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Latest Wenders Film Deflates Expectations

'UNTIL the End of the World" could be the season's most eagerly awaited art film. Directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, whose credits include such respected pictures as "Wings of Desire" and "Alice in the Cities," it's an ambitious epic by any standard: a science-fiction parable with an international cast and a cosmopolitan setting, filmed on four continents during a five-month shoot that led from San Francisco to Portugal to Tokyo to Australia.

Now that the film has finally arrived, some 15 years after Mr. Wenders first dreamed up the project, does it justify expectations? Regrettably, the answer can't be an enthusiastic yes. While the movie has virtues - most of which are packed into the last 45 minutes of the nearly three-hour picture - much of the story is rambling, wanly acted, and raggedly stitched together.

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The film begins as a detective-adventure yarn, focusing on a young woman who meets some bank robbers and a handsome stranger with a price on his head. Pursued by other people, she chases after her attractive new acquaintance. Everyone ends up in the Australian outback, where a new batch of people - including a scientist doing research on vision and dreams - transforms the picture from a road movie into a fantasy-inflected drama.

With so much running around to so many different locations, "Until the End of the World" has little sense of place. In fact, the Australian scenes looked dropped in from another movie. Wenders's camera treats the countryside and its indigenous inhabitants as merely a picturesque backdrop for the European characters who have set up shop (or laboratory) in their midst.

Also unfortunate is the sentimentality of the story's ending, which launches a weak attack on images - the main ingredient of Wenders's whole career! - as dangerous, addictive, and vastly inferior to words and narratives, which are credited with a romantic saving power that's not specified very clearly. Finally, after leading us all over the globe, the movie has nothing more original to tell us than "stories are valuable" and "love conquers all."

Like the camera work, the acting improves in the last portion of the film, when Max Von Sydow shows up as the scientist who has dedicated his life to finding a cure for his wife's blindness. Jeanne Moreau and David Gulpilil also lend their talents to this part of the story. During the first two hours, however, the film revolves largely around the young woman played by Solveig Dommartin, whose skills are simply not adequate. William Hurt provides a measure of Hollywood-style glamour.

Wenders deserves credit for attempting such an expansive saga, which he wrote with Peter Carey, and for collaborating well with master cinematographer Robby Muller. Too much else in the picture is disappointingly conceived and executed, however. Rated R for language and sensuality.

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