A couple of nights ago, I watched Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World for the first time in many years. I first saw this film back in, I think, late 1993 or early 1994. I thought then its depiction of 1999 was one of the most realistic and plausible depictions of the near-future I had ever seen.
But that was before the year in which film is set. I’ve now watched it again almost a decade after the year in which it is set…
Wenders apparently wrote Until the End of the World to be the “ultimate road movie”. It’s set in the months leading up to the start of the new millennium. An Indian nuclear-powered satellite is out of control, and could fall from orbit, causing widespread contamination. Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) is returning to Paris from Venice when a traffic jam prompted by the impending crash of the satellite forces her off the beaten track. As a result, she is involved in an accident with a pair of friendly bank robbers. After giving them a lift to the nearest town – her car survived the crash, theirs didn’t – they ask her to take their ill-gotten gains to Paris for a 30% cut. En route, Claire then meets Trevor (William Hurt) and gives him a lift to Paris… but he steals some of the money.
The film then develops into a chase, with Claire and her boyfriend Gene (Sam Neill) following Trevor to retrieve the stolen, er, stolen money. Trevor is also being chased by bounty hunters, since he apparently stole an expensive prototype camera from a US lab. This camera records the brainwaves associated with seeing. Trevor is using the camera to record his relatives for his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau). The film finishes up in the Australian Outback, where Trevor’s father (Max von Sydow), the inventor of the camera, has a secret lab.
Then the Indian nuclear-powered satellite explodes, causing an electro-magnetic pulse which wipes out all unshielded electronic equipment…
When I first saw Until the End of the World, I was very taken at the way in which it showed technology integrated into everyday life. Cars had electronic maps on their dashboards, computers were small and portable, videophones were the norm, software programs had animated avatars as user interfaces and could search global data… And yet other aspects remained unchanged. Cars looked a sleeker but a lot of old models were still being driven. Cities appeared to have changed very little – more neon and glass, perhaps, but no real substantial changes. And the way in which people lived their lives had not altered…
Science fiction has never been about predicting the future – that’s futurism. But watching Until the End of the World now, eight years after it was set, seventeen years after it was made… it’s interesting seeing just how close Wenders was.
Cars do indeed have electronic maps on their dashboards – GPS. Desktop computers have not changed greatly in appearance in ten years (unless you include the introduction of TFTs), but laptops certainly have. They are a great deal smaller and more powerful than they were in 1991 – the Asus EEE, for example, is 22.5 x 16.5 cm. Admittedly, the animated GUI for the search programs shown in the film are crude; modern CGI is far more sophisticated and realistic. But the search through global data itself is not so far from Google and the like – don’t forget that when Until the End of the World was released, the WWW did not exist. And while videophones have yet to really catch on, mobile phones with cameras are common, as are webcams.
Despite this, the film still doesn’t feel like it was actually made in 1999. There are enough near-misses to indicate its true age. And, of course, the central conceit, the camera which records brainwaves, is pure science fiction.
It’s still a damn good film, however. I’m not sure I’d call it a favourite – the plot feels a little like two stories badly-welded together, and both William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin seem curiously blank throughout. And the edition released in the UK has no subtitles, despite there being a lot of French dialogue (which is a little too fast and fluent for me). But I’ll certainly watch it again.