In 1992, German filmmaker Wim Wenders released an epic, globetrotting cinematic adventure called Until the End of the World. Set in the “near future” of 1999, the film follows the path of a mysterious traveler named Sam Farber (William Hurt) and an assortment of pursuers that include an obsessed French love interest, an Australian-aboriginal bounty hunter armed with truth serum, a tech-wielding detective, and the love interest’s ex, a writer who’s been friend-zoned but remains captivated by her exploits.
But it’s the background of the film that gives Until the End of the World a distinct current timeliness: A global panic develops after an Indian nuclear satellite goes out of control, threatening its as-yet-unknown reentry point like a radioactive lawn dart. Political, social, and economic meltdowns spiral as its orbit deteriorates. The United States, ever the bad guy, threatens to shoot it down, sparking even greater global horror at the prospect of the damage extending far beyond a localized impact. The film mutates from spirited intercontinental caper to one that mulls the impact of isolation, fear, and uncertainty in the face of a spreading, unseen menace. No, you’re not the only one who thinks this all sounds too familiar.
It’s a grim premise, but Until the End of the World—a fully restored, five-hour director’s cut of which was released in December by the Criterion Collection—remains witty, playful, and imaginative nonetheless. As it follows the stylish wanderers, all amiable misfits in some fashion or another, it gamely predicts search engines, GPS navigation, and the human race’s addiction to electronic devices. Its 20 filming locations on four continents are sprinkled with futuristic concept cars cast as daily-drivers in Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, San Francisco, Venice, and elsewhere. Wenders was also one of the first directors to make use of then-primitive HD video, even though he subverted its true goal of unsparing clarity by using it as the technological centerpiece of the film, an experimental research project. It’s revealed that Sam is traveling with a high-tech camera, invented by his father, that can record brainwaves and reproduce the images they generate in the mind. He’s using it to capture greetings by his relatives that will be shown to his blind mother in an unprecedented experiment, and Wenders used HD to both generate the images themselves for the film and convey the fictional camera’s own product. The process feels true, and the implications palpable. When the reason for the bounty on Farber’s head becomes clear—the US government, which commissioned the device, wants it back—viewers can certainly see why.
At the time of its release, and despite an A-list cast that also includes Max von Sydow as Sam’s earnest but slightly megalomaniacal scientist father Henry, Jeanne Moreau as his infinitely wiser mum Edith, and the great Sam Neill as the writer Gene, the film was basically a flop, roundly criticized for its incoherence and its unfulfilled ambitions. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that the studio distributing the otherwise independent film insisted on a 2.5-hour final product. At the time of its original release, Wenders was highly regarded for his 1984 film Paris, Texas and 1987’s Wings of Desire, both thoughtful, artistic tone poems. Until the End of the World should have been a commercial crossover success, but instead it was cut too short to relay its intended meaning and still didn’t find a wide audience. Only now can it be regarded as what it should have been—and in 4K glory, to boot.
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But beyond the fact that a five-hour movie is a natural fit for a quarantined and social-distanced population of cinephiles—and its astoundingly good soundtrack is a pitch-perfect mood-setter—this particular project’s arrival at the dawn of a global pandemic represents remarkable re-entry timing. It lands with the precision of a nuclear satellite that’s out of control yet still obeying the laws of orbital mechanics and hitting people where they’re most vulnerable: their frayed, anxious collective psyches . The undercurrent that the world might actually come apart to some extent feels, now, quite familiar, but average citizens keep motoring along, much like the characters in Wenders’ film. This happens initially in San Francisco, when Sam attempts to pay cash for a used car for he and his now allied pursuer Claire, played by frequent Wenders collaborator Solveig Dommartin. Sam ends up in an awkward fist fight with the dealer, who will only accept credit. There’s rage and raw survivalism in the dealer’s eyes as he steals their cash and taunts them about the lack of police they can turn to, and shock in Sam’s eyes that the world has become so quickly perilous and uncivilized, even as the bar down the street remains a relatively calm oasis.
This easily aligns with today’s reality, wherein the world feels as though it’s on the brink of chaos, even as people try to stay pacified with Netflix queues and TikTok benders. In public, everyone gazes furtively from behind surgical masks while in line at Costco, yet remain their jovial, bemused selves on Zoom. When those in either timeline—the present reality or the film’s—see the news, macro-scale fear takes root, while on a personal level the fight for normalcy persists. Tensions rise, and the cracks start to show in small ways first, larger ones later.
In Until the End of the World, that tipping point comes when the US follows through on its threat to shoot down the nuclear satellite, causing an electromagnetic pulse in the upper atmosphere that wipes out all electronics globally, isolating everyone precisely where they are. It doesn’t quite reflect the same lockstep parallelism as Steven Soderbergh’s 100 percent spot-on 2011 film Contagion, but it gets fairly close to what many people are experiencing today.
In the case of Sam and Claire, they’ve been cultivating a cautious romance in their encounters around the world before eventually converging with that EMP while on the last leg of their journey, flying in a small airplane to Henry’s secret laboratory in the Australian Outback. Their airplane loses power and they have to glide down to Earth, barreling headlong across the desert scrub as Peter Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden” plays, the whole scene intercut with the other characters elsewhere simultaneously realizing what’s happened. Sam and Claire must then walk for days until reunited with the other pursuers, at which point they are all now friends. Cut off from the world and uncertain about its fate, they wrestle with fear at the remote lab/sanctuary, but remain bolstered by each other and the goal of showing Sam’s mother the world she’s missed out on, visually at least, for her entire life.
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In the real world—aka, this timeline—no EMP has cut off electronics, but at this point anything, really, can happen. Just substitute a grid failure in the wake of personnel shortages or, say, a seemingly inevitable solar storm for a wayward nuclear satellite, and you’ll see what Until the End of the World is trying to warn everyone about. Right now, mere economic calamity looms, but what will that lead to? Social distancing and the inability of many people to do their jobs are cutting a similar arc to what those in the film endure. There’s only so much isolation people can take before they feel compelled to crawl back to normalcy, no matter the risks.
One of Until the End of the World’s most poignant, and relevant, bits comes in its final act: Mad-scientist Henry reveals that the same device that records what the brain perceives can, with enough pushing of algorithms and massaging of data streams, also record dreams. When Claire and Sam submit themselves as guinea pigs in this experiment, the impact is profound. They become addicted to the scenes, which play out on small screens they clutch as they try to decipher the visions’ meanings. They retreat into their own minds, pretty much turning into zombies.
One more note about the groundbreaking presence of HD filmmaking here: The pixelated, digital videos created by the camera as it reproduces these vignettes are standout moments, and they remain just as impactful as they were 30 years ago. In fact, if Wenders were to again attempt to predict how computers would execute this sort of task, it’s doubtful he’d do anything differently. They depict AI algorithms bringing something into focus—in this case, literal videos from our most intimate private place. These scenes also happen to be a brilliant, if completely unsung, debut for what today is standard in cinema and all forms of media, as an incongruous bit of future digital technology dropped elegantly into an analog work of cinematic art. It also happens to presage, just with a bit more gravity, the appearance of the three-dimensional, digital world that Homer Simpson plopped into during the seventh-season Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode a few years later, in 1995.
It’s in this final descent that the movie does go ever so slightly off the rails, such as when Claire realizes the batteries on her device have died and she’s way out in the middle of the Outback. She lets out an overwrought primal scream. It’s a wonderfully meme-able moment, but it’s also a pretty spot-on parody of many home-bound quarantinees today. People have been addicted to their screens for years now, and who knows what fresh Hell would await them psychologically if they didn’t have these things to pass the time and stay connected to each other. Would they survive and thrive alone, in true isolation, or let out their own withering screams of despair? We’re guessing the former.
Claire and Sam do eventually make it back from the remote corners of their deep subconscious minds, and return to a world that is pretty close to what it once was. The first sign of this comes to them in an intercepted radio signal—a mundane traffic report from Los Angeles, with the DJ grousing about congestion. It’s an exhilarating sign of normalcy, the kind so many people currently long for. But when Sam and Claire emerge from their adventure, they’re also clearly different people—having made GIFs of their dreams and everything—and they need to figure out precisely what that means for them and the world they’re reentering. The film ends with Gene giving a soothing, optimistic narration of the characters’ lives in the future.
Watching it now, it’s hard not to wonder what Earth in 2020 will look like after a similar time-jump, or what a dream recorder would gather from the world’s collective sleeps. Wenders got a lot right in Until the End of the World, and if it’s any guide, there’s still hope—even if Earth’s devices do drop offline.
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