Rewatched Mar 05, 2012
Jay Cheel’s review:
I’d never heard of World on a Wire before Criterion’s announcement of its re-mastering and subsequent theatrical re-release in 2010. The trailer they’d put together hooked me immediately, based mostly on the retro-future set design and the promise of a strange, hard sci-fi thriller full of intrigue and mystery. The picture did not disappoint. With the recent blu ray release, I was thankful to be able to sit down with this epic film once again and try and make sense of any details I’d missed the first time around.
In the not-too-distant future, a supercomputer called ‘Simulacron’ provides scientists with the ability to simulate and study a virtual society comprised of 10,000 ‘identity units’. When the technical director of the program, professor Vollmer, comes across a secret about the project, he mysteriously dies in a freak accident before he’s able to reveal his discovery to his colleagues. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) takes over as acting technical director and is very quickly pulled into the mystery when the chief of security, Gunther Lause, pulls Stiller aside at a party claiming he knows what Vollmer was on to. Just as he’s about to reveal the secret, Lause suddenly disappears right before Stiller’s eyes. The mysterious event is covered in the newspapers, but completely forgotten (or erased) a day later when Stiller comes up against lots of blank stares at the mention of Lause’s disappearance. Very quickly he realizes he’s in the middle of some sort of vast conspiracy which all leads back to Simulacron. After a second incident in which Stiller witnesses a street disappear and reappear, he begins questioning his own existence and the reality of the world around him. To go much further into the details of the plot would risk spoiling something, although I’m not too sure the story is completely interested in twists or turns. Also, this far removed, anybody remotely cinema-literate should have a basic idea where things are going. I’ve said too much!
At three and a half hours long, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s made-for-German-TV sci-fi film ‘World on a Wire’ might seem a bit intimidating. My first experience with it was in theatres during last year’s re-release. I must say that watching the entire thing in one sitting was a lot to take in. I left having enjoyed the experience, but feeling as though I didn’t totally grasp the depth or details of the plot. Still, the atmosphere, style, and art direction was inspired and completely satisfying. Now, after a second viewing on blu ray, I was immediately acclimatized to the story/characters and pacing, and was able to let things sink in a little deeper than before. World on a Wire is presented in two parts — much like your standard TV mini-series — and in theatres, the break was used as a short intermission. At home, I left about a day between parts, giving the content some time to marinate in my mind. In fact, I’d argue that this is the best way to view World on a Wire as I imagine it was originally designed to play broken apart rather than in one sitting. Yes, the second viewing was even more enjoyable than the first and the overall story feels much clearer. However, that’s not to say Fassbinder’s take on science fiction is in any way accessible to the casual filmgoer. Many of the characters are vapid (by design) and the story is still fairly complex.
Watching World on a Wire almost fourty years after its release naturally leads to the thought of films that have either been directly inspired by or naturally followed in the footsteps of this story. I’m immediately reminded of Blade Runner and Total Recall, both of which are based off of Philip K. Dick stories. It’s interesting to note that the novel on which World on a Wire is based on, Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, was released before both of those original PKD books. Still, I’m sure Dick was likely an influence on Galouye. I was also reminded of The Truman Show, Inception, and most obviously, The Matrix. Both share the idea of a virtual city inhabited by realistic ‘identity units’ and the resulting existential crisis by its main character. While the Matrix makes use of these concepts as a springboard for Asian Cinema inspired action sequences, Fassbinder explores the idea of science co-opted for commercial purposes. United Steel expresses interest in Simulacron as a simulation program to predict the needs of society 20 years in the future. Rather than projecting their sales numbers and guessing blindly, they can use this virtual world to get an accurate assessment of future changes in society and the resulting demands on their industry. In short, it can basically see (or at least predict) the future. This leads to controversial accusations that the project is less in the name of science than consumerism.
As for the filmmaking, World on a Wire manages to do some serious world building on a limited budget. Fassbinder makes use of pre-existing, ‘futuristic’ locations, mostly made up of German shopping malls and whatever modern architecture they could find. The set designer makes good use of mirrors to create a unique look, while solidifying the themes of alternate identities/realities. And while the overall look of this near future is rooted mostly in reality, there are a few gadgets that allow the film to indulge in some cool retro-future designs. Mainly, the bubble shaped helmet used to enter the virtual world. There’s also a video phone which uses practical — as opposed to composite — video elements, reminding me of the future-tech on display in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The thing that really sells the otherworldly nature of World on a Wire is the sound design and lighting. The score is mostly comprised of classical music including The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss. (Another nod to Kubrick.) Aside from the score, it’s the piercing synthesizer stingers that really create an odd, futuristic feel. There’s an unsettling feeling of being monitored as Stiller navigates a world filled with characters that are almost mannequin-like, watching his every move. It’s alien in a Lynchian sort of way. A futuristic Twin Peaks.
World on a Wire was shot on 16mm film, so Criterion’s transfer is inherently grain heavy. For someone like myself, this is a good thing. I think they’ve done a great job at capturing the natural characteristics of the film. Those who prefer film grain scrubbed out of their blu rays, you may be a bit disappointed. One thing that immediately stood out to me was how rich the colours are in this presentation, which benefits the amazing costume and set design. As this was originally filmed for television, World on a Wire is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, resulting in black bars on the sides of the screen. I think this may be another thing that might put off some viewers, but I personally think the academy ratio is really great when utilized by a filmmaker who has a grasp on composing for this slightly claustrophobic presentation. As far as special features go, this disc comes with two main extras: Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire”: Looking Ahead Today, which is a brand new fifty minute documentary on the making of the film (shot specifically for this release). There’s also a new interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gemünden. Aside from that, we get the re-release trailer, and of course, Criterion’s beautiful poster art represented on the cover of the packaging. Overall, it’s a great release that should please those film fans craving some good science fiction.