Year Released: 2012
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 212 minutes
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Like William Gibson’s groundbreaking 1984 novel “Neuromancer,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 film “World on a Wire” should be examined within the context of its time. “Neuromancer” helped introduce the concept of cyberspace while “World on a Wire” helped advance the idea of virtual reality. The way both present their subjects may seem quaint today, but they were revolutionary in their time, and they helped nudge forward our understanding of how we interact with technology. Like all great works of science-fiction, they influenced the world at the same time the world was influencing them.
Of course, you may not be as familiar with Fassbinder’s film; I wasn’t before I received a copy of this Criterion release. The back of the case promises “dashes of Stanley Kubrick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip K. Dick,” which I think sets the film up for unfair comparisons and offers potential disappointment. To be sure, you can see those influences sprinkled throughout the 212-minute running length (it was a mini-series on German TV), although the Vonnegut pedigree is more obtuse than the others. While “World on a Wire” isn’t a laugh-out-loud funny film, it often uses a mix of visuals and audio to create wry observations, much like Vonnegut’s clever turns-of-phrase.
For example, at one point a character explains how a virtual reality computer called the Simulacron works, and Strauss’ “Blue Danube” begins overpowering him. It’s an obvious nod to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which had quite a bit to say about the intersection of humans and technology. I found myself bemused by the moment, as if Fassbinder was giving me a sly wink and a nod.
“World on a Wire,” based on the 1964 novel “Simulacron-3,” follows the goings-on at IKZ (Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung), a facility that that houses a supercomputer running a virtual world populated by 8,000 people, or “identity units,” that don’t know they’re in a simulation. One of the high-level people at IKZ dies mysteriously and another suddenly vanishes, setting in motion a series of events that eventually involve the identity units interacting with people in the real world.
The story moves at a measured pace, which is understandable given the fact that it was made for TV, and it often adopts that very specific impassive German tone that Mike Myers lampooned so well on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s a droll style that I can typically handle only in small doses, but in this case it serves to heighten the “What’s real and what isn’t?” question at the heart of the narrative. “World on a Wire” may not be worthy of repeat viewings, but it’s a film all science-fiction fans should experience at least once.
Criterion has released a Blu-ray edition of this film, but I’m reviewing the two-disc standard-def version, which spreads the movie across two platters. Disc one is accompanied by the trailer and a new 34-minute interview with film scholar Gerd Gemünden, who discusses “World on a Wire” within the context of Fassbinder’s career. It was his only science-fiction film, but as Gemünden explains, it still hits on many of the themes Fassbinder often explored, along with the many stylistic touches he typically employed. However, the movie is different in some ways too, as Gemünden points out.
Over on disc two, we have the 50-minute “Fassbinder’s ‘World on a Wire’: Looking Ahead to Today,” a 2010 documentary that includes interviews with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, co-screenwriter Fritz Müller-Scherz, and actor Karl-Heinz Vosgerau. Juliane Lorenz, who made the documentary, is the head of the Fassbinder Foundation, and she was the director’s companion during the last four years of his life, before he died from heart failure at the age of 37, a victim of his frantic, drug-fueled lifestyle and work ethic.
A book with an essay by film critic Ed Halter rounds out this release. Halter does a nice job of pulling together the various influences on “World on a Wire” and noting how it impacted many films that came after it. It’s a shame that Fassbinder didn’t live to see the ideas he explored begin to come to life today. I wonder what movie he would have made in response to that.
Posted on February 28, 2012 in Reviews by Brad Cook
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