To watch the 158-minute 1991 theatrical cut of Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders’s globetrotting, apocalyptic, pop-rock-saturated sci-fi odyssey, is to zone in and out of a meandering, wistful dream. The nearly five-hour director’s cut — restored last year in 4K and screening four more times this month at IFC’s “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road” retrospective — doesn’t fill in all the gaps in logic that cluttered the truncated original-release print (though certain plot threads are rendered more coherent via added narration). Both versions are by turns maddening, precious, erotic, zany, and maudlin, the pace still far more laborious than it should be, given the cataclysmic potential here.
But this truest World allows Wenders’s flights of fancy room to breathe. The nomadic feel of the film’s first two acts still clashes, deliberately, with the static, one-setting third chapter, but while this conceit once came off as clunky, here it feels more natural, more representative of the soul-searching, often fruitless characters themselves. The basic elements are still the same. It’s late 1999 and nuclear Armageddon — surprise, surprise — is nigh, but, in typical Wenders fashion, none of the key characters show much trepidation. In the first 90 or so minutes, the restless, sensual protagonist, Claire (Solveig Dommartin), moves from Venice to Paris to Berlin to Lisbon to Moscow to Beijing to Tokyo to San Francisco, first pursuing and then accompanying the mysterious outlaw Sam (William Hurt), with whom she’s enamored. He has stolen back his enterprising scientist father’s (Max von Sydow) prized prototype — a camera that transmits images to the blind — from the U.S. government, and he intends to reach his father’s hideaway home/laboratory in the Australian outback and aid him in completing this technological marvel.
Confused? Out of breath? That’s just the skeleton of Wenders’s fervently elaborate story (which he dreamt up in 1977, then fleshed out with co-writer Michael Almereyda during the 1980s). But the surprising thing is how laid-back, low-key, and melancholy his approach is, in both versions. The film is obviously a sprawling passion project, shot on location in seven countries (Warner Bros. balked at the film’s eventual $23 million budget and forbade Wenders from continuing the shoot in South America and the Congo; a few Beijing scenes were shot without a permit, on home video, by Dommartin). Yet Wenders, like his characters, seems indifferent to these locales. Exterior shots for the choppy first half are scant — we know where we are because the characters say so or because cutesy foreign-language signs are clumsily placed in the foreground.
Other than a few neon blue votive candles, interactive television screens (one eerily similar to today’s GPS modules), and extras strutting around in hideous lamé getups, there isn’t much futuristic brouhaha to distract from the characters’ ennui. The director’s cut does include a few more dystopian elements, like a chilling depiction of San Francisco as a crime-ridden hellhole and random appearances from suicide bombers and violent madmen. But this is decidedly not Brazil or 1984. There’s a hero and a heroine pursued by foes, but the foes become friends, and then foes, and then friends again. Detectives on Sam and Claire’s trail barely bat an eye when the duo outmaneuvers them; one of them registers like a sad clown, defined solely by his sporadic harmonica playing. And Sam Neill, as the narrator/writer who’s been jilted by Claire and who follows her, is the calmest on-screen cuckold in memory, gamely along for the ride.
So neither version is the foreboding or even particularly whimsical masterpiece that Wenders probably intended. Other than that GPS-like device, and a hilarious computer detective program starring an animated bear, the most prescient milestone here is the soundtrack, showcasing sixteen artists — Depeche Mode, R.E.M., Nick Cave, U2, and others — whom Wenders asked to record music they’d likely be playing in 1999. These glumly romantic songs are still the film’s most haunting component — Wenders said, at a Q&A session at MoMA in March, that he mostly made the film lengthy to pay proper heed to these bands.
What you will get out of the longer version that you can’t experience at all in what Wenders calls the Reader’s Digest edit — besides more satisfying explanation as to why characters are where they are — is a sense of playfulness, even merriment. There is a lengthy desert concert, complete with harmonica, didgeridoo, and percussion, played by cast members and Aborigines amid a staggering sunset. (That Australian ozone-layer-burning sun proves to be a striking figure in the story.) The buffoonery of the unedited chase and shootout in a Japanese sleeping chamber is a delight. And in the earlier version, Wenders’s late-stage parable about tampering with nature, about technology overtaking humanity, seemed overwrought and obvious; here, while Wenders is still serious about these themes, he lets their absurdity show through. Sad as it is, there is dark comic brilliance in the sight of people suddenly addicted to — and dope-sick when deprived of — their own dreams, which are broadcast in pixelated images on their personal TVs. And in 4K, those dream sequences are beautifully disorienting.
Before, one left the theater befuddled; one now leaves the theater equally befuddled but also moved, even genuinely disturbed.
Until the End of the World
Directed by Wim Wenders
Through September 17 as part of IFC Center’s “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road” retrospective