The 73rd Virgin says... The audacity of rope; that is, having enough to hang yourself.
Coming off the huge success of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders managed to attract musical giants like REM, Robbie Robertson, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson to lend songs to the soundtrack, and U2 contributes the impressionist roar of the title song. Add to that William Hurt, Sam Neill, Max Von Sydow, the dowager queen of French cinema Jeanne Moreau, Lois Chiles, Wender veterans Rudiger Volger and Solveig Dommartin and you can see the clout on display.
The clout didn’t last, thanks mainly to this. The estimated cost was $23 million in '91, and the reported US gross was under $800,000. Wender's first rough cut was reportedly 20 hours long. He then compromised mightily and got it down to 8. There is a 5-hour VHS version out there somewhere. This one on Amazon's streaming service is rather long at 158 minutes. You can detect a problem almost instantly as Sam Neill provides the voice over narration that will be required to keep the audience on track should we care to be so kept. With the possible exception of “Apocalypse Now” and “Casino”, narration is only useful as a way to describe a particular character's, or the audience's, attitude. If it is used to move the story, run for the exits.
But, there being no enticing exit from my living room on a Saturday afternoon, I stayed, and indeed there are a few things to like here. Set in the only slightly amusing future of 1999, Wender's story visualizes GPSs, bounty hunters who use something like internet identity searches, Skype video phones on airplanes, online credit ratings, hand-held high def video camcorders, moving holograms (of clocks showing times around the world – how interesting is that?). Here, we see the various software in action including the charming Russian "bounty bear" - and the wearying narration.
Notice the faked monument to the Tienanmen square massacre pasted into this video from Beijing - and the wearying narration.
And the broadly science fiction plot of a camcorder that allows the wearer to record images that will later be interpreted by a computer and transmitted to the optic nerve of the blind is at least interesting. It also leads to a few truly artsy moments when your screen is handed over to beautiful interpretive hi-def images to imitate what the blind person is seeing. Nice. Here Moreau sees her daughter and granddaughter for the first time.
There is also something big-hearted and goofy about a movie that decides to damn the torpedoes and take us from France to Italy to Portugal to Germany, then across Russia and China to Japan, then San Francisco, finally to the Australian outback where we find Von Sydow and Moreau and a bunch of aboriginal scientists in a styrofoam underground lab.
On the down side there is Wender's loss of focus on an actual story. This always happens. It's endearing in many of his moodier, shorter, and more “aggressively boring” (Stephen Schiff's term) movies, but it doesn't fit with a heist caper, a science fiction flick, a love story, an apocalyptic road movie, or any of the other things this one tries to be. When he does focus, it gets a little bland. The American government, of course, wants to confiscate the camera for espionage, and there is the vague threat of a malfunctioning nuclear-tipped Indian satellite weapon that might detonate in the atmosphere and cause a mass response by other nuclear weapons in space and “end the world”. The Americans, again of course, are threatening to shoot it down, thus ensuring the worst possible outcome.
Even more on the down side is, strangely, the acting. Or perhaps the direction of same. Several scenes just don't seem well rehearsed. Bad sound, clumsy - maybe ad-libbed - dialogue, some uncomfortable glances between actors all show up here and there. I've always thought Hurt was pretty good, at least in modern roles, if not in Robin Hood. I even thought he was pretty good in Lost In Space. Here as international man of mystery Trevor McPhee or Sam Farber, he is indescribably off his game, sounding either like he's reading lines off a wall or thrashing around in a very actorly fashion - and, of course, the wearying narration.
Neill escapes with his reputation, Von Sydow can read a laundry list with authority, and the French gangsters are a humorous breath of fresh air. Finally, the delightfully named Ernie Dingo shows up as an aborigine bounty hunter named Burt. He's pretty funny.
After many, many, many minutes of Sturm und Drang over whether the video images will be effectively transmitted to the intended recipient, the plot morphs yet again as Von Sydow begins using the camera to record dreams which causes a kind of addiction to one's own dreams, and gives us the unintended hilarity of poor Dommartin crying hysterically while the fatherly Neill makes her go cold turkey by refusing to replace her video player batteries. Maybe it was a joke on Wender's part and I just didn't catch it as it crawled by. About this time my wife wanders through and remembers seeing this maybe 18 years ago and sums it up by saying, “Oh God, THIS movie! Oh God, it is so effing weird.” No truer words...
Spoiler Alert!! Then it ends, yet again, as a kind of outer space eco-fantasy, as one of our characters floats over the ocean looking for “pollution” and the others sing Happy Birthday over video monitors like a modern-day Go To Meeting commercial – aaaaaaand roll credits and crank up the U2.
Wow. Just wow. As with most Wenders movies, words fail. But this time, not in a good way.