Computer Films

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) - 1973

World on a Wire Poster

This is the sixth film I've looked at in this series on films about computers and IT. Here are the previous articles if you're interested in reading more:

So, stop me if you've heard this one already - a film in which our protagonist works for a computing organisation, but while there he's starting to have doubts about the world and exactly what is going on. He meets a lady with whom he falls in love, and unbeknownst to him isn't really from his world at all. Over the course of the story, he comes to realise that his world is actually a computer simulation, and that there's a real world outside that is hidden from everyone in the virtual world. Those able to access it do so via public telephones. The virtual nature of the world can be evidenced by "glitches", wherein things appear to go wrong with the world itself for a moment. There is also a lot of talk of ancient greek philosophy, and a pointless rave scene.

So you know which film I'm talking about, don't you? That's right - it's not The Matrix, but a film made oer 20 years earlier for German TV - World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) but which shares many of its major themes and plot elements with the later film. Coincidence - who knows, but personally I doubt it. Considering that The Matrix stole shamelessly from various Anime films, it wouldn't be much of a leap to think they took material from this too.

World on a Wire was based on a novel, "Simulacron-3" by Daniel F. Galouye, published in 1964. This book was also adapted - far more losely - as "The 13th Floor" in 1999.

In this article, I'm going to have a look at World on Wire, and see whether it's still something worth your while now, or whether you would be better off sticking to The Matrix after all.

Plot Summary

The Matrix, but without the fighting.

Well, not quite. There's both more and less to it than that. The protagonist in this case is Dr. Fred Stiller, who has come to the Cybernetics and Future Sciences Institute to take over the Simulacron project - a computer simulation of reality, complete with virtual, self-aware people populating it. The intention is to use it to predict the future of the real world.

Dr. Stiller has been brought in following the mysterious death of his predecessor, and almost immediately after he begins work, the head of security - Guenter Lause - disappears in an instant, mid-conversation in front of Fred. To make matters stranger, no-one besides Fred has any memory of Lause whatsoever.

Over the course of the film, Fred tries to work out what's going on, while also experiencing strange phenomena such as all of the lights in a street not being there for a moment, before reappearing again like nothing ever happened. To make matters worse, the head of the institute appears to be neck deep in all sorts of nafarious dealings with various private companies.

Fred also finds himself getting closer to his predecessor's daughter - Eva Vollmer, who has an odd habit of disappearing without trace

All of this strangeness comes to a head when he finds one of his colleageus, Walfang, behaving strangely - only for it to turn out he's had his mind swapped with a virtual person from Simulacron, an Identity Unit designated "Einstein", who reveals to Fred that the "real" world is no such thing, that he is himself living in a simulation, and that everything around him is being maniuplated by those in the real world, who ensure no-one ever comes to know this terrible secret and live!

What follows then is a paranoid chase, as Fred attempts to stay one step ahead of the powers that be, as seemingly the whole world, and even the laws of physics, turn against him.

Is It Anything Like Real Computing

Not as such. Of course, this is a version of the technology that these days we'd call Virtual Reality (VR), although it's based on the idea that instead of it being a playground for those of us with a headset, it exists to be lived in by virtual people, who live their lives unaware of where and what they are.

Quite why they would go to such extraordinary lengths to make it look, taste and smell so very real for the purposes of a simulation is a mystery. Of course the real reason is that this was made in the days before Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was easy to accomplish, as well as making it easier to hide the big reveal, that the "real" world is also a simulation.

Of course, it could be argued that the accuracy of the simulation is to ensure that it gives better-quality results, though that would also lead me to wonder just how much data is stored in Simulacron to make it happen? How much of the world is simulated? Is it just Berlin, or is the whole world "on a wire" inside the machine? We never find out. Considering that this is a 70s-style conception of computing, which is well before the digital revolution, that means everything has to be simulated mostly by dedicated hardware, so the size of Simulacron would be colossal if they wanted to do so much.

In many ways, the uses to which they put Simulacron - predicting the future of steel prices, etc. are more analagous to Machine Learning, which uses statistical methods powered by computers to predict the future with a reasonable degree of accuracy, based on past data. No need for virtual, self-aware Identity Units with this!

More importantly, though, does it matter? That's a question I'll address in the next section...

Is it any good?

I have very mixed feelings about this one.

On one hand it's a high-concept SF thriller, low on action, but big on ideas. Usually just the sort of thing I like. It's also - obviously - the predesessor of The Matrix, so it's fascinating to see an earlier version of that same story. The art direction is great too - within the limits of a 1970s German TV budget.

Having said all of this though, I do have issues.

One of the biggest issues is the treatment of women. I know this is the 80s, but even so! Female characters - the very few of them that there are - exist for one purpose - to fancy Fred, and to want to sleep with him. Even the mysterious Eva Vollman is motivated purely by her desire to be in a relationship with Fred, and nothing much beyond that. To make it worse, Fred is very casual with his relationships - despite having fallen in love with Eva himself, he still sleeps with his secretary, and the film treats this as though it's no big deal. I can't even understand why it's in there, except to make the film longer. There's no plot point at work here. I'd almost expected that the strange tentency of just about every woman he meets to throw themselves at Fred to be another, subtle manupulation from the folks in the real world, to keep him distracted from learning the truth. But, no. He just appears to be the most attractive man who ever lived, or something.

Like I said, I know, this is an old film, from an older time. I'm used to watching things which require me to just accept that their regressive attitudes are the product of an earlier age, but this is pretty regressive even for the time it was made.

This is a pretty much entirely plot-driven story too. Everything revolves around Simulacron, and the nature of reality. There's very little time given over to characterisation. Fred's personality is "scowly and suspicious" - a mood he rarely deviates from. The other characters are largely plot points, rather than fully-rounded people. Whether that's a good or bad thing is down to your individual taste. It isn't unusual for high-concept SF stories, where the author is mostly interested in their "big idea".

I would have loved to see more use of the virual world as a visual element too. There's none of The Matrx's green-tinted screen, or stylised stunts to show the unreal world for what it is. We only see inside Simulacron very briefly, but it seems like a completely accurate version of the real world, with only dialogue to tell us it's a simulation.

The plot of this film also moves at the speed of the average glacier. It's very, very slow. If you're OK with that, then it's fine, but if you prefer your films a bit punchier, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.

How does it compare to The Matrix, or even The Thirteenth Floor - the other adaptation of the same novel?

It's much slower, and much more ponderous for a start. If you like the idea of the central twist, but want to see something a little tighter edited and with more visual flair, then The Thirteenth Floor might be a better choice. If you want action, then it goes without saying that The Matrix is a better choice.

In terms of philosophical concept, the better film is either this one, or The Matrix. World on a Wire makes reference to Plato and Zeno's Paradox, but doesn't explore them in any great depth. Neither, come to think of it, does the first Matrix. It's the sequels that lose themselves in random asides from ancient Greece. As with all things, it depends what it is you're looking for.

In a strange way, I feel like none of the three versions of this story have really made the most of the material they have. I'd almost like to see a fourth version at some point - one with the visual flair of The Matrix, the tighter story focus of The Thirteenth Floor, and a more cut-back, more personal story, like World on a Wire.

It's worth a look, if you like old SF, or in tracing the history of ideas. With its running time over over three hours through, it's a bit of a struggle for a casual viewer to get through.

Until next time....

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