Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) is both like a Wim Wenders film (check out the soundtrack) and not. The film—at least till it hits the final stretch—is as quirky as anything the filmmaker ever did, but it’s a bit more playful. It’s certainly one of the more quixotic enterprises imaginable. Wenders dragged his impressive cast around the world for over a year, and handed in an original cut that ran a reported eight hours. The version that was finally released—to mixed reviews—ran 158 minutes. (There’s currently a 280-minute “director’s cut” available from Europe, which, I confess, I finally broke down and ordered after seeing the release version again.) Its length aside, the film is also one of the most fascinating films of the 1990s.
In essence, it’s a lightweight sci-fi road picture that follows its mysterious heroine, Claire (Solveig Dommartin), on an adventure that starts when she gets fed up with being stuck in traffic and leaves the main road. The rest of the world is awaiting its possible extinction from a nuclear satellite that has gone out of control and might crash into Earth at any time. Claire, as her sometimes boyfriend Eugene (Sam Neill) notes in his narration, “couldn’t care less.” First, she has an accident when a beer bottle crashes through her windshield, which leads to her falling in with the bank robbers responsible for this, agreeing to smuggle their swag (for a 30 percent cut) into Paris. This leads to her encounter with the enigmatic Trevor McPhee (William Hurt), with whom she becomes obsessed when he steals part of the stolen money.
A great deal of the film consists of the often amusing search for McPhee, who turns out to actually be a man named Sam Farber—a man with a $500,000 bounty on his head. It’s all good—and colorful and exotic—fun until … well, until the end of the world, whereupon the material takes a darker turn, though not for the reasons you might expect. Wenders’ picture is at once rather old-fashioned (like something made way before 1991) and surprisingly modern in its concerns. If anything, its themes of self-isolation are more relevant in 2007 than they seemed in 1991—or maybe it’s just that much of what Wenders fancifully envisioned has come true. On the downside, the film is a bit lumpy (with so much left on the cutting room floor, that was probably inescapable), but it’s the kind of glorious lumpiness that only comes from a great filmmaker.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke