The Thirteenth Floor
Screenplay : Josef Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez (based on "Simulacron-3" by Daniel F. Galouye)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Craig Bierko (Douglas Hall), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Hannon Fuller), Gretchen Mol (Jane Fuller), Vincent D'Onofrio (Jason Whitney), Dennis Haysbert (Det. Larry McBain)
There have been a number of American films in the last few years that have been built on the notion of questioning What is reality? These include "Dark City," which played with the idea of implanted memories, "The Truman Show," which gave us a TV studio masquerading as the real world, and, most recently, "The Matrix," with its alien-imposed, prison-like virtual world. What these films have in common are deep, earnest misgivings about what is actually out there, and whether our perception of reality is reliable.
Now, we can add to that list "The Thirteenth Floor," a sci-fi thriller about a group of software developers who create the ultimate virtual reality world--a recreation of Los Angeles circa 1937 that is populated with "units," computer simulations of human beings who turn out to more real than their creators had imagined.
The brain behind the simulated universe and its inhabitants is computer genius/mogul Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Fuller is brutally murdered early in the film, and all evidence seems to point to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), the second-in-command at Intergraph Computer Systems, Fuller's huge software corporation that is developing the virtual reality prototype. In order to clear his name, Douglas has to "jack into" the virtual reality world and track down a message Fuller left for him there that might explain everything.
The mystery also involves Jane (Gretchen Mol), a young woman who appears after Fuller's death, claiming to be his daughter who has been living in Paris. Also involved is Jason Whitney (Vincent D'Onofrio), another computer programmer whose simulated alter ego, a bartender named Ashton, discovers the truth about his existence and wants to know why. And, with any murder-mystery, there is always the intrepid police detective, here played doggedly and effectively by Dennis Haysbert.
In the end, Douglas does find the explanation of why Fuller was murdered and by whom, but in the process he also discovers things about his own reality that he never even considered. "The Thirteenth Floor" holds several good surprises, and, like "The Matrix," it is silly, but just plausible enough to give you pause when you walk out into the sunlight after the movie is over, and have a brief, flirtatious moment of doubt as to whether the world is truly a physical reality.
The movie uses as its opening epigraph Descartes' oft-cited explanation of his existence: "I think, therefore I am." In "The Thirteenth Floor," many of the characters may be created through electricity and microchips, but they think and they learn and they feel ... so doesn't that mean they are? After all, science fiction has a long history of machines that are more interesting and human than their human counterparts. "The Thirteenth Floor" asks, when humans endow machines and computer simulations with human qualities, does that in turn make them human?
Overall, "The Thirteenth Floor" is quite good in its ability to grab the viewer slowly but surely. The story builds, playing with notions of d'eja vu and confused memories; what at first seems fairly simple turns out to be much, much more complicated. Most of the actors are required to play more than one role--their characters in the "real world" and their characters in the simulated reality. These characters eventually begin to overlap; because the simulated characters were based on the real people, they are something like dim reflections of their creators.
Based on the 1960 novel "Simulacron-3" by Daniel F. Galouye, "The Thirteenth Floor" is in many ways ridiculous, sci-fi hokum, especially at the end where it uses questionable plot logic to ensure a happy ending. But, despite its techno-geek aspirations, this is not a special-effects-laden film, and director Josef Rusnak keeps the action sequences to a blessed minimum. Most of the f/x is spent making a convincing reproduction of L.A. in the late-thirties, when the edge of town ran smack into scraggly desert, oil derricks were more plentiful than skyscrapers, and the Hollywood sign still read "Hollywoodland." Those looking for a shoot-em-up adrenaline rush "Matrix"-style will likely be disappointed; but, those looking for thought-provoking entertainment with some interesting plot twists, "The Thirteen Floor" is not a bad choice.
Copyright ©1999 James Kendrick