Never mind how inconceivable it is that busy Rainer Werner Fassbinder took time between his two crowning provocations, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), to make a three-and-a-half-hour sci-fi sizzler for German TV. (He also wrote several episodes of a blue-collar labor drama and directed an Ibsen play.) Let’s just be thankful he did. World on a Wire is the discovery of the season, rarely screened in America but very much a key chapter in Fassbinder’s story—a step toward bigger budgets and slicker production values, yet clarifying of his core artistic legacy.
Fashionable nerds will compare the knotty tale—essentially about a supercomputer that creates a virtual reality—to Avatar, but the vibe here is closer to those cryptic, blue-ish mysteries that David Cronenberg used to make in Canada with people running around in lab coats. (Yes, that equals awesome.) A scientist (Löwitsch) hopes to get to the bottom of it, tugging dangerously at the fraying edge of what he thinks is reality. Fassbinder, adapting freely from Daniel F. Galouye’s deeply influential 1964 novel Simulacron-3, finds his usual themes in the genre material, notably social and sexual exploitation. But a chase or two certainly don’t hurt.