Back to the Future: World on a Wire Is Just in Time


A virtually unknown, newly restored 1973 two-part telefilm directed by long-gone wunderkind R.W. Fassbinder at the height of his powers, World on a Wire premiered to much fanfare at the Museum of Modern Art last year. Now Janus Films is giving the 35mm HD restoration a limited theatrical release at the IFC Center.

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 cultlike power over his acting ensemble. One scientist jokingly characterizes the identity units as performers: “They’re like the people dancing on TV for us.”

A power-elite conspiracy yarn played out on two levels of reality—virtual and real, both suffused with free-floating paranoia—World on a Wire hardly lacks for narrative. But its meaning is largely delivered via an economical yet stylish mise-en-scène. 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 a 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 “identity units.”

A bit of a slog at 205 minutes, World on a Wire 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 Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon. And the improbably romantic ending is pure 21st century.