First screened on German television in 1973, Fassbinder’s sci-fi two-part series World on a Wire revolves around the computer game nature of virtual reality. It may come as a bit of a shock to modern viewers who think of this concept as relatively new – having perhaps first encountered it in the ‘cyberpunk’ novels of the 1980s or in films from Tron (1982) to The Matrix (1999) – to realise that it has actually been around for four decades. Perhaps modern viewers inevitably link computer games with VR, assuming the two arrived simultaneously, but writers such as Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K Dick and Daniel F Galouye, who penned the novel that World on a Wire is based on, had already been developing the concept in the 1950s and 60s. For the sake of confining this argument to ‘virtual reality’ as we define it today, I won’t go back as far as Plato and his cave.
In World on a Wire, as in The Matrix and TV series like Ashes to Ashes and Lost, there is a double philosophical quandary at the heart of the drama, specifically concerning the nature of the reality the characters perceive to be real and questions about one’s own identity within a world that may not exist. Indeed, the Wachowski brothers, though they didn’t like to discuss their own films, were very happy that The Matrix trilogy inspired much philosophical debate (however sophomoric that debate might have been).
Interestingly, almost every example of films and TV series about virtual environments also uses elements from action films, perhaps because whenever a character finds out they are in a simulation and are being watched, they feel paranoid and hunted, and inevitably go on the run. So as well as being an early example of the VR genre, Fassbinder’s mini-series has scenes familiar from the likes of The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock’s prototype action films The 39 Steps, North by Northwest and Vertigo. Indeed, the latter does deal with a character who simulates another ‘real’ person’s identity.
It is difficult to discuss the central themes of World on a Wire without mentioning the twist/cliffhanger at the end of part one of – something I guessed within 10 minutes of the start of the mini-series due to my familiarity with the tropes of the sub-genre – so if you don’t want to know the nature of this twist, please skip to the end of the review.
As I already knew that World on a Wire was about virtual reality, the director’s use of blank, staring models made me realise fairly quickly that the world the central character believes to be real is in fact a simulation, and that those vacuous extras are also virtuals whose personality is ‘under-programmed’ in comparison to the lead – like the infected humans in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (any version), who become devoid of emotions when taken over/replaced by alien doppelgä;ngers. We indeed find out that the lead character and his world are both virtual, but also that in the world we are first confronted with, there is a further simulation – a simulation within a simulation. The virtual characters are studying the behaviour of artificial life, so they can predict events in the ‘real’ world.
There are similar simulations within simulations in The Matrix â€“ white voids where Neo does his combat training for example – and in Mamoru Oshii’s underrated Avalon, where each ‘level’ of reality is more colourful and ‘realistic’ than the last. The last of Kôji Suzuki’s Ring books, Loop, deals with a similar concept of worlds within virtual worlds, which might seem too strange a shift in direction for the franchise, even to audiences familiar with The Matrix – the book has yet to be filmed and I don’t expect it will be the basis for The Ring 3D, due in 2012.
In World on a Wire, even if the twist is predictable to modern viewers, the revelation that the lead character is a copy of someone from a higher level of reality still feels fresh, as it is an intriguing philosophical concept that not enough science fiction films have dealt with. When Galouye’s Simulacron 3, which World on a Wire was based on, was filmed again more recently as The Thirteenth Floor, the virtual world was clearly delineated as being different from the real world right from the start (by being shown as a film noir / 1940s simulation). Conversely, in the original novel and adaptation, all three worlds are broadly similar, and it is only the characters’ perceptions of what is real or legitimate as far as their existence is concerned that differentiates the different layers of reality, something that has greater profundity and disturbing potential compared to other examples of the genre.
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While certain aspects of World on a Wire were designed to create a world that seemed unusual at the time – such as shooting many scenes in the shopping malls and newly built developments of Paris, which were unfamiliar to viewers in 1970s Germany – there are continuing tropes from Fassbinder’s own oeuvre that mark it out as simply his style of filmmaking. For example, the idiosyncratic sound design and overtly ‘theatrical’ performances from some of the cast and extras do create the feeling of a world inhabited by ‘the other’, when viewed in isolation and without having seen many of the director’s other films. Ironically, it’s these idiosyncrasies that give the series a science fiction feeling, rather than his conscious efforts to shoot in ‘alien’ locations. From a current perspective, all 1970s European architecture seems broadly similar, and this is both a blessing and a curse to filmmakers who want to create a futuristic world by seeking out the modern locations of their time. Michael Winterbottom’s use of a global architectural collage in Code 46 and Jean-Luc Godard’s choice of brutalist architecture in Alphaville to create a Paris of the future have quickly dated (Fassbinder was a fan of Godard and acknowledges his debt to Alphaville by giving Eddie Constantine a cameo in World on a Wire).
Viewing World on a Wire in May 2010 is a strangely appropriate experience. Despite its age, the film still seems fresh, and this combination is unsettling to modern viewers. Although a little slow overall – in part due to the fact that it was conceived as two two-hour-long parts with commercials, which makes the first episode seem padded – it is continuously engaging, intriguing and suitably strange, thanks to the performances and the director’s use of disorientating camera angles as well as shots framed with mirrors reflecting other mirrors. As an early example of a genre, it’s interesting to note that it has almost exactly the same ending as the final episode of Lost (and as the co-creators of Lost, who wrote that episode, are refusing to give any more interviews on the subject, I guess we’ll never find out if they’re fans of Fassbinder).
It has recently been reported that scientists have successfully created artificial life, albeit on the level of microbes; extrapolating this into the potential for the creation of artificial human intelligence, it’s interesting to speculate whether the creation of virtual worlds where human visitors can interact with virtual humans will lead to environments that are indistinguishable from our own, or ones that let us holiday in outré retro or futuristic environments. Certainly, the idea that such a world might be created first for its potential to influence the activities of big business as in World on a Wire seems a very likely one.