"What is 'real', Neo? How do you define 'reality'? If you mean what you can see and smell and taste than really 'reality' is nothing but electro-magnetic impulses going through your brain." (The Matrix)
(SOME MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
World on a Wire is one of those film discoveries that boggles the mind: so much should seem to come out of this film to influence others, chiefly The Matrix and Inception (and to a smaller but significant extent Minority Report), in how it tackles simulated reality and what happens when people create the worlds, inhabit it, and then minds become nothing more than electro-magnetic impulses riding through the brain. And yet for many years it was never really seen anywhere, outside of Germany at any rate, as it was an epic made-for-TV movie that only just got US distribution through Janus films (they're still around eh?) and Criterion, who will no doubt make a killing on DVD.
So what to say then about one of the best science fiction films of this year AND 1973? Well, it's a mind-fucker, plain and simple. And if you had told me that it was adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel I'd not have doubted for a moment (ultimately it's from Daniel F. Galouye called Simulacron-3). It's protagonist is a Doctor Fred Stiller (Jack Nicholson double-agent Klaus Lowitsch), who takes the place of a Doctor Henry Vollmer, who died suddenly under some suspicious circumstances. That is, suspicious to only Fred, who takes on the role as head scientist at the Simulacron-Cybernetics division, which is, in short, making up a virtual reality that is complete once 'plugged-in' via electrical wires hooked up on a helmet into the super-computer. Stiller, however, starts to go crazy... or is he, once he takes this position as he keeps seeing a man named Guenther Lause who no one else seems to have heard of, and is uncertain if the world he is in *is* the Simulacron.
Now, to fans of cyberpunk and, again, Inception and The Matrix and, of course, The SIMS videogames, this is nothing new. But take it into some context: in 1973 this was some ahead-of-its-time stuff, probably a good few years before Gibson got to writing his books on the subject. However I don't throw around the Phillip K. Dick comparison lightly; as an admirer of his work I had to speculate watching the film unfold, with a lot of it (the first half at least) being mostly dialog and under-the-surface gestrues amid a cold but eye-catching futuristic landscape that is all too familiar. And more than that, like something out of 'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,' World on a Wire has that Dickian sense of palpable paranoia and total up-is-down down-is-up and in-between sense of a world gone awry through one point of view. And frankly, it's probably the best summation of the kind of work he and his ilk (probably the author of Simulacron-3 as well) that could have made it to the screen.
It's through Fassbinder's sense of the world, how specific it is to him, that brings this out as well. He was not throughout his career a, how should I put it, 'genre' director (unless you count melodramas as a genre, which is totally fair), but this is a science fiction film through and through, with its pulp-narrative character parts for the dangerous and sexy women on the side, the obvious but still creepy villains (one of whom is played by Kurt Raab of "Herr R Runs Amok", bald head and all), and a creative usage of technologies and cinematography that reflects an altered world and perspective.
But at the same time that Fassbinder experiments in the genre, he still brings his sensibility to what on the surface is still a typical "B-movie" narrative. He's operating much like Godard in Alphaville: take real locations and swets (or at least what would appear to be so on such a low budget) and make evwerything stand-out through depth of field, spacing in hallways, how a camera moves across a cafeteria, or just that fuzzy POV angle when surely "in" the Simulacron (and to top the cake with some icing, Eddie Constantine makes a cameo!).
The film is long, this should be noted, and the first half is good and intriguing and has some bizarre (intended?) comic elements like an extended shot at a party with a Marlene Dietrich look-a-like singing as doctors talk business, and other bits of business (I can imagine the DP Michael Ballhaus having a lot of fun designing some of these shots just to bring out the 'extra' element of rising paranoia), but it can also drag in some spots with characters' exposition or just how cold Fred Stiller can be sometimes. All of this mostly changes for the best/better in the second half as the shit gets deeper and weirder, and ambiguity adds to the terror happening for this character - albeit there are some moments, consciously like a super-hero or an agent like James Bond, that Lowtisch's performance takes on an air of 'yeah, even if this is all happening, or I am crazy or a murderer, who cares' - and in the last half hour especially a growing sense of dread and mayhem ensues that has some of the director's mosty inspired beats of cinema.
|You know it's sci-fi because there's a close-up of an eye-ball. Or something|
I should also note that World on a Wire may not move "fast" enough for some viewers qwho suddenly see a mention of Inception or The Matrix and think it'll be like that. Not really. That is to say, there IS action and violence, but when it bursts out it's often shot in takes that don't really cut away or around as much as more post-modern sci-fi films do. And in a way Fassbinder is smart to do this, to let the character(s) drive this narrative, or that a zoom in or out can do a lot for this edgy material. A shot of Fred driving through a garage with the ceiling whizzing by is exciting. And once the pace is caught on by the viewer, seeing Fred's moments of clarity shattered by the madness around him (and punctuated by some truly bizarre music cues like a pre-TRON test by Gottfried Hüngsberbg), it's rhythm is mesmerizing.
Dare I even say it, with its wonderfully careless occasional bits of homo-erotic tension (hey, it IS Fassbinder after all, aside from Querelle the guy has great fun in doing poker-faced camp), and its mystery around the nature of how we make worlds for ourselves and destroy them, that it's possibly *better* than a big trumpet noise of a movie like Inception. And, last but not least, considering it's one of those 'in-the-past-looking-at-the-future-we've-caught-up-with' films, it holds up as challenging, subversive entertainment based on its ideas and how the shots and cuts lure a viewer in cooly, like a lover with an alienating grip.