Tempting though it may be to call Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire a revolutionary, unsung sci-fi epic about virtual reality and/or megalomania, that's not why it demands to be seen. True, Fassbinder's lumpy adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye's novel Simulacron-3 preceded The Matrix by 26 years, but it was also made for German TV a few years after the publication of The Electric Ant and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, two of Philip K. Dick's more blisteringly paranoid short stories about perception and the immaterial nature of reality.
Fassbinder's sumptuous 205-minute epic is intriguing as a prototype for later and more palatably cynical sci-fi standards like Blade Runner or even Total Recall. But in terms of its mix of Fassbinder's characteristic sense of melancholic camp and decadence in a futuristic setting that combines '30s futurism with noir aesthetics, World on a Wire is consistently arresting. It'd be everything and a bag of chips if Fassbinder were even slightly interested in making us care about its Hammett-esque cipher and his troubling world of tomorrow. Mundane details like that bored Fassbinder, even if he's also hypersensitive to their importance. He treats the film's mystery plot like a very flimsy pretext, a skeleton for a generic exercise that Fassbinder struggles to transform into a mammoth character study of literal self-absorption.
After professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), the inventor of a radical, state-funded virtual reality simulator, dies mysteriously, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch), his assistant, takes his place only to find out that just before dying, Vollmer discovered something that drove him insane. In a story about scientists that have created a simulated environment and whose predictions of what the future will be like in 20 years rely heavily on feedback from Einstein (Gottfried John), an artificial construct aware that it is only a computer program, the answer should seem fairly obvious (hint: Reality is, like, relative, man). And yet, it takes Stiller 100 minutes to come to the same conclusion you should be thinking about right now.
It's not that World on a Wire's stock plot aged poorly and now seems prosaic. Fassbinder himself shows signs of boredom with his linear narrative and takes his sweet time in revealing the cracks in Stiller's environment. Each pursuant discovery Stiller makes about people and events that only he remembers, which in the film's first half revolve mostly around the conspicuously abrupt disappearance of Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny), chief of security at Stiller's company, might as well be accompanied with thunderclaps for all their lack of subtlety.
And they almost are: Most of these moments are immediately followed by tinny synthesizer cues that sound like a weird cross between a swarm of cicadas, a tuning fork, and cheesy UFO sound effects. Fassbinder even flirts with killing off Stiller early on in the film, having a crane hoist a heavy load of construction pylons precariously low over his head as he crosses a courtyard. Instead of crushing his character as if he were Wile E. Coyote, the crane unloads its cosmic payload on an unsuspecting bystander off of whom Stiller tries to bum a match. This inappropriate acknowledgment of how inconsequential Stiller ultimately is in the film's narrative would be deliriously funny if we weren't expected to seriously invest in this man's epistemic crisis.
Fassbinder, who also co-adapted the film's screenplay, usually makes a point of undermining the affectation of his melodramas with jarring intrusions of camp. But even by his usual standards, he seems especially eager to dispense with the plot and to just explore the film's world. He takes numerous opportunities to meander away from the plot for the sake of luxuriating in the profligate ambience of the film's hybridized, transnational urban setting, whose interiors mix and match Persian rugs, Greek folk music, modernist fixtures, and art nouveau decors.
But these are ultimately exaggerated ancillary details that overwhelm a film that is ostensibly all about the pervasive invasion of an individual's mounting sense of paranoia into his objective surroundings. As it is, Stiller's quest looks to be symptomatic of peripheral themes and ideas of hybridity and globalism instead of its main subject. Fassbinder invests a wealth of detail in almost every set piece and makes the film more visually arresting than it has any right to be. Still, without any good reason to emotionally invest in Stiller, it's hard not to remember all those other Philip K. Dick stories that came first.