Questioning Reality With 'World on a Wire' and 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

In 1999, The Matrix wowed audiences with its action, its futuristic look, and its vision of the world as a controlling digital construct put in place by a superior power. If critics and viewers failed to make the connection between the Wachowski brothers' film and one that predated/presaged it by decades, that's not surprising. Almost no one had seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder's three-and-a-half-hour World on a Wire since its initial run on German television in 1973. Now the Criterion Collection brings Fassbinder's visionary epic to home video for the first time ever via sterling new DVD and Blu-ray editions (and Hulu streaming).

There is nothing quite so quaint as a past vision of the future, and Fassbinder's film hails from the days when filmmakers looking to wax futuristic simply hauled their cameras over to the newest building in town and shot their characters amid the modernist glass and bright orange amoebic chairs. But despite the garish, faintly ridiculous look—robot helmets, Corvettes, etc.—Fassbinder's adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye's novel Simulacron-3 entrances.

In the world of World on a Wire, a tech firm has created a simulated world inside a computer, full of thousands of tiny artificially intelligent "identity units" who believe they and their world are real, and plans to use it to predict societal trends. But project manager Vollmer (Adrian Hover) suddenly dies, then security head Lause (Ivan Desny) disappears. Vollmer's friend and colleague Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) takes over the project, known as Simulacron, just as one of the identity units commits suicide. Journeying into the simulation itself (styled a bit like an old hotel lobby), Stiller meets Einstein (Gottfried John), the real world's point of contact with the simulated world and the only identity unit who knows that the latter isn't real. Einstein, it turns out, is desperate to escape "up"—as one of Stiller's colleagues puts it, "No one can stand to know they're artificial." What Stiller learns, and comes to suspect, plunges him into a conspiracy that puts him on the run and winds up threatening his life and his sanity.

World on a Wire plays like a draft from the beginning of the age in which the capabilities of new tech began to inspire epistemological uncertainty about life in the machine age. Fassbinder's version of this idea stands out from its rudimentary materials thanks to its sociopolitical aspect: The conspiracy Stiller finds himself facing involves the government and a big steel company that wants access to Simulacron's prognostications—a conspiracy theory more depressingly plausible than a vast AI ruse, and far better suited for Fassbinder's savage swipes. While there are aspects of World on a Wire that suffer in their execution—Löwitsch and Fassbinder deliver perhaps the most inept escaping-from-an-imminent-explosion sequence in cinema history—it's worth seeing for the legendary director's take on his material, from the budget opulence and saturated colors to the 360-degree pans and 300-degree circular tracking shots. Fassbinder makes nearly every frame count, using shiny surfaces, refractions, and endless mirrors to visually reinforce the themes of doubling and distortion, and, as always, he serves up plenty of visual wit (a mynah bird, one of nature's natural-born fakers, makes an appearance at a critical point). Fassbinder was stuck in the '70s here and didn't live out the '80s, but he was clearly way ahead of his time.

A very different set of alternate realities lie at the heart of writer/director Sean Durkin's 2011 film Martha Marcy May Marlene (20th Century Fox DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming). The setting is the present, though it's split in two. The film cuts back and forth in place and time between a remote farm where Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) lives in a quasi commune with other young women and a few young men, all watched over by patriarch Patrick (John Hawkes), and the luxe lakeside vacation home of Martha's older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), where Martha flees after leaving the farm. As Durkin's twin narrative moves forward, it becomes clear that life on the farm isn't quite as bucolic as it might seem, and that Martha's behavior, which at first strikes Lucy and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) as slacker eccentricity and ingratitude, signals a deeper disturbance. Slowly, ever obliquely, more and more is revealed about the family circumstances that led Martha to the farm, and that led her to leave it, as, slowly, ever obliquely, the film's two narrative worlds draw together.

MMMM won deafening buzz coming off the festival circuit thanks in large part to Olsen's performance, and she deserves the hype. It no doubt helps that she's an unknown, but it's hard to imagine any actress at any level topping her clear-eyed vacancy or subtly rising panic. At the same time, Durkin deserves every bit as much praise, both for the film's construction and for its execution, e.g. his crafty use of shallow focus to make the rest of the world around Martha seem as unreal to us as it is to her. Some grump about MMMM's ambiguous ending, but if you've been paying attention to Martha's two worlds, you know all you need to about what is likely to happen when they finally merge.