The Good: Decent pacing, Good acting
The Bad: Light on genuine character development, Preoccupied with plot over character
The Basics: The Thirteenth Floor might once have been considered clever, but given how underdeveloped the characters are, it is unsurprising it was buried in the same cinematic era as Dark City and The Matrix.
Hollywood has a way of making similar movies around the same time as one another (last year’s Mirror, Mirror - reviewed here! – and Snow White And The Huntsman, reviewed here!, is a good example of the phenomenon) and more often than not, one finds an audience and the other gets buried. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Back in 1999, when there were two science fiction films that dealt with virtual reality worlds, the one that hit it big was The Matrix (reviewed here!). The film that got buried was The Thirteenth Floor.
The Thirteenth Floor has a number of similarities to The Matrix and Dark City (reviewed here!), but it, unfortunately, fails to pop in a way that engages and keeps the viewer like either of those other movies. So, while The Matrix keeps viewers wondering what the nature of the reality in the film is and in Dark City, the viewer knows John Murdock did not kill the prostitutes he is accused of, why the Strangers have made all the clues point to him while he wrestles with amnesia is enough to thoroughly engross the viewer, The Thirteenth Floor sets up the real and virtual worlds, but its mystery seems more or less non-existent to anyone who is actually paying attention.
After he leaves a computer-construct world of his own creation, where the setting is Los Angeles, 1937, Hannon Fuller is murdered in the real world. As detective Larry McBain investigates the murder, he finds Fuller’s assistant at the computer laboratory, Douglas Hall, is a decent suspect. Hall has the misfortune of waking up the morning of the murder to find blood on his sink and on the clothes in his hamper, which he keeps from Detective McBain. Hall’s only clue to determining who the murderer might be (if it is not himself) is that Fuller left a message for him within the program. So, Hall (assuming the identity of John Ferguson) puts himself into the virtual construct to find the message.
Inside the construct, he finds an alternate version of Hannon and a bartender who resembles his co-worker, Jason. Pulled out of the construct after two hours, Douglas finds himself disoriented. Inside the construct, the program continues to run and Ferguson finds himself experiencing memory loss for the time Douglas Hall had his body. Returning to the simulation, Douglas begins to understand the nature of the virtual world and begins to worry that the time he blacked out (during the murder) might have been the result of a construct from the simulation using his body. When Jerry, the bartender who intercepted the letter, comes to understand the nature of the construct he exists in, he turns on Douglas, putting him in mortal peril.
The Thirteenth Floor is set up with a conceit that is either baffling or sloppy for how nonsensical it is: when Douglas enters the simulation, his brain waves are matched to those of Ferguson. While it makes perfect sense that the constructs would have physical parameters and personalities, it seems odd that they would have brainwaves that are programmed. Or, if the brainwaves are based upon the people whose bodies are used as the templates for the construct bodies, they would not need to be matched; Ferguson would already think like Hall, etc.
So, most genre fans are likely to be unsurprised by the reversals of the constructs in the real world and the like that makes The Thirteenth Floor feel less inspired and original than any number of other mind-bending thrillers. The revelation in the desert is unsurprising and as the film progresses, more than being genuinely engaged, the more I realized I didn’t care about how the plot resolved because I was utterly uninvested in any of the characters.
More than that, The Thirteenth Floor is so invested in explaining itself that it never broadens out to make a larger statement or theme. This is not an investigation on the nature of what makes us human, which is what the best science fiction seeks to explore, and it fails to even be clever as a character study. Supporting characters, most notably Gretchen Mol’s Jane (who introduces herself as Hannon’s daughter), are brought in as red herrings and to make viewers question the nature of reality. Unfortunately for director Josef Rusnak, the performance Mol gives telegraphs her character’s nature.
The acting in The Thirteenth Floor is fine for the most part. Craig Bierko is realistic as Douglas Hall. As his character has revelations and suddenly comes into knowledge, that is somewhere in his head, Bierko sells the moments. He has an ability to portray epiphany and simply recollection with just his eyes in a way that is very different from anything I have seen him do in other works he has been in.
But, in the end, The Thirteenth Floor does not add up to anything complete or genuinely compelling. It tells a story and the story finishes, but the layers of worlds within worlds is more of a gimmick than a great film.
For other reality-bending films, please visit my reviews of:
The Truman Show
Check out how this movie stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index page where the films are organized from best to worst!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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