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Corporate Overlord/Weyland-Yutani-ish cybernetics company IKG has created a virtual computer world, populated by virtual people. Before Henri Vollmer can reveal some deep secret about Simulacron to security dude Lause and the secretary of state, Vollmer dies. Vollmer’s assistant, Stiller, tries to figure out what’s going on–in our world and the virtual one.

Stiller learns that Simulacron is being used to predict future consumer and societal trends. Evil IKG boss Siskins wants to share the data with an even more Weyland-ish steel company. Stiller tries to find out the levels of simulation even as he stays ahead of the evil corporatist blah blah, you know where this is going: Which is the real ‘Real World,’ are we all just simulations, and will our Hero Who Knows Too Much alert the world of the secret that Vollmer died to keep?

You guys get all that?

If you can’t predict the big twist of part one in the first ten minutes, you should try watching something called a ‘movie’ sometime. WORLD ON A WIRE is watchable today if you’re interested in a piece of science fiction film history. A two-part movie for German television, it’s clumsy in comparison to the rapid info-dumping in current science fiction, its ideas familiar and barely explored. But back in 1973 the idea that we’ve been watching folks who may not even exist but just think they do was the stuff of art films like LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD.

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They’re already ripping off the ‘tiny alien on dead guy’s chest’ scene from COVENANT

WoaW is part of the era of SOYLENT GREEN and THX-1138, using existing architecture and then-current furnishings to suggest rather than depict a future society. Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder uses glass, mirrors, and reflections to create a sense of Otherness in his ordinary locations. ALPHAVILLE did this with more style. MUCH more style.

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The second-most-elaborate set.

The first hour of is pure torture, and I almost bailed. We watch our hero putter around talking to people, then he puts his hands in his pockets and putters around some more, giving us in an hour the amount of information we got in the opening minute of BLADE RUNNER. Stiller starts having blackouts when an inexplicable electronic whine sounds, causing him to collapse for no apparent reason. Sure, WE know it means there’s a glitch in his V.R. world, but neither he nor the German viewing audience were aware of it.

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“Three and a half HOURS?!”

The 3 hours plus could be whittled down to a snazzy hour and a half, and in this era of respect for the director’s vision, it’s too bad we won’t see such a fan edit. Fassbinder burned out and died back in the eighties, so he won’t be making a Hip Young Post Millennial Edit. The dated scenery would be fun to look at if the story were better focused, but it takes forever to dole out a tiny bit of information to the uninitiated audience–see, there’s this thing called “simulation,” okay, and there are “simulated people” there, all right… The script doesn’t even get into questions of consciousness, and if a character can have the desire to become real if it’s merely an electronic simulation. If you, like me, hate stories about machines that somehow have consciousness and want to become real boys, this might not be for you.

You can’t get far with WoaW without bringing up BLADE RUNNER or THE MATRIX, which is probably why this was even given a disc release. Science fiction made by non-SF directors tends towards the simplistic debate about what it means to be human. In this case it means you’re an unhappy German, and who the hell wants THAT kind of life? Where BR and MATRIX dove into these questions in enough depth to give SF fans something new to chew on, a TV movie from ’73 just isn’t going to go beyond the surface.


I liked this because it reminded me of AVALON, the Polish-Japanese film about VR worlds. While WoaW was too low-tech and somewhat tedious, AVALON might’ve benefited from being streamlined. It’s interesting just how much audiences have been immersed in SF ideas at this point. Only a tiny share of the audience would have even read the novel that inspired both WoaW and THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR. It might not be the most fun you’ll have, but if you’re a student of the genre and writing, watching WoaW, AVALON and THIRTEENTH might be educational, and show just how far audiences have come in their ability to grasp sophisticated science fiction ideas.

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Our hero Stiller is a little troll who women throw themselves at while he kind of saunters through the mystery. He enters the virtual world with a headset like something out of BRAINSTORM or VIDEODROME; there’s even a moment in which he puts a gun to his head ala James Woods at the climax of the Cronenberg flick. The use of television sets to represent the tech of the future links it to UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (also overlong).

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Giant Germaness Dolly Parton

As mentioned, this one’s a slog for the first hour. But if you have an interest in these movies, it deserves your attention. I haven’t read the source novel by Raymond Galouye, but there’s a definite Philip K. Dick vibe here.