Skip to main content

The present will look after itself. But it’s our duty to realise the future with our imagination.

Until the End of the World
(1991)

(SPOILERS) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going.

Director Wim Wenders’ “ultimate road movie” certainly has a claim to that title, especially in its Trilogy Cut form (280 minutes’ worth – I’ve yet to see the seven-minutes-longer Director’s Cut). If you labelled it indulgent, I doubt very much Wenders would dispute the charge. Its sprawling content and accompanying untidiness is part of its appeal, as is the not-really-very-original attempt at retro-noir fashions (all the men wear hats), as if Wenders and Stephen Hopkins determined Until the End of the World and Predator 2 exist in a shared universe. Some of the technology appears laughably quaint (anything featuring in-computer graphics), but the central gizmo, of which more shortly, represents a strong core concept, if one lacking a sufficiently versatile visualisation. And the soundtrack, which in many ways is the film, lends it a supremely atmospheric and informing spine, including as it does the titular U2 track but also the much more evocative (I’ll Love You) Til the End of the World from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And Graeme Revell’s score is a career best.

The emphasis on the music underlines the lyrical, meditative nature of the picture, which in the three-chapter form of the Trilogy Cut sometimes can tend to the somewhat aimless, but never offputtingly so. There’s a languorous charm to Wenders’ idea of a can-do future where the worst thing to worry about is a nuclear satellite. Which may not really seem like much of a potential powder keg for sparking global unrest, but then, unwanted EMF can have a very undesirable effect, or side effects, especially if it’s put down to something else entirely. Plus, there's the devastating combination of nuclear power and satellite technology... providing you believe either exist in the first place to weave their dark magic spell.

Sam Farber: I am neither a spy nor a jewel thief.

Wenders developed the idea with then-muse Solveig Dommartin (Dommartin died in 2007 at only 45), star of his previous, possibly career-best Wings of Desire, and there’s something of a precursor to a manic pixie dream girl in her presentation. Claire Tourneur is an ever-elusive, unpinnable-down object of desire to many of those she encounters. Most notably her former boyfriend Sam Neill, on account of his narration (he’s an author) going on and on and on about it; it’s the kind of obsessive ex thing that becomes a bit irritating after a while (Neill’s really good, though, as you’d expect). In turn, she repeatedly gets the brush off from Hurt’s initially mysterious fugitive Sam Farber, which only goes to fuel her obsessiveness (the difference here being that, when Sam does have time for her, he is amenable).

This mismatch of characters crossing paths and weaving in and out of minor altercations and each other’s lives takes up a good half of the picture. Less central characters include Rudiger Volger’s PI Philip Winter and a pair of bank robbers, the fate of whose appropriated funds is inextricably tied to Claire.

Despite the nominal threat established as a backdrop, this is not a frightening then near-future. And it isn’t one where tech overshadows life and liberty, or one where decay and pollution advance inexorably (despite the very ‘80s radiation count). Instead, dystopian demons are very much interiorised, and the emphasis is as much on the road trip of the mind, something the narration continually returns to (Neill’s Eugene Fitzpatrick has a very pedestrian imagination, so all he can do is follow his muse).

There are sequences here that flat-out don’t work. An attempt at screwball slapstick during a Tokyo episode rather falls on its face; Wenders is out of his element, but you appreciate his willingness to try it for size. There’s a very “World Music” attempt to impress upon us natural healing and knowledge versus the tunnel vision of the materialist, allopathic western model. As commendable as that may be, the results rather whiff of patronisation; Sam first has his eyes treated by wise Japanese ancient healing wisdom. Later, he is cured of his dreamtime issues by Aboriginal Australians, whom Sam’s father Henry (Max von Sydow) has helped immeasurably, we are told, in some sort of white-saviour way.

If Wenders is in danger of letting the material drift that bit too much, he gradually reels the focus back in during Part 2, subsequent to revealing Sam’s mission. Sam has a camera that takes pictures blind people can see, and he intends to return the footage he has been collecting to mother Jeanne Moreau (Lois Chiles pops up as his sister). Everyone arrives in the Outback, an ideal spot for cheap science fiction (all that desert) and an EM pulse goes off, leaving radio silence across the world as the characters pursue their respective obsessions uninterrupted. Von Sydow is an enormous boon to the picture, nursing curmudgeonly gruffness towards his offspring but genuine affection towards his wife. Hurt clearly relishes acting against him in their father-son friction; everyone raises their game.

Henry Farber: You’re now looking at the human soul. Singing to itself. To its own god.

It’s in Part 3 that Until the End of the World really comes into its own, however, doubling down on its key science-fiction concept. The camera can also be used to record and play back one’s own dreams, leading to addiction on the parts of Claire and Sam, gluttons for their own subconscious flights.

There’s something rather endearing about Wenders’ vision of an Outback community. Essentially, it’s a small-scale Womad, cosmopolitan in nature and presided over by a spirit of traditional (local) mores (David Gulpilil inevitably appears). The festival spirit is at its most self-conscious in the characters’ increasingly popular jamming sessions; this ought to be irritating and not a little embarrassing, but Wenders somehow achieves an alchemy and makes it work. It feels both seems seamless and germane (“The purpose of our journey had been so this music might blossom at the edge of what was possibly the end of the world”).

Something of Until the End of the World’s VR concept was used a few years later, to much grislier and queasier effect, in another millennial SF movie, Strange Days. Its dangers are occasionally voiced in on-the-nose fashion (“You think we want you walking through our dreams with your fancy cameras”), just as Neill’s voiceover can be a tad deadly (“Their dreams became black holes of isolation. Complete loss of reality”).

Nevertheless, the idea of grasping one’s elusive, ephemeral dream state and replaying it has considerable cachet, and Wenders weaves a hypnotic spell during this section of the picture. If there’s a failing, it’s that the renderings we see, in intentionally scrappy, grainy high-def video, suggest no reason for those involved to be quite so entranced. They’re almost wilfully mundane. But perhaps that has its own merit; dreams can only be entirely personal in intrinsic value, so seriously attempting to depict them, with all the CGI budget and the bizarreness of dream logic, and fluctuations of space and time, would be self-defeating (you’d have to go off at a complete tangent, à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

I must admit, I’d forgotten how ripe the “Green Space” coda is; Claire, through “her extraordinary vision”, has found herself “a place on a space observatory watching the oceans for pollution crimes”. Little Greta would be so proud! The weightlessness effects are every bit as convincing as NASA footage, though. And such rosy optimism definitely makes for an antidote to future doomsaying.

Man in Bar: Look at them! We’re on the eve of destruction and all they care about is laughing, drinking, carousing!

Of course, with thirty years hindsight, we know much better than to indulge such silly daydreams as Wim’s. Until the End of the World wasn’t so rapturously received and sort of drew a line under Wenders’ growing international reputation just as it had fully blossomed. He has continued to work prodigiously, across genres and forms, yet never quite finding the same audiences or feting as he received during his ‘80s zenith. As such, there might be good reason for regarding Until the End of the World as the end of his peak period. It’s certainly one that more than overcomes its occasional lapses to warrant the mantle of a classic.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

I have done some desperate, foolish things come 3 o'clock in the morning.

Sea of Love (1989) (SPOILERS) It’s difficult to imagine Sea of Love starring Dustin Hoffman, for whom Richard Price wrote the screenplay but who bowed out over requests for multiple rewrites. Perhaps Hoffman secretly recognised what most of us don’t need telling; there’s no way he fits into an erotic thriller (I’m not sure I’d even buy him as a cop). Although, he would doubtless have had fun essaying the investigative side, involving a succession of dates on the New York singles scene as a means to ensnare a killer. Al Pacino, on the other hand, has just the necessary seedy, threadbare, desperate quality, and he’s a powerhouse in a movie that, without its performances (Ellen Barkin and John Goodman may also take bows), would be a mostly pedestrian and unremarkable entry in the then burgeoning serial killer genre. Well, I say unremarkable. The rightly most-remarked-upon aspect of the murder mystery side is how unsatisfyingly it’s resolved. Sea of Love is so scant of r