The American novelist Daniel F. Galouye was a contemporary of Phillip K. Dick and shared some of Dick's concerns about the vulnerability of identity amid advancing technology and complex social systems. Galouye's 1960s novel Simulacron-3 is reminiscent of Dick's work not only in its paranoid anxiety but in its appeal to movies. Two films have been made from it so far, Hollywood taking its crack with The Thirteenth Floor in 1999. Rainer Werner Fassbinder took his shot a quarter-century earlier. Welt am Draht is a two-part miniseries stretching over nearly 3.5 hours made for West German television. It may qualify as the first "cyberpunk" movie, and owing to the time it was made and Fassbinder's own aesthetic sense it resembles more closely than overproduced Hollywood adaptations the world Phillip K. Dick himself imagined. Dick, and probably Galouye too, were concerned with the plight of grey-flannel-suit, Organization Man types in an ever more bureaucratized, commercialized and commodified future. By toning down the spectacle, whether from necessity or preference, Fassbinder zeros in on the psychological unease that defines these proto-cyberpunk works.
World on a Wire is almost a generic story of its kind. An unscrupulous corporation and unrestrained scientists have developed a virtual reality environment of artificial intelligences simulating ordinary human social life, to serve as the ultimate focus group for advertising, opinion polls, etc. Mysterious deaths and disappearances lead our hero Fred Stiller (the compactly tense Klaus Loewitsch) to question first his place in reality, then reality's place in reality. You know the drill; someone you know vanishes, but then no one else has ever heard of him. You learn that scientists can enter the virtual world and live the lives of the simulated people, and that the transfer can be a two-way street. Is that woman who claims to love you a real person or a simulation possessing a human shell? Is yours the real world or the simulation, or a little of both? Naturally, Stiller gets a little agitated and the falling trees, plunging shipping palettes and exploding houses don't help things.
The situation gives Fassbinder opportunities to satirize contemporary culture. The scenes at a cabaret featuring a Marlene Dietrich impersonator are obviously intended to underscore how much of our own pop culture is a simulation. At the same time, Fassbinder takes advantage of the simulated nature of movie genres. Stiller's predicament, the uncertainty over whether his world is real, enables him to be a kind of action hero, fighting, running, escaping, chasing and being chased. The fact is, Stiller's "real" world isn't any more real than the world of the simulations -- it's only a movie, which is worth bearing in mind if you're tempted to wonder what the generically ambiguous ending proves.
Apart from Fassbinder's literary influences, the shadow of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville doesn't just hover over this movie -- the director invites it in by casting the French film's star, Eddie Constantine, in a cameo role. Fassbinder's film is more immediately enjoyable in a generic way than Godard's, but it echoes Godard's lesson that the key to making a low-budget sci-film is style rather than special-effects. World on a Wire has a "day after tomorrow" aesthetic that's stylized enough to feel alien without really looking alien. It depends on the director's selection of locations, the sensibility of the costumers, and above all on the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz, who give many of the interiors a blue-grey glint that suffices to make things just a little strange, just a little different from now. No flying cars are necessary.
The miniseries takes a little while to get going, taking perhaps too much time to establish a mood of almost perfunctory decadence, but by the second half it moves pretty briskly to keep up with its harried hero. With patience it establishes itself convincingly as a sci-fi movie milestone and a prescient piece of pop cinema from an arthouse idol who didn't live to see his concept become commonplace.