The 13th Floor
1999; rated R)
Cast: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert
Music: Harald Kloser.
Cinematography: Wedigo von Schultzendorff.
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, Marco Weber.
Writers: Joseph Rusnak & Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, based on the novel Simulacron 3, by Daniel F. Galouye.
Director: Joseph Rusnak.
Review by Carlo Cavagna.
They seem to come in twos, don't they? The Truman Show, a movie about a guy on television 24 hours a day, was followed by EDtv, also a movie about a guy on television 24 hours a day. Stir of Echoes, a movie about a guy who can see ghosts, followed close on the heels of The Sixth Sense, a movie about a kid who can see ghosts. We recently had two asteroid movies in the same summer, Deep Impact and Armageddon. Several years ago two studios developed competing Robin Hood projects, and Kevin Costner's big budget version relegated the marginally less awful Patrick Bergen version to a television premiere. How does this happen? Are studios so unoriginal that when they get wind of what another studio is working on, they can't think of anything better to do than copy it? Don't they know that the copycat movie, regardless of how good, is usually doomed to financial failure?
So it was with The 13th Floor, which by misfortune or miscalculation opened just two months after The Matrix. Perhaps because The 13th Floor is a science-fiction movie about virtual reality, just the like The Matrix, audiences ignored it, and critics dismissed it. That's unfortunate, because even though The 13th Floor is inferior to The Matrix, it is solidly entertaining.
Instead of being an action movie, The 13th Floor is a modern film noir. It's got all the ingredients: a protagonist suspected of murder, a femme fatale, dark visuals, oppressive atmosphere. The story opens in 1937, where an agitated man named Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) hands an envelope to bartender Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio), with instructions to give the envelope to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) and no one else. Moments later, when Fuller is suddenly transported to present-day Los Angeles, we learn that the 1937 world is an amazingly realistic virtual reality matrix created by Intergraph Computer Systems. On his way home, Fuller visits a bar, where he is murdered by an unseen assailant.
The 13th Floor then cuts to Hall's apartment. As Hall goes through his morning routine, he discovers a bloody shirt in his laundry, but has no idea how it got there. Two more surprises await when he arrives at his office at Intergraph. One, Fuller is dead, and two, Fuller has a daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol), who he had never mentioned. As an added bonus, the investigating detective, Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert), soon suspects Hall of killing Fuller in order to assume control of Intergraph. Meanwhile, Jane, to whom Hall is irresistibly (and inexplicably) attracted, plans to sue Hall so that she can inherit Intergraph instead.
Where does the truth lie? Who murdered Fuller? What message did Fuller leave behind in the virtual reality world with Ashton? You may guess the ending before the movie divulges its secrets, but director Joseph Rusnak manages to keep you in the dark long enough to maintain your interest. Rusnak's seamless integration of digital effects and effective use of color within the confines of his dark, typically noir composition also help to engage your attention.
Although The 13th Floor is stylistically consistent, the performances vary in quality. Because the characters have doppelgangers in the matrix (all of the virtual reality characters are modeled on people in the real world) many of the actors are called upon to play dual roles. Gifted Vincent D'Onofrio, as the unbalanced Ashton and a nerdy computer technician named Whitney, does so most effectively. The usually wonderful Mueller-Stahl, however, doesn't bother to stretch himself–he plays both roles exactly the same. He's still watchable, however, as is the assured Dennis Haysbert, who has always been an underused talent. Craig Bierko is a fairly new face, and though it's basically a one-note role, he plays the bewildered noir hero well enough. The only truly deficient performance is that of former Vanity Fair flavor-of-the-month Gretchen Mol as the femme fatale. Unfortunately, she is also a fatally bad actor. Why does this woman, who also appears in Rounders, Celebrity, and the upcoming Cradle Will Rock, have a budding film career? It's not because she can act, so evidently somebody must think she has charisma or sex appeal. But she always comes across as a bit of a wet blanket, so she's not charismatic. As for her sex appeal... well, her face has echoes of the wide-boned, full-lipped Angelina Jolie/Ashley Judd/Charlize Theron look that's hot right now, but she's not in the same league.1
So, because of the proximity of its release to the release of The Matrix, one has to ask, just how unoriginal is The 13th Floor? Obviously the film noir mood is nothing new, but that doesn't mean that it's ineffective. As for the science-fiction aspect of the film, you may detect similarities not only to The Matrix, but also to The Truman Show, Dark City, and Blade Runner. Admittedly, The 13th Floor is not serious science-fiction on the level of those other films–it is escapist entertainment first and second. But, like more esoteric science-fiction, The 13th Floor uses the tapestry of a virtual reality world to pose some interesting questions about what makes us who we are. Ultimately that's what all the best science-fiction is all about. And given that virtual reality is more than a science-fiction gimmick, but part of our approaching future, I hardly think that the concept has been mined to exhaustion just yet.
1 Perhaps Vanity Fair is to blame for Mol's budding stardom. Late in 1998, at the time Rounders and Celebrity were released, they slapped her on the cover wearing a transparent dress that her nipples threatened to puncture. (Not that I disapprove of such displays; in fact, I'm unashamed to admit that I'm all for them–but not as a substitute for talent.) The picture was so risqué that some newsstands refused to carry it.... Or perhaps Mol became hot because in Rounders and Celebrity, she played the girlfriend to the hottest actors of the moment, Matt Damon and Leonardo Di Caprio, respectively. Who knows. Maybe her acting will improve with experience.
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