In Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), going into a simulation is referred to as “going downstairs” while coming out is “going upstairs.”
Overview: You think you might have seen every VR-based movie, or know what to expect after watching The Matrix or Lawnmower Man for the thousandth time. Then someone points you to some rare foreign TV miniseries, and suddenly… WHOA! The Matrix doesn’t seem so original anymore, at least in terms of concept.
Transmit ACK signal to “virtual reality 91″ for mentioning this one (just needed some time to research and download). World on a Wire is a two-part TV movie originally called Welt am Draht when it first premiered in West Germany. Since then, other VR movies short and long have come and gone. While still available via file-sharing and torrent, a recently restored version has been appearing at film festivals world wide and a Blu-Ray version is set to drop this month.
The Story: At The Institute for Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung (Institute for Cybernetics and Future Sciences), or IKZ, Professor Henry Vollmer has created a simulated world containing some 8,000 “identity units”; Virtual humans not knowing that they are living in a simulation, except for the “contact unit” named Einstein who is needed to keep the simulation running. Vollmer tries to tell security chief Lause about a discovery regarding the simulation that he wants to keep secret “Because it would mean the end of this world.” Vollmer dies shortly after and Stiller takes over as the project’s technical director. At a party, Lause wants to tell Stiller what Vollmer had told him, but while Stiller is momentarily distracted Lause vanishes, and every one else suddenly has no memory of him, including Lause’s niece, Eva Vollmer. When one of the identity units tries to commit suicide it is deleted, prompting Stiller to “enter” the simulation to contact Einstein to find out why the unit tried to kill itself. When they meet again, Einstein is in Walfang’s body where he explains how he wants to be human… and how “reality” as Stiller knows it isn’t.
German Engineering. So the Simulacron computer system isn’t exactly 21st centruy, bleeding edge technology. This is a 1970’s era movie after all. So there’s no fancy gun-fu shootouts with CGI enhanced slow-motion effects, rotoscoped armor to guard against laser-edged Frisbees, or pixelated sex between Unix GUI daemons.
But Welt am Draht isn’t about fancy high tech special effects. It’s about one man’s reaction when he discovers the truth about reality… his reality, as he perceives it. We watch Stiller’s struggle to keep his sanity in a world that seems to be designed for the purpose of destroying him. A Kafkaesque nightmare encoded in silicon, and his attempt to escape it. And if he does escape, has he really escaped… or just entered a new level of the nightmare?
What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror. Then we shall see face to face.
Mirror’s edge. The main effect of the movie, especially in part one, is a shot of an image in a mirror or similar reflective surface. This gives an extra disorienting feeling as we ponder if reality really is reality, and how do they manage to get all those mirror-shots without the film crew appearing in the reflections. Low tech, highly effective.
But unless you can speak German well enough, you might miss some of the mirror-shots while trying to read the subtitles. That’s the only thing keeping this from being a perfect 10. Then again, subtitles probably would be better than dubbing that comes out as “all your wiener schnitzel are belong to us.”
Is it live? Or is it simulated?
Conclusion: From the country that gave the world cruise and ballistic missiles, Fahrvergnügen, and Kraftwerk, Germany shows that they can come up with some inventive… and scary… technology. Welt am Draht is one of those rare pre-cyberpunk cyberpunk movies that needs to be seen to be believed. Especially when more recent films have aped the idea of VR with high-end graphic trickery, this one is enough proof that high-end does not mean high-quality.
Authors: Dan O’Bannon & Jean “Moebius” Giraud (Illustrator)
Year: First appeared in Metal Hurlant, 1976
Category: Cyberpunk Books; Graphic Novels; Proto-Cyberpunk Media
Another piece of the proto-cyberpunk puzzle is found. So far, proto-cyberpunk media has dealt more with the themes of cyberpunk. But what about the look, that Blade Runner-esque future with stratosphere busting skyscrapers and flying cars? Did Ridley Scott have that vision in his head all along?
As it turns out, there was a major influence that would spark the future visions of Scott and Gibson: A short comic about a private eye (or “nose” as the main character called himself) who is hired to retrieve a package. The story itself isn’t much (too short to call it a novel), but the artwork is what influenced Scott and Gibson.
(From Blade Runner Movie site) “Years later, I was having lunch with Ridley, and when the conversation turned to inspiration, we were both very clear about our debt to the Metal Hurlant [the original Heavy Metal magazine] school of the ’70s–Moebius and the others. “
Problem: Metropolis had these city scenes some fifty years earlier! Did Gibson and Scott ever see Metropolis? Apparently not, since they give their props to Moebius:
“So it’s entirely fair to say, and I’ve said it before, that the way Neuromancer-the-novel “looks” was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in ‘Heavy Metal’. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’, Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’”, and all other artefacts of the style sometimes dubbed ‘cyberpunk’. Those French guys, they got their end in early.”
Fritz Lang and the Germans beg to differ.
My advice: Check both out and see who had the future first.
The bots are back in the official “unofficial” sequel to Westworld. Actually, the makers, American International Pictures, was bought up by Filmways, which was bought up by Orion Pictures, which was bought up by MGM, who made Westworld.
Overview: The idea of making a (crappy) sequel to a popular movie isn’t exactly new, as Futureworld will show. As the now “official” sequel to Westworld,Futureworld tried to take the storyline into a new (some would say “misguided”) direction by answering the big unanswered question: Why did the robots suddenly turn on the human guests of Delos?
I managed to catch this on Reelz a few weeks back. I’ve been looking for a DVD for some time as well, but this rare film is… well… rare. I resorted to torrenting it to give you this review. I’ll keep on searching for it.
The Story: Reporter Chuck Browning (Fonda), who first reported the Westworld fiasco, gets a phone call from a person who says he has important information. When they meet, the contact dies, but uses his last breath to say why he needed to contact Browning… “Delos.”
The Delos Amusement Park is now set to reopen after two years and some $1 billion in “improvements,” and want Browning and fellow reporter Tracy Ballard (Danner) to visit the park and report on the improvements to show that it is now safe. Among the improvements made are the abandonment of Westworld in favor of the space adventure “Future world.” Browning soon discovers that the park has a more sinister operation behind it than just entertainment.
Another moment in cinematic history: Just as Westworld was the first to use 2D CGI, Futureworld is the first to use 3D CGI. The hand on the monitor is the first example.
A Gunslinger’s last stand.
Ballard gets to try out a brain-wave scanner. This is where we see Yul Brenner in his last movie role before his death in 1985. Meanwhile, Browning is watching it all through a scanner.
An unanswered question is answered. And now, the answer to the million dollar question: Why did the robots go screwloose and kill everyone in Delos?
Somehow, the robots were learning through their contact with the guests, and what they learn is that humans are a threat not only to them (the robots), but to the the planet as a whole:
“The human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal. All our probability studies indicate that, if left alone, you will destroy much of this planet before the end of the decade. We at Delos are determined to see that doesn’t happen. We don’t intend to be destroyed by your mistakes.”
To stop the humans, the robots came up with a plan:
Invite the world’s “elite”… the rich, the famous, the powerful and influential… to visit Delos park.
Drug the guest’s meals and measure and sample their inert bodies.
Create clone “duplicates.”
Program the duplicates to act on behalf of Delos.
Have the duplicates kill the guests.
Send the duplicates out into the world to work on behalf of Delos.
WORLD DOMINATION! (Why not? They already run Delos.)
But, is it cyberpunk? Like Westworld,Futureworld was made before anyone ever coined the word, so they could not have made this cyberpunk… at least not on purpose. The visuals aren’t there (even the access tunnels are brighter and cleaner than what one would expect), there are no hackers or underground resistors, and there’s no word on the state of the world in the movie other than the above mentioned probability studies. The added themes of corporate control (Delos’s plan) and the robots running the show do push Futureworld closer to being cyberpunk, but not totally into that arena.
Conclusion. Since its release, Futureworld has had a rather hard-knocked life of being constantly panned by critics (Rotten Tomatoes gives it only a 33% “Rotten” rating), some see it as a worthy sequel to Westworld. At least, it was worthy enough to attempt a television series, Beyond Westworld. I sort of liked it, but you may feel differently, depending on how you see ‘unofficial’ sequels.
Spring must be around the corner. I can hear the birds… flipping.
Feeling burned out from net surfing? Has the grind of cyberpunk turned you cortex to pudding? BOY HAVE WE GOT A VACATION FOR YOU! Come on down to Delos Amusement Park and play with our robots that have been programmed with your safety and enjoyment in mind. NOTHING CAN PUSSIB… POBABAB… POSSIBLY GO WORNG!
With Michael Crichton’s death earlier this month (04-Nov-2008), I’d thought I’d review one of his most classic movies because of its influence on cyberpunk. Though mostly known for his books-turned-movies like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain and the television series ER, he has also written and directed several movies including Looker and Runaway.
Westworld primarily focuses on the theme of technology run amok, and very little… if anything… on the rest. Crichton’s theme-park-gone-fubar plot would be repeated in Jurassic Park, while the idea of robots gone berserk would appear a decade later in a low-budget piece featuring a then unknown Austrian muscle man, and in some other cyberpunk flicks since.
Murphy’s law in action. Delos Amusement Park is a near-futuristic adult playground divided into three areas corresponding to different time periods in world history; RomanWorld, MedievalWorld, and the titular WestWorld (briefly refered to as WesternWorld during an orientation video.
John Blaine (Brolin) is returning to WestWorld and brings his friend, Peter Martin, along to experience the six-shooting action where a Yul Brynner robot gunslinger is the main attraction. Things go smoothly… for a while. In the underground control centers, the park technicians notice that robot “malfunctions” are becoming more severe, until a guest is killed in MedievalWorld. Then they realize that even in a place where nothing can possibly go wrong, everything can go wrong.
The Three Laws revisited. While cyberpunk themes are lacking, there is a definite play on Asimov’s Three Laws at work. The First Law (protect humans) is obvious with The Gunslinger, who must always lose the duels he starts. The guns also enforce The First Law with sensors that disable firing when it senses it is pointed at a human.
The Second Law (obey humans) is seen in WestWorld’s whorehouses and MedievalWorld’s slave girls, who are programmed to comply with sexual advances of the guests. When a MedievalWorld slave girl rejects such a request, the technicians begin to suspect that things are about to take a turn for the worst.
The Third Law (protect self) is a bit harder to detect. The robots are programmed to put up a fight and will defend themselves… to a certain degree, but will always allow themselves to be beaten by the guests (again, The Gunslinger).
The Gunslinger gets a facelift… and some new optics.
OK, so why not cyberpunk? Other than being released before Bruce Bethke invented the word, what other factors keep Westworld from being a true cyberpunk movie? For one thing, we don’t see much of the world outside the park other than the opening minutes in the hovercraft lounge, so we don’t know what state the world is in. Then again, if average-looking schmoes (for the 70’s anyway) like Blaine and Martin can afford a grand a day to play with robots, the world can’t be in that bad of shape.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the “not cyberpunk” tag is the biggest weakness in the movie: The question of “Why did the robots go screw-loose?” is never answered. Bad software? Hardware flaw? “Outside” influences? If the question had been answered in this movie, it could have been a true cyberpunk movie… at least, its star rating would have been higher.
A moment in cinematic history: This chase scene is the first use of computer generated images (CGI) in a movie. Primitive by today’s standards, but groundbreaking for 1973.
“First we had the legs race. Then we had the arms race. Now we’re going to have the brain race. And, if we’re lucky, the final stage will be the human race.” - Angus Porter
Cyberpunk before cyberpunk. Before the word was ever coined, John Brunner created a world so close to what we now consider to be ‘cyberpunk’ that it needed to be read to be believed. It has a computer network that virtually… and literally… permeates American society, while secret government projects try to squeeze the best minds for all their knowledge to try to monitor a society uprooted by a massive west-coast earthquake. About all that’s missing are the cybernetic implants, although there are bio-engineered people and animals that seem to behave almost human.
What you have is THEE definitive blueprint of cyberpunk, even though nobody knew it for another decade.
Synopsis: The Pacific coast finally experiences “The BIG One” that kills millions and displaces millions more leaving them with nothing to live on except welfare. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation is experiencing their own kind of “overload” as varying levels of data access has left some without a permanent residence while the “privileged” live in their own kind of haven. To help cope (or, more like, to exploit) this flux, the US Government, under control of criminal elements, began programs to identify potentially “gifted” students to cultivate their “wisdom” to further the Government’s cause.
Nicholas Kenton “Nickie” Haflinger is the product of this program. His talents were being wasted in a failed education system where intelligence made you a target of gang violence. At the novel’s start, Nickie is back at his old academy at Tarnover where he is about to undergo a form of interrogation where his memories are replayed on a data-analysis system while he is unconscious. When Nickie was awake, he was subjected to further questioning and moral arguments with Paul T. Freeman, who is another of the program’s “graduates” from a place called “The Electric Skillet.”
Between the regression flashbacks and the moral point/counterpoints, we see how Nickie managed to elude the authorities while making a living (several, actually) using the skills he learned at Tarnover… and why he ran away to begin with.
Now for the good stuff! So, how did Nickie manage to elude capture for so long? Among his skill-set is the ability to program the data-net using nothing more than a touch-tone phone (PHREAKY!). That, and a high-level access code he stole. With these tools, Nickie was able able to quickly change identities to avoid being captured by creating… wait for it…
That’s right, worms! Those self-propagating programs that hog bandwidth are the result of this book. Nickie programmed his worms to erase all traces of his old identity and to create new ones when needed. He also creates a “super worm” that discloses information that the government has been trying to keep secret.
Another proto-cyberpunk classic for your bookshelf. Make some space next to True Names in your library. The Shockwave Rider is a book that must be in your collection.
In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for–the stories go–once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer’s true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again.
This opening paragraph pretty much describes the premise of True Names. This novella, released three years before Neuromancer, gives us a cyberspace adventure that has influenced many a cyberpunk writer… possibly even Gibson himself.
Synopsis: Roger Pollack is a computer wizard who frequents the “Other Plane” as “Mr. Slippery” and has other wizard friends whose “true names” are kept secret, even from each other. He is confronted by agents of “The Great Adversary” (The US Government) who has reason to believe that another wizard named “The Mailman” is recruiting other wizards for some type of coup on the net that can lead to control of reality.
Everything you’d expect from cyberpunk… and then some. The “Other Plane” connects to many nets, nodes, and databases. Anyone who has the ability to connect and control them can become a virtual god, and when Mr. Slippery finds out who… or what… The Mailman is, you’ll understand why this novella is definitely cyberpunk.
Don’t believe me? Read it online. (BIG ACK signal to “The Rectifier,” though I have yet to find the zip file he mentions.) You can still find the story for sale by itself, mostly online, or as part of a collection like True Names & Other Dangers and True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier.
Overview: Most people probably think cyberpunk started in US in the early 80s. I say it started in Germany in 1927. Metropolis all but disapeared after its initial release, but slowly gained a following in drops and drabs, and then with the early 80s restorations, it began to truly take hold in the minds of most as something special in movie making history. Is it a coincidence that Metropolis gained prominence right around the same time as the cyberpunk movement took hold? I think not. If you’re interested in seeing the first movie with replicants, use of computers, cybernetic body parts, full corporate control over society, a robust underground, and a massively negative impact of technology on society, look no further than Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. You think not? Hopefully my review will sway your opinion.
The Story: Metropolis takes place in an extreme dystopic future where a society is clearly divided into the workers and the elite. The elite live above ground in this truly wonderful city called Metropolis that has gardens, fascinating architectures, advanced transport systems and sinful night clubs. The workers live underground, in a dreary non-distinct, undifferentiated set of buildings. Their whole existence centers around keeping the machinery going that powers Metropolis.
Johhan Fredersen, the corporate CEO, does not see the workers as people, but instead sees them as no more than specialized parts in his grand, clockwork-like machinery. This point is struck home in that the workers life is organized in 10 hour shifts. They work 10 hours on, than have 10 hours off. In other words, their sense of time is not dictated by night and day as it is in metropolis - they live underground so they rarely if ever see the sun. Their time and life is fully guided by the needs of the machinery - the 20 hour days ensure they are fully disconnected from anything natural.
In this world, the son of the corporate CEO (Johhan), Freder, accidentally is exposed to and falls in love with Maria, a woman who has made it her mission to give hope to the working class. Freder takes the role as a working class member and pursues her down to the underground city and takes the role of working class member. While there, he works a grueling 10 hour shift in the factory, and begins to understand the inhumane way they are treated. He later attends a secret meeting in the catacombs where Maria is giving hope to the working class through spreading the word of peace and Christianity.
Unfortunately, Johhan finds out about this worker uniting, and wants to stop it. He does so by enlisting the aid of a mad scientist named C.A. Rotwang. Johhan asks Rotwang to create a replicant of Maria and schemes to replace her in order to incite the workers into revolt so that Johhan can crush the leaders. The story progresses from here, but the short of it involves betrayal, romance, action and suspense.
Futuristic Thoughts: While Metropolis was made prior to the computer age, its interesting that the idea of gauges and governors for machines, and a central machine that combines all the inputs and provides it to the executive is already envisioned. A never ending stream of information is sent to a control panel in Johhan’s wall that gives him a constant stock market-like update of the status of the machine. Additionally, Johhan has instant access to anywhere on the job floor by a videophone. In short, Johhan has instant access to the workings of his machine whenever he wants.
Cyberpunk Visualized: The Replicant C.A. Rotwang modifies to turn into Maria required that the real maria be captured so that her “essence” could be transferred to the robot. By a process unexplained, the robot then has its outside appearance modified to “become” a replicant of Maria. This, in essence, is the precursor to the storyline in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, where real humans have their ghosts copied and transferred to android dolls. Because Maria’s “ghost” has been replicated into this android, the evil android Maria exudes sexual energy to the point that she instantly enchants the entire worker city and incites them to rebellion.
In this scene above, we see that energy and information are almost synonymous. Maria’s ghosted soul is being transferred into the evil Maria android. And here all this time, I mistakenly thought Frankenstein originated this look! Truly, C.A. Rotwang’s laboratory would have worked perfectly for Dr. Frankenstein.
C.A. Rotwang, the evil scientist, has a prosthetic hand that functions as a real hand. He has effectively merged his machinery with the human mind to allow it to function as a part of him. While the word cybernetic body part has not yet been invented yet, the implication is clear - in Metropolis, where machines dominate all aspects of life, it is indeed possible to replace body parts with cyborg limbs.
In short, Metropolis portrays a technology-driven culture that devalues and devolves the humanity of the workers, while at the same time, allows the elite to lead perverse and sinful lives. The technology strips us of our humanity both in removing us from a natural existence, integrating us as replaceable parts in a machine, and even allows us to replace people with Replicants!
The Bottom Line: So OK, fine, its possible to look at Metropolis as a cyberpunk film. So why watch it? Answer - because its a terrific movie! If you get the Kino version (you MUST!!! the other cheaper versions don’t follow Lang’s script), you will be viewing a masterpiece of early cinema. Metropolis has replaced Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928) as my favorite silent movie. And truly, its influence on the cyberpunk movie genre is surpassed by only one film. If you get this, you won’t be disapointed.