ICFIFC: World On A Wire (1973)

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Monday, August 12, 2013

ICFIFC: World On A Wire (1973)

Simulacron-3 (1964) (also published as Counterfeit World), by Daniel F. Galouye, is an American science fiction novel featuring an early literary description of virtual reality.

Simulacron 3 is the story of a virtual city (total environment simulator) for marketing research, developed by a scientist to reduce the need for opinion polls.  The computer-generated city simulation is so well-programmed, that, although the inhabitants have their own consciousness, they are unaware, except for one, that they are only electronic impulses in a computer.

The simulator’s lead scientist, Hannon Fuller, dies mysteriously, and a co-worker, Morton Lynch, vanishes.  The protagonist, Douglas Hall, is with Lynch when he vanishes, and Hall subsequently struggles to suppress his inchoate madness.  As time and events unwind, he progressively grasps that his own world is probably not “real” and might be only a computer-generated simulation.

Symbolically, the title term "Simulacron-3" refers to the just-built virtual reality simulator and ostensibly references a third attempt at "simulectronics" (the reality-simulating technology), however, the "3" also refers to the novel’s three levels of "reality," or three levels of computer simulation — if the final, "real" world is simulated. Moreover, "simulacron" is closely derivative of simulacrum, a superficial image representing a non-existent original.

In writing, the Frederick Pohl short story "The Tunnel under the World" (1955) deals with like philosophic themes and satirical criticism of marketing research, although in Pohl's story the described simulated reality is mechanical, an intricate scale-model whose inhabitants’ consciousnesses reside in a computer, rather than being solely electronic.  The Philip K. Dick story “Time Out of Joint” (1959) presents a man who is unaware that he is living his life in a physically simulated town until changes in his (apparent) reality begin to manifest themselves.

In film, Dark City (1998) pictured a population unknowingly living in a physical simulation of an American city under the control of a mysterious group of entities called the "Strangers", whose goal seemed to be the study of human motivation and psychology.  The Matrix (1999) described a world whose population is unaware that the world containing their minds is a virtual reality simulacrum.

The novel has been adapted twice into other media, first as the two-part German television film Welt am Draht (1973) (World on a Wire), by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, "staying reasonably faithful to Galouye’s book," and as The Thirteenth Floor (1999) directed by Josef Rusnak.


World on a Wire (1973)

  • Directed: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • Produced: Peter Märthesheimer, Alexander Wesemann
  • Screenplay: Daniel F. Galouye, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • Starring: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Günter Lamprecht, Ulli Lommel
  • Music: Gottfried Hüngsberg
  • Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus, Ulrich Prinz
  • Editing: Ursula Elles, Marie Anne Gerhardt
  • Distributed: Janus Films
  • Release date:
    • 1973 (German TV) 
    • February 21, 2012 (USA DVD)
  • Running time: 205 min. (100 min./105 min.)
  • Country: West Germany
  • Language:
    • German 
    • English Subtitles

At the institute for cybernetics and future science ("Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung, IKZ"), a new supercomputer hosts a simulation program that includes an artificial world with over 9,000 "identity units" who live as human beings, unaware that their world is just a simulacron.  Professor Vollmer, who is technical director of the program, is apparently on the verge of an incredible secret discovery.  He becomes increasingly agitated and anti-social before dying in a mysterious accident.  His successor, Dr. Fred Stiller, has a discussion with Günther Lause, the security adviser of the institute, when the latter suddenly disappears without trace, before passing on Vollmer's secret to Stiller.  More mysterious still is the fact that none of the other IKZ employees seem to have any memory of Lause.

Meanwhile, one of the identity units in the simulation attempts suicide.  This unit is deleted by Stiller's colleague Walfang, to keep the simulation stable.  To investigate the reasons for the suicide, Stiller contacts the contact unit of the simulated world.  The unit, called Einstein, is the only identity unit who knows about the simulation, and this is necessary to run the program.  In an attempt to become a real person, Einstein switches his mind into Walfang's body while the latter is in contact with the simulated world.  Einstein gives Stiller an explanation for the mysteries, vanishing memories, and vanishing persons.  He tells him that the real world is nothing else but a simulation of a real world one level above.

This knowledge causes Stiller to slip into insanity.  The other "real" people interrogate Stiller, and he is threatened with death, incarceration, and involuntary commitment.  Stiller is finally able to convince Hahn, the IKZ psychologist, of his theory.  The latter soon dies in an accident that is pinned on Stiller, marking him as the suspected murderer of both Hahn and Vollmer.

Stiller flees and searches for the necessary contact unit who can connect the "real" world with the real world a level above.  He survives several assassination attempts and discovers the contact is Eva, Vollmer's daughter, with whom he had once had a romance.  Eva tells him he was modeled on the real Fred Stiller, a person whom Eva loved, but became mad with power from directing the simulation in the world above.  While Stiller is programmed to die in an ambush, Eva switches the minds of the two Stillers and brings the simulated Stiller into the real world.

The story is set in the early 1970s.  Its focus is not on action but on sophistic and philosophic aspects of human mind, simulation, and dealing with scientific research and its benefits.

For some time, the film was only available on the Internet via file-sharing communities.  However, a completely restored version was shown at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.  It was also released on Region 2 DVD by Kinowelt/Arthaus as part of the Arthaus premium series and by Second Sight in the UK.  It has since screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, New York's Museum of Modern Art, Rochester, NY's Dryden Theatre, the Harvard Film Archive, San Francisco's Roxie, the Cleveland Cinematheque, Nashville's Belcourt Theatre, the University of Colorado at Boulder's International Film Series, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010 and 2011.

It was released on Blu-ray and two-disc DVD by The Criterion Collection in February 2012.


The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

  • Directed: Josef Rusnak
  • Produced: Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, Marco Weber
  • Screenplay: Josef Rusnak, Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez
  • Starring: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Shiri Appleby
  • Music: Harald Kloser
  • Cinematography: Wedigo von Schultzendorff
  • Editing: Henry Richardson
  • Studio: Centropolis Entertainment
  • Distributed: Columbia Pictures
  • Release date:
    • April 16, 1999 (Denmark)
    • May 28, 1999 (United States)
    • November 25, 1999(Germany)
  • Running time: 100 minutes
  • Country: United States, Germany
  • Language: English

In late 1990s Los Angeles, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) owns a multi-billion-dollar computer enterprise, and is the inventor of a newly-completed virtual reality (VR) simulation of 1937 Los Angeles, filled with simulated humans unaware they are computer programs.  When Fuller is murdered just as he begins premature testing of the VR system, his friend and protégé, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) who is also the heir to the company, becomes the primary suspect.  The evidence against him is so strong that Hall begins to doubt his own innocence.

Between interrogations by LAPD Detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert), Hall meets Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol), the estranged daughter of Hannon Fuller, who is busy with the shutdown of the new VR system.  Hall romances her.  When a local bartender claims to have witnessed a meeting between Hall and Fuller on the night Fuller was murdered, Hall is arrested.  He is released when Jane gives him an alibi.  The bartender is later murdered.

With the assistance of his associate Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio), Hall attempts to find a message that Fuller left for him inside the simulation.  Entering the virtual reality, Hall becomes a banker named John Ferguson.  Fuller left the message with a bartender named Jerry Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio), who read the message and discovered he is an artificial creation.  Frightened and angry, Ashton tries to kill Hall. Hall barely survives to escape the virtual reality.

Now unable to find Jane, Hall discovers her double, Natasha Molinaro, working as a grocery store clerk — but Molinaro does not recognize Hall.  This leads Hall to perform an experiment outside the VR system, something that Fuller’s letter instructed him to try: drive to a place where he never would have considered going otherwise.  He does so, and discovers a place that resembles a wireframe model.  Hall grasps the truth, the meaning of Fuller's message: 1990s Los Angeles is itself a simulation.

Jane Fuller explains to Hall the truth: his world is one of thousands of virtual worlds, but it is the only one in which one of the occupants has developed a virtual world of its own.  Jane Fuller lives in the real world outside the 1990s simulation, and only entered the virtual version to assume the role of her simulation, gain control of her father's company in that simulation, and shut down the simulated 1937 reality.  The virtual Hall is modeled after David, Jane’s real-world husband.  It was David who committed the murders via Hall’s body, being driven to jealousy when Jane fell in love with the Hall character.

Whitney enters the 1937 simulation, assuming the body of bartender Jerry Ashton, who has kidnapped Ferguson (Hall’s 1937 identity) and bound him in the trunk of his car.  When Whitney is killed in a car crash inside the 1937 simulation, Ashton’s consciousness takes control of Whitney’s body in the 1990s simulation and takes Hall hostage.  David assumes control of Hall again to kill Ashton, and then attempts to rape and murder Jane.  Jane is rescued by Det. McBain, who shoots and kills David.  McBain at this point has realized the nature of his own reality, and jokingly asks Jane "So, is somebody going to unplug me now?"  She answers "no", so McBain follows with the request "Look, do me a favor, when you get back to wherever it is you come from, just leave us the hell alone down here, okay?"

David's death as Hall in the 1990s simulation allows Hall’s artificial consciousness to take control of David’s body in the real world.  He wakes in 2024, connected by a device to the VR system.  He disconnects the system and finds Jane and her father, the real Hannon Fuller.  Jane wants to tell Hall more about the simulation, but as she begins the film ends, the screen image turning black like a computer monitor being turned off.


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