Until the End of the World
(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.