An early study of virtual reality
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Jul 22, 2011
In 1973, decades before "The Matrix," "Avatar" or "The Sims," German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed a thriller about life within a computer simulation. Made for German TV, "World on a Wire" didn't rate a U.S. theatrical debut until last year. Seen now, the movie seems as timely as it is outdated, its themes contemporary even if its clothing and hairdos are anything but.
2-hour film was loosely adapted from "Simulacron-3," a 1964 American sci-fi novel that later inspired "The Thirteenth Floor," a 1999 Hollywood flop. But Fassbinder's approach is quite unlike Hollywood's. "World on a Wire" riffs on Plato's and Descartes's philosophies of existence, forgoes sympathetic characters and employs almost no special effects.
The story opens in an undated tomorrow, where government researchers have successfully created a cyber-world that's home to nearly 100,000 "identity units." These virtual creatures dwell on a mainframe computer, but only one of them - the scientists' contact - knows it. The rest consider themselves fully alive.
Although the Simulacron is a success, the lead researcher is distraught. He melts down in the movie's first few minutes, collapsing and dying next to a bank of computers. He's replaced by Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), who will soon experience the same sort of pressures that led to his predecessor's mysterious demise.
After an aborted visit to the simulated world and the mysterious disappearance of a friend, Stiller begins to have doubts about the project. His questions are not appreciated by his superiors, and Stiller finds himself on the run.
The movie includes action sequences, but they're usually more absurdist than exciting. The story's juice flows from its paranoiac mood, beautifully framed compositions and extravagant set pieces, including several nightclub and party scenes that evoke Weimar-era decadence. The director was born in 1945, so any talk of creating a new world would naturally remind him of the Third Reich.
While Fassbinder pays homage to several cinematic classics, including "The Third Man," his principal inspiration is Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville." Both movies construct the future by carefully selecting views and artifacts of the present. Fassbinder even included a cameo by "Alphaville" star Eddie Constantine.
The filmmakers evoke the future cunningly, even if some of their choices now seem quaint. Several setups, for example, prominently feature brightly colored desk telephones. (Who in 1973 could have guessed that people would carry phones - and indeed their private virtual worlds - in their pockets?)
Although Fassbinder made some 40 movies in his short life - he died at 37 - he was grounded in theater, and his films are intentionally stagey. That suits "World on a Wire," in which the Simulacron's inventor serves as a stand-in for the world-making director himself. As one character notes, the machine's virtual beings are "like the people dancing on TV for us."
And maybe that's the essential appeal of virtual reality. It seems to promise the sort of neatly scripted lives we've seen so often on stage and screen.
Contains violence, sexual situations and partial nudity