The great German dervish Rainer Werner Fassbinder, still only 27 years old and already fairly deep into a frantic career of unceasing productivity—he seemed to know he would die young—dipped his toe into science fiction with 1973's World on a Wire, a 205-minute made-for-TV marathon unavailable in the U.S. until this year. That it's not even close to being the longest work Fassbinder directed for television (Berlin Alexanderplatz is over 15 hours long) is proof of the man's obsessive-compulsive work ethic. That a film from the early '70s ostensibly concerned with cutting-edge technology can captivate at this late, jaded date should give you some idea of the visionary talent at work here.
By turns dilatory and manic, with lazily navigated narrative turns stabbed by violent zooms and frequently catatonic performances swiped by quick pans, Fassbinder's bipolar sci-fi meditation centers on a virtual environment called Simulacron, "the most exciting research project in the entire world." An immersive construction not unlike the labyrinthine brain jails of eXistenZ and The Matrix, Simulacron is essentially a forecasting device meant to play out supply-and-demand scenarios for the benefit of humans in the near future.
Inside Simulacron are approximately 10,000 "people" that can frizzle and fry into non-being if a cup of water spills onto whatever machine runs their code. They think they're "real." Like you, basically. When Fred Stiller, scientist-cum-middle-manager at the proto-Cronenbergian concern responsible for the project, begins chasing twinned suspicions about the project's ultimate goal and the nature of his own apparent reality, well, I think you see where this is going.
The revelations may be obvious, but as in the work of fellow mindfucker Philip K. Dick, the narrative involutions are secondary to Fassbinder's philosophical probing. The film dawdles at times, but it is scarily good at capturing the creepy-crawly sense that life is not only a dream, but a dream someone else is having about you. That's fairly fluffy Phil 101 fodder, but Fassbinder makes the idea sing—scream, more like it—with an addled madness that is all too...real?
86 SEE IT: World on a Wire screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 pm Friday-Saturday, 4:30 pm Sunday and 6:30 pm Monday, Sept. 23-26.