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World on a Wire

Year: 1973
Production Co: Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Writer: Daniel F Galouye/Fritz Müller-Scherz/Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch

It's very hard to talk about this 1973 German two-part telemovie and not spoil the central premise – even if the movie itself spoils it at what seems to be the worst possible time and with a minimum of fuss, ceremony or drama.

If you've seen The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor or other films with similar themes you'll guess the twist before it comes, I just wish the script would have made more of it. Even a cheesy crash zoom onto the hero's face accompanied with a blast of heavy orchestral music when he realises the truth would have been better than nothing.

It's a thrilling idea but infant terrible director Fassbinder does only so much with it, seeming to be more interested in the thriller plot as the hero loses more of his grip. It deals with an advanced computer simulation system called Simulacron, which enables a digital world complete with autonomous software agents (identity units) who think they're real people in a real place, letting the scientists in charge connect to the system and travel into it to pose as and interact with the identity units.

On precious few occasions (something else that doesn't seem to concern Fassbinder) it deals with themes of life, rights and autonomy as the men in charge discuss an inhabitant of Simulacron's world who's becoming too self-aware, musing that they might have to delete (essentially kill) it if it becomes aware it's in a simulation.

The well-funded laboratory that owns Simulacron is in talks with industry leaders about applications when the lead scientist freaks out and drops dead among the server racks, leaving Fred (Klaus Löwitsch) in charge of the project.

His CEO wants to press ahead hiring the system out to the wrong kind of company for Fred's liking, but his political conscience isn't all he has to worry about. While Fred talks to the corporate head of security (and also his friend) at a party, the latter simply disappears, and within days nobody claims to have ever heard of him. It's your first (fairly obvious but still exciting) clue about the truth of Fred's world.

He starts a stop-start romance with his dead colleague's daughter, flirts with his pneumatic secretary, drinks, drives around in his new Corvette trying to get to the bottom of the mystery through discussion with various friends and colleagues, and grows more desperate and frightened as the mysteries pile up.

It's an interesting cultural artefact because it was set in the near future where the streamlined plastic surfaces and hard edges weren't in vogue in the early 70s, but have been several times since – leaving us with a future vision from an aesthetic dark age that's now history itself.

But more distinctive – at times distracting – than the production design is Fassbinder's camera angles and blocking. He loves mirrors and reflective glass, and every scene is very tightly choreographed to reveal the characters' reflections and positions relative to each other while they talk, drink or smoke, the camera never satisfied to just watch people talking in a traditional master or static shot.

The unravelling of the mystery is enough to hold your interest even if there are no real visual sci-fi trappings to go with the premise, but it's a great idea mostly well made. You could argue there's a great remake to be made of it, but it's just as true the premise has been done to death, and making it small, stripped back and personal like World on a Wire does might be the best approach. Any time a producer gets too much money to do this kind of thing we end up with silver doors, ray guns and ill-conceived animations of virtual reality that only date themselves quickly (The Lawnmower Man).

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