An important measure of speculative narrative consists of its prescience – how well it anticipates the future. The test of a great work of art, IMHO, is whether it rewards multiple viewings or readings. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s nearly forgotten science fiction film of 1973, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), merits a place of singular distinction with respect to the first criterion, but it is not a work that I am in a hurry to watch a second time.
The film concerns a research institute that has, with support from a powerful and shady corporation, created a virtual world called Simulacron. This world is populated by entities, composed of masses of data, that believe themselves to be human beings. The purpose of this virtual world is to enable its creators to play out various scenarios in order to gain a better grasp of the future, and the economic and geopolitical advantages such insights would confer. But the creators lose control over this world when their digital creations begin to appear in the real world and plant doubts in the minds of at least two characters that the world they inhabit might also be no less artificial.
It is hard not to be amazed throughout the film, originally made for German television with a running time of three and a half hours, over how eerily it anticipates cyberspace, virtual reality, and the whole subgenre of science fiction films that explore such themes as the illusory nature of human identity, the abolition of reality, and alternate worlds. One could point to Philip K. Dick as the major source of influence, but it’s still remarkable how Fassbinder’s film encompasses the key motifs that have become familiar in contemporary science fiction, especially cyberpunk. I found World on a Wire far more charming than special effects-driven blockbusters in the mold of The Matrix. When a character experiences the distortion of reality in Fassbinder’s film, he gets a headache – no fancy overpriced CGI here.
But where Fassbinder chooses to take his material is somewhat disappointing. The pacing is uneven, the plot meanders, and Fassbinder doesn’t show enough conviction in working out the film’s themes. The world inside the computer looked to me like East Germany from the outside, and like pre-World War II Germany in its interiors. The missed opportunity of the film lies in not working with these historical and ideological markers to map out the simulated world and to shape the conflicts at the heart of the film. Instead, it’s as though Fassbinder traveled into the cinematic future and watch Blade Runner, Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, as well as The Matrix trilogy, and then returned to his own time to give a slightly disdainful and desultory take on the same material.
This is not to say that the film contains some well-executed sequences. The ending is in particular quite memorable, confronting the audience with an unsettling sense of ambiguity in giving the two opposed fates of the protagonist equal weight. The film does manage to succeed quite well in having it both ways: a brutal killing and salvation by love. There is a scene in a nightclub in which the song “Lili Marleen,” sung by a female singer, is interrupted by the martial chorus of the “Westerwald.” It’s also a nice touch that Klaus Löwitsch, who later absconds to Australia as the war veteran husband in The Marriage of Maria Braun, is one who sticks around this time, as his character replaces the head scientist who mysteriously vanishes.
The kind of science fiction that exposes the world to be an illusory construction echoes the gnostic myth in which uncreated spirits are held captive in bodies by malignant agents called archons. What Fassbinder’s film maintains, and what Hollywood films typically leave aside, is the gnostic doctrine that the physical world, which is our prison, is simply one level of the cosmos, and that in liberating ourselves from this world, our task of emancipation is not over, as higher levels of captivity await us. He also raises the problematic whereby we ourselves can serve as the archons for another group of imprisoned entities.
The 2009 horror film Daybreakers, in which a plague has turned most human beings into vampires, provides an overt allegory for the dependence of advanced industrial societies on fossil fuels, so it’s nice in a slightly regressive sort of way that salvation in the film comes from getting behind the wheel of a speeding, out of control vintage Chevy. It also contains supporting performances by Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe, whose film careers took off, respectively, after their portrayals of an underachieving (by today’s standards) Antichrist and a deeply ambivalent Jesus of Nazareth (it’s too bad that Graham Chapman is not around to fill out the triumvirate).
The few surviving humans are hunted relentlessly by the bloodsuckers, who, to their misfortune, now make up the majority. The humans they have caught are kept comatose and hooked up to machines that extract their vital fluids, in many-tiered platforms that recall the limitless levels of dreaming pods that make up the Matrix. They are housed in a complex owned by the Bromley Marks Corporation, this fictional world’s red-dyed corn syrup version of Monsanto or Halliburton. But their supply of blood is being rapidly exhausted — there are not enough humans left in the wild to replace those that die once they are all used up. The CEO of the corporation, played by Sam Neill pushes his top scientists to develop a blood substitute that does not skimp on the iron content and preserves the metallic aftertaste, giving a grim inspirational speech in which he quotes the arch-realist William T. Sherman.
Ethan Hawke, whose moroseness is usually well done, plays Edward Dalton, the lead hematologist at the firm. Adding to his glumness is the fact that he avoids drinking human blood, taking nourishment instead from a concoction made from the blood of pigs, which would make him something of a vegan in vampire society. His work in the laboratory is made especially urgent by the fact that vampires who do not get their regular allowance of blood lapse irreversibly into a feral state, their features becoming increasingly grotesque and their behavior uncontrollably violent. These subsiders, as they are known, provide the second major threat to vampire society. The other major task of the soldiers, among whom include Frankie, Edward’s brother, in addition to hunting humans, involves remedying the problem posed by this violent underclass by wiping them out.
Daybreakers contains interesting and timely ideas. An economic system that cannot sustain itself in its present form and is in need of a radical transformation, if collapse is to be avoided. The insatiability of the desires that drive the society to its destruction. The painful ordeal involved in breaking with the existing state of affairs. It moreover contains some startlingly memorable images: a vampire blazing in flames after flying through the windshield of his car; vampires rioting at a coffee stand when they are informed that the blood content in their lattés has been reduced; a group of manacled subsiders being dragged into daylight by an armored vehicle, defiantly raging at the soldiers overseeing their extermination; the gaze of longing which a vampire father turns ominously on a picture of his runaway, still-human daughter; an orgiastic feeding frenzy that ensues when one group of vampire soldiers encounters another group that has returned to being human.
But as various reviewers and several friends have noted, the film does not manage to develop these ideas and images as fully as it might. Instead, the demands of the genre, i.e. the need for chase sequences, take up too much screen time and prevent the film from becoming a fascinating exploration of a grim and desperate world that mirrors the fears and drives of contemporary capitalist society. One missed opportunity comes about when the CEO Bromley becomes inadvertently cured of his vampirism. This moment in the film could have been the occasion for reckoning with and regret over his past actions, or for a deeper look into the fatalism that would lead an individual to reject and repudiate the cure to his affliction. Instead, the film opts for the conventional path of having Dalton and his female companion Audrey take revenge against the predatory boss.
The film’s critique of capitalism has moreover been derided as obvious and facile (“It was never about a cure. It’s about repeat business.”). For my part, I thought Daybreakers captured well the cult of choice in capitalism, when Bromley reminds his employees that artificial blood will be a product for the masses, and that they should not neglect the luxury market, as there will always be wealthy vampires willing to pay extra for real human blood. The cure to vampirism, on the other hand, has emphatically religious overtones. The accident that cures a vampire of his condition is filmed in a manner that evokes the conversion of Saul of Tarsus — a body bathed in light, after being thrown from his vehicle. The cure that Ed Dalton devises with the ex-vampire played by Willem Dafoe takes place in a vineyard. Audrey, to keep Ed from losing focus from hunger, cuts herself and compels him to drink her blood. The soldier Frankie comes to regret his career, after receiving a damning glare from a girl who has chosen to become a subsider in response to being turned into a vampire by Frankie himself. After becoming human, he gives himself to a group of ravenous soldiers, who tear and rend his body for nourishment. But unlike the lead villain, who gets dismembered after being cured, Frankie’s corpse remains miraculously whole, his arms slightly outstretched like the image of Christ offering salvation to his followers, and a peaceful expression is left on his face.
The idea that religion provides resources for countering capitalism, or least mitigates capitalism’s destructive effects on social bonds, has become more prominent in recent years as faith in political change has waned. But there is something about the resort to religion in films or other narratives that are critical of capitalism that strikes me as inadequate — it seems too easy to oppose consumer society, however vampiric, with images drawn from the religious tradition. Such imagery might bespeak, if not religious faith, then certainly a desire for religion as an alternative to a society ruled by instrumental values. The creation of a community in which human beings look after one another and which is governed by disinterested actions on behalf of the common good, however, would not be a morally relativistic one. Such a change would, for people accustomed to highly individualistic societies, would amount to a step away from what Tocqueville regarded as the “mildness” of democratic rule. Daybreakers, to its credit, does underscore the pain involved in undergoing the cure, but does not flesh out what it would mean to stumble away from this particular cave.