There are movies that make news and movies that are news. World on a Wire is one of the latter. Suddenly: a virtually unknown, newly restored, two-part tele-film directed by long-gone wunderkind R.W. Fassbinder at the height of his powers.
World on a Wire, which opens this week at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is Fassbinder's most sustained genre riff. Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 sci-fi novel Simulacron-3 and predicated on the notion of a computer-generated reality populated by "identity units" who believe themselves human, the movie looks back at The Creation of the Humanoids, forward to The Matrix, and directly at Fassbinder's notoriously cult-like power over his acting ensemble. One scientist jokingly characterizes the identity units as performers: "They're like the people dancing on TV for us."
As wildly ambitious as it is cinephilic, World on a Wire mixes the pop
art effrontery of Godard's Alphaville with the cyber-phobic metaphysics
of Kubrick's 2001 while remaining wholly Fassbinderian in its insolently
lugubrious ironies. Less characteristic, if equally deadpan, are the
choreographed action sequence--notably the lurking crane that threatens
to dump a load of debris on the movie's angst-ridden protagonist.
This is corporate hell--the blandly futuristic, neon-lit look leans
heavily on molded plastic furniture and ubiquitous TV monitors. (That
the men are uniformly dressed in power suits and the women as Barbies
may remind some of Mad Men.) Strategically placed mirrors suggest the
character's illusory or divided nature, while the alienated
performances--alternately declamatory and uninflected--as well as
Fassbinder's Warholian deployment of actors stolidly hanging out in
frame, encourage the thought that the real world, too, is rife with
It builds up to a satisfyingly nutty finale--as the identity units grow
restless, their virtual world begins to develop certain glitches. It's
remarkable how current it all seems. The movie's mod furnishings, dated
in 1973, have been several times revived and are currently in vogue. Its
last 45 minutes have a computer-game logic, anticipating both David
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Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Mamoru Oshii's Avalon. And the improbably
romantic ending is pure 21st Century--who would have imagined Fassbinder
an avatar of Avatar?