Home CultureMovies Until the End of the World is an Underrated Cyberpunk Road-Trip Masterpiece

Until the End of the World is an Underrated Cyberpunk Road-Trip Masterpiece

by Carlos Esteves
Until the End of The World

Cyberpunk is a very visual genre. Because we live in a technologically advanced society we can “see” the future. Movies permeate our culture, and there are some great cyberpunk movies out there. Akira, Until the End of the World, Blade Runner, and the absolutely seminal Max Headroom, are only a few.

Mike Pondsmith, Author of role playing game Cyberpunk 2020

It all started with a simple text box. While reading a referee’s guide in preparation for hosting his first session of Cyberpunk 2020, my friend came across a quote concerning an introduction to cyberpunk films. This quote was written by none other than the creator of the tabletop game himself, Mike Pondsmith. It mostly mentioned the established classics of the genre like Akira, Blade Runner, and Max Headroom. However, one of them stood out for both of us since we’d never heard of it before: Until the End of the World

With that simple mention, Mike sent both of us down a rabbit hole for a movie unknown to these two supposed cyberpunk fans.

So take a seat and get ready to discover Wim Wenders’ road trip masterpiece, the strange story behind it, and why it stands out from the textbox that started all this. Hopefully, I can convince you to watch this amazing movie despite its unusual premise and stranger runtime.  

Wim Wenders, Director of Until the End of the World
Wim Wenders, Director of Until the End of the World

A Rough Start for a Monumental Film

As I found out after a brief search online, Until the End of the World is a 1991 movie directed by German director Wim Wenders. I only knew him from documentaries such as Buena Vista Social Club. Since I didn’t know he made sci-fi, and the movie was put on the same pedestal as some of my favorites, my friend and I decided to watch the 2.5 hour film. 

And it was, well. . .  it was bad.

Sure, the plot was a fun mess, but the ending was completely baffling. Strangest of all, the movie had almost nothing to do with the synopsis. 

That mess of a movie couldn’t be it, I thought. So I embarked on yet another information quest. What I found was the tale of a movie a decade in the making, spanning across the world with an idea seemingly too ambitious for movie theaters in 1991. 

From the Idea to the Ideal Cut, Until the End of the World was Fifteen Years in the Making

The story behind Until the End of the World is stranger than fiction. While the behind-the-scenes information is spotty at best, it seems that the movie was born in Wenders’ mind in 1977. After turning an improvised trip to Australia into a months-long stay because Wenders fell in love with aboriginal culture, he decided to start writing a sci-fi flick. This experience, combined with other ideas like a retelling of the Odyssey, inspired the final story set in the then-future of 1999. The narrative follows the purposeless character of Claire (Solveig Dommartin) traveling around the world and meeting strange characters (don’t worry, I’ll get into more detail later on). 

After the original cut was finished, its runtime was 20 hours long. That’s well beyond anything any cinema could show.

Criterion Collection's Cover of Until the End of the World
Criterion Collection's Cover of Until the End of the World

This, along with the inherent risk of any independent film, led to Wenders obligatorily cutting the movie to a much shorter 160-minute version for American audiences. To fight back against this imposition, Wenders delivered a dupe of the negatives to the studio and kept the original in his possession at his own expense. With this original, he created his own cut to be used exclusively at movie festivals and sold in collector’s DVD copies.

When I first saw this version, Wenders’ cut was relatively hard to find. However, the cut has finally been released by the Criterion Collection. But even then, is it worth watching a five-hour long movie? The answer is absolutely yes.

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Until the End of the World
Until the End of the World

The Trip of a Lifetime with a Nuke Flying Overhead

To summarize the plot in a way that doesn’t spoil too much, the movie takes place in the cyberpunk future of 1999. This world poses new technologies like GPS navigation, virtual assistants, and search engines. 

Oh, and a falling nuclear satellite circling the world.  

While escaping her previous life, Claire gets asked to escort a large amount of money. On the way to her destination, she meets a mysterious hitchhiker (William Hurt) whom she grows fond of. He is being hunted down by parties unknown and carries with him a mysterious device that seems to have a nasty side effect on his eyes. However, its true purpose is elusive. As these narrative threads spiral out of control, they send us on a journey through four continents and over a dozen cities in different countries. Surprisingly, the locations shown in the story were all filmed in their real-life counterparts. Of course, this decision allowed the movie to be much more gorgeous than using sets or green screens would have.  

This is where I should give a warning to any potential viewer. Unlike other cyberpunk movies, Until the End of the World does not have a carefully planned plot with clear end-goals or missions. Rather, the movie replicates the kind of stories we experience every day, born by a combination of cause and effect and rolling with the punches.  By the last two hours of the movie, the story mutates in such a way it’s hard to remember how we even got here. 

At first this might sound like a deal-breaker, but somehow Wenders makes it work. Thanks to the 4k restoration from Criterion, the cinematography and soundtrack create an immersive experience that was exactly what I needed during my COVID-19 lockdown. Even if you live in a (hopefully) post-pandemic future, the cinematography is still worth a look. If you really cannot afford five continuous hours, the movie works just fine when split into three smaller parts, too.

Until the End of the World
Until the End of the World

Why is Until the End of the World a Cyberpunk Movie?

By the time I finished watching the director’s cut, I had almost forgotten what sent me on this strange pilgrimage. According to Pondsmith, Until the End of The World is meant to be an amazing example of cyberpunk in cinema. However, after watching it in full, I noticed that this is its own unique beast in the genre.  

At its core, cyberpunk is the interaction between high tech and low life. In most cyberpunk works, this translates to the “high tech” being a key part of the story, like carrying information packets in your brain or the creation of human-like replicants. In Wenders’ world however, the “low life” is not as direct a consequence of this paradigm shift. Instead, circumstances like the flying nuke and new technologies simply affect the choices our characters make in their lives.

In a way, this humane approach to cyberpunk might be the best representation of what it’s actually like to live in a cyberpunk world. It’s similar to how we live well past Wenders’ initial future. We live in a world filled with technologies that cyberpunk creators previously only dreamt about. However, most of us do not have life crises directly caused by the introduction of phone assistants or the introduction of virtual reality. Instead, our lives search for a way to fit between these shifting cracks while being slowly affected tech by tech.

In my opinion, this is why Until the End of the World shines as a cyberpunk gem. The movie does not pride itself in foreseeing new technologies, even though it was correct in its depiction. Rather, it creates a great dramatic adventure within this soft-dread filled future.  

So please, if you are even slightly interested in film or cyberpunk, give this film a watch. Do it for all the people like me who spent years looking for the ultimate cut, and make sure to watch it before the end of the world. 

We know cyberpunk movies, so let us tell you what you’re missing. What’s timeless? What didn’t age so well? Share this article, and we’ll make the case for Until the End of the World.

Did we miss something here? Was there an unforgettable scene or classic one-liner that just shouldn’t be left out? What are your favorite parts of this movie? Leave us a comment below, and we’ll try to update the article with your suggestions!

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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