The film takes place in late 1999. India has an out-of-control nuclearsatellite in orbit that is about to reenter the atmosphere at any time, contaminating large areas of the Earth. This has caused a massive panic, with everyone trying to flee the likely impact sites. Caught in a traffic jam, impatient and disconnected Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) escapes the highway congestion by taking a side road. Her dashboard computer system announces she has left the map zone database and is on her own. She then has a couple of odd encounters, first with a pair of bank robbers (which leaves her with a large amount of cash), then with a hitchhiker being pursued by an armed party. Claire discovers, after falling in love with the enigmatic fugitive, that he is the son of a scientist (played by Max von Sydow), and has absconded with the prototype of a secret research project. Multiple government agencies and freelancebounty hunters are chasing him to recover the device.
The film has two distinct parts: the first is a mystery; the second a science-fiction adventure. The mystery is about the prototype, what it actually does and why so many people are interested in it. Halfway through the film the focus shifts, as the prototype is revealed to be a device for recording and translating brain impulses—a camera for the blind. The hitchhiker is traveling around the world, gathering images in the device though the reason why is not revealed. During the second part, the reason for his travels is revealed: the hitchhiker has been filming his extended family to bring home to his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau).
As the chase moves across the globe, the nuclear satellite is shot down, causing a Nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) effect that wipes out all unshielded electronics worldwide. The characters wind up in a cave in the Australian Outback, where the recordings are played back. After the death of the hitchhiker's mother, his scientist father discovers a way to use the device to record human dreams. Several characters become addicted to viewing their own dreams, while Claire's estranged lover, a novelist, remains unaffected. He writes a novel about the adventure, which ultimately rescues Claire from her addiction to the device, via the power of words.
Over a decade in the making and developed after a series of discussions Wenders had with French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, Until the End of the World is Wenders' most ambitious film. Filmed in 15 cities in seven countries across four continents, it had a $23 million budget and was originally intended to be shot on 70 mm. The plan was to finish the film in Congo, though financing made that unfeasible. Wenders also couldn't get clearance to film in China. He instead sent the star, Solveig Dommartin (his then-girlfriend), into China with a handheld digital camera. This footage is in the film as a "video fax" that Claire sends her estranged lover Gene.
The Australian Film Finance Corporation invested $3.7 million in the film.
During post-production, Wenders initially had a cut over eight hours in length. Contract agreements forced Wenders to cut down the movie to less than three hours. The final product was distributed with a running time of 158 minutes.
To add to the near-future look, Sony contributed prototypes of their new products for the film. The soundtrack is notable for Wenders asking various recording artists—Depeche Mode, U2, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Can, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Jane Siberry, etc.—for music to be used in the film; specifically for the music that they thought they would be making in 1999. The soundtrack itself was more successful than the film, and is considered one of the most important movie soundtracks of the 1990s.
Until the End of the World was poorly received in its first release, as both a critical and commercial failure. In the United States, the film was released by Warner Bros. in December 1991, and was on a small number of screens with almost no advertising. The U.S. box office grossed $752,856 and was panned by critics, although some did give it favorable reviews. Critical reception was lukewarm elsewhere as well. Wenders calls this cut of his film the "Reader's Digest Version."
Wenders realized the film would be too long for the commercial distribution, so he kept control of the unedited film rather than surrendering it to distributors. After the film's theatrical release, Wenders worked with multiple copies and, with Sam Neill, recording additional narration, completed a 280-minute version. The longer cut, which Wenders regards as the definitive version of the film, unfolds as a trilogy and is presented in three parts (the titles appear three different times). This version was screened publicly numerous times, including at the University of Washington in 1996; at least two presentations by American Cinematheque; once by the American Museum of the Moving Image; at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, Texas; by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in New York City; and once at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. Wenders has been present at almost all of these screenings.
The 158-minute cut of Until the End of the World was released on VHS, laserdisc (widescreen) and, more recently, Amazon Instant Video in the United States. In addition, a 179-minute "European cut" was released on laserdisc (letterboxed) in Japan, accompanied by a 58-minute featurette shot in Tokyo entitled Dream Island by Sean Naughton, who had worked with Wenders on the HD sequences in Until the End of the World. The 280-minute "trilogy" version of Until the End of the World made its first DVD appearance in 2004, with an Italian 4-disc edition featuring outtakes, bloopers, trailers, and interviews with Wenders. In 2005, a 3-disc DVD edition was released in Germany. Both editions feature new digital transfers personally supervised by Wenders.
Anchor Bay Entertainment had once announced that it would be releasing the director's cut of Until the End of the World in North America, but has since changed ownership and interest in Wenders' work was abandoned. Currently, there are no known plans to release the film on DVD or Blu-ray in North America.
The German film director Uli M Schueppel made a documentary film about the recording of "(I'll Love You) Till The End Of The World" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The film was released 1990 as The Song and re-released 2004 under a new arrangement.
Bob Evans, "OUR PIECE OF THE ACTION", The Australian Financial Review, 18 October 1991, p. 33