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‘Until the End of the World’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 17, 1992

In "Until the End of the World," German director Wim Wenders concocts his own uniquely personal brand of poetic science fiction. Set in 1999, as the world teeters on the brink of the millennium, with a rogue nuclear satellite circling threateningly above, this tantalizing, masterly film presents us with a vision not of tomorrow, but of the day after tomorrow, a vision that seems at once oddly familiar and at the same time just beyond the reach of our outstretched fingers. It's the first movie in which we can actually feel the future pressing in on us. It has the shock of the new.

Wenders, who's best known here for "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire," has made important movies in the past, but this is perhaps his first really essential film, and certainly his greatest. It's the film he's been building up to, an awe-inspiring, culminating work that allows him to express everything he is as a filmmaker. It's his masterpiece.

Written by Wenders with Peter Handke, the picture is a virtual collision of genres, part road movie, part detective story, part futuristic love story. The story line is as complicated as it is delightfully improbable. With her marriage in disarray, Claire (Solveig Dommartin) reels from party to party in a state of melancholy discombobulation. Along the way, she (literally) runs into Chico and Raymond (Chick Ortega and Eddy Mitchell), a pair of bank robbers who offer her a percentage of their take on a big heist to carry the money for them into Paris. She agrees, but shortly afterward, with this windfall stuffed in a duffel bag in her front seat, she encounters another stranger (William Hurt) who asks for a ride in order to elude an Australian bounty hunter (Ernie Dingo) eager to claim the fortune riding on his prey's head.

This favor, which seems innocent enough, pulls Claire into a web of intrigue that takes her from Lisbon to Moscow, Bejing, Tokyo and, eventually, Australia. The stranger (who goes by an alias but whose real name is Sam) is wanted for industrial espionage for "stealing" a special camera invented by his scientist father (Max von Sydow) to take pictures that can be seen by the blind. Sam is on a mission. The device was created for his mother (Jeanne Moreau), who lost her sight at the age of 8, and since reclaiming the machine, Sam, as an expression of love for both parents, has been traveling the world interviewing relatives and friends and collecting images to take back to her.

Though Claire is fascinated by Sam, it's the wad of dough he steals from her bag that prompts her to hit the road with a private eye (Rudiger Vogler) to track him down. Her husband, Eugene (Sam Neill), a soft-spoken novelist who constantly comes to her rescue, is in on the chase too, which, as the numbers escalate, quickly deteriorates into a slapstick enterprise, an existential, sci-fi version of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Wenders's humor here is low-key and precise; he's a droll absurdist with a subterranean sense of fun that's expressed not only through his characters, but in his futuristic view of the global scene as well. The future that Wenders shows us here is merely a logical, playful extension of the present; it's the technology-dominated future of videophones and videofaxes and computerized cars, the future that is currently in the process of coming to pass. It's a toy world with its boundaries opened up, and Wenders blithely moves his characters around on it as if they were pieces on a giant game board.

If Wenders had set a different task for himself -- if his goal, for example, were to define the world of tomorrow -- then perhaps he couldn't have afforded to have this much fun with it. But describing the future is less an end than a device for detailing the Zeitgeist of the current moment and, beyond that, exploring the universal and the eternal. "Until the End of the World" is an all-encompassing epic painted on a sprawling canvas. It's an ambitious work, but, strangely enough, it doesn't feel like it; it's not the least bit daunting. Movies built on a scale this vast and with themes this serious are usually more insistent. But though the picture feels like an emptying of the head, it doesn't have the urgency of a purge. Instead, it's rather meandering and casual, especially in its first half, as if it knew that what it had to say was so engrossing that it didn't have to rush.

This is the essence of the movie's charm. As the film progresses, though, Wenders shifts emotional gears, and the movie deepens and becomes more somber. Yet what it loses in surface appeal, it makes up for in feeling. In the last section of the film, we arrive at a destination that we couldn't really have suspected. This final segment takes place in the immense nowhere of the Australian outback where Sam's parents have set up a sort of alternative society with the local Aborigines, far away from the rest of the world and where Sam's father has continued his scientific research. Before Sam and Claire and the rest of their clan arrive, though, the nuclear satellite detonates, shorting out all the world's electrical circuitry -- cars included -- propelling the group into a forced isolation, unsure whether the rest of the world still exists.

It's here, while the final seconds of the century tick away and the year 2000 is born, that Sam and his father try to bring sight to Sam's mother, allowing her to see her children for the first time and her friends for the last. This part of the picture -- and what follows when Sam's father extends his research into the world of dreams -- is spellbinding and profoundly moving. Wenders makes uses of some new video technology here, and he presents us with some startling, never-before-seen images that are, simply, among the most beautiful ever put on screen.

The characters, who have until this point been in perpetual motion, become more vivid too, especially Claire, who metamophoses from an impulsive rootless creature in a black wig into a kind of earthy mother to her new age extended family. In the movie's end, Wenders weaves all his thematic and narrative threads together into a coherent, philosophical whole. Even with the apocalypse, though, his view isn't despairing. A new direction, a new beginning emerges out of the ashes of the old, image-overloaded world, and with it, a sort of muted optimism. A faith in art, too, emerges, for it's the storyteller who leads the way. But that faith in art was implicit to begin with. It's in the performances, in Robby Mueller's dazzling cinematography, and the pulsing, invigorating soundtrack. It's in every frame of this spectacular, thrilling work.

"Until the End of the World" is rated R for sensuality and language.

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