A novelist named Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill) recounts in dispassionate voiceover that in 1999, an Indian nuclear-powered satellite had fallen from its designated Earth orbit, setting the spacecraft on a steadfast, but indeterminate trajectory towards an inevitable impact with the planet. Areas that were identified as potential impact sites experienced mass exodus, causing people to aggregate in populational hubs throughout discrete, safe zone cities around the world. Meanwhile, the American government is determined to execute its plan to deploy a ground-based missile defense system that will intercept the satellite before it reaches Earth’s atmosphere, despite strong opposition from the United Nations council – a unilateral proposal that some experts believe will register a false atomic detection alarm on the automated defense mechanisms of several countries and will unwittingly trigger a worldwide nuclear holocaust. It is in these days of turn-of-the-century doomsday prophecy, cosmic impact, and threat of nuclear annihilation that Eugene’s estranged lover, an aimless pop singer named Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) decided one afternoon to take a detour through the French countryside in order to avoid a traffic jam, where a collision with an automobile driven by a careless, eccentric bank robber, Chico, leads to an unexpected financial windfall and an intriguing encounter with a pensive and seductive employee from a scientific research foundation who goes by the alias Trevor McPhee (William Hurt). Wanted for industrial espionage in the theft of a prototype imager that had been developed by his father, Dr. Henry Farber (Max von Sydow) – a device that simultaneously records brainwaves and therefore, can be used to synthetically replicate and translate visual images for blind people, in particular, his mother Edith (Jeanne Moreau) who had been without sight since childhood – Trevor has been involved in a protracted international chase with unidentified bounty hunters eager to apprehend him, retrieve the camera, and collect on the large reward offered for his capture. With his financial resources running dry, the resourceful Trevor seizes the opportunity to help himself to Claire’s newly found wealth as she takes a nap in her half-repaired automobile during a cross-country trip back to Paris. Returning home only to acknowledge that their relationship has been irreparably damaged by Eugene’s admitted affair, Claire soon leaves him to carve out a new life on her own, a destiny that she becomes increasingly convinced is inextricably bound to her guardianship of – and complete devotion to – the charismatic, transcontinental fugitive.
Wim Wenders creates a visually and thematically epic, resonantly lyrical and texturally organic meditation on connection, communication, images, and the meaning of human sight in Until the End of the World. Unfolding in loosely threaded but interconnected stream-of-consciousness parts of an overarching narrative trilogy, the film innately reflects the intertextuality of images in the creative process, from Eugene’s invocation of personal observations and experiences into the drafts of his fictional novels to the filmmaker’s own subconscious, underlying preoccupation on the moral, artistic, and spiritual impetus for his craft. The first part, which revolves around the revelation of Trevor’s true identity, becomes a metaphoric deconstruction of the created image: the breakdown of illusion (note Claire’s continued donning of a Cleopatra wig even as she seeks to “find” herself in Venice after her breakup with Eugene. The second part, which appropriately opens to Claire’s assisted flight of a blinded Trevor to a rural mountainside inn in Japan (in memorable appearances by frequent Yasujiro Ozu actors, Chishu Ryu and Kuniko Miyake), illustrates the translation of images – the internal process of recollection (and reproduction) of sensorial data – into the formulation of personal memory. Note the aboriginal tribal elder’s methodical chant that serves as an oral transmission of human history and a people’s collective consciousness of their ancestral land. The third part, initially framed in the backdrop of complete geographic and telecommunicational isolation, represents the process of cognition – the assignment of meaning into the experience of images – a personal assimilation into human consciousness that enables introspection and lucidity that can lead to nostalgia, disillusionment, myopia, and madness. It is this deceptive seduction for the search of hidden truth beneath the reflexive clarity of images that is reflected in Eugene’s world-weary sentiment, “I had always cherished the beginning of the Gospel According to John, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ I was now afraid that the Apocalypse would read, ‘In the end, there were only images’. I didn’t know the cure for the disease of images.” In the end, it is not the transmission of the aesthetic, but the underlying mechanism for universal understanding through images – the primeval, transcending medium of communication – that unifies, and ultimately redeems the humanity of a lost, foundering, and reckless world.
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