experiment. I understand an indie movie’s budget wouldn’t allow for a battle, but what we got instead undermines everything we got prior to that and, come to think of it, makes no sense in the light of all the bad guys and good guys actions up to that point. At least what I expected was some clever dispute of the bad guy’s motives (in this role “The Man from Earth”’s William Katt, by the way), but even that just doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile.

So, a 4/10 after all, but not entirely as expected: pretty good elements adding up to around 80% of a decent movie that ends with a devastating long “meh”.

At least we still have the Subterranea live show 🙂

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