The Thirteenth Floor (1999) — Murder on the virtual world express

“Hey! What’d you do to the world?”

Justin’s rating: Rebooting expectations

Justin’s review: There’s a phenomenon out there that might or might not have a name, but it’s certainly something that I’ve observed quite often in Hollywood. And that’s when movies of a similar type or premise are released close to each other, where one achieves great fame and recognition and the other is largely ignored, but then the ignored movie eventually escapes the shadow of its competition to gain respect in the years to come. I know, it’s a bit wordy, but it describes exactly what happened to today’s movie.

The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, and The Matrix came out in the same year and proposed scenarios where people lived in virtual worlds. Both had a large mystery component to it. But while The Matrix — armed with a greater emphasis on special effects, action, and Keanu Reeves posturing — became the mega-hit of the year, the other two were quietly but firmly placed into a drawer for subsequent generations of scifi enthusiasts to discover.

Despite the superficial similarities between these two movies, it is important to disconnect them and not raise expectations that one will be like the other. The Thirteenth Floor is very much a slower murder mystery about the death of a high-tech corporate CEO named Fuller who oversaw the creation of a virtual world that emulated 1937 — and then was stabbed by an unknown assailant in the present. The chief suspect is Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), the new heir of the company who doesn’t entirely disagree with the notion that he himself is guilty.

Both Hall and the police start investigating the strange details of Fuller’s death —  including the appearance of a daughter (Gretchen Mol) nobody knew about and a mysterious bartender (Vincent D’Onofrio) — details that point to the VR simulation itself. Only by investigating this fictional past can answers be found about what’s happening in the present, answers that possibly point to self-aware programs making the jump to the real world.

So we have people jumping back and forth between worlds where questions like identity, reality, and control emerge. After a bit, The Thirteenth Floor becomes a bit of a head trip where we along with the characters are trying to straighten a rather convoluted plot out.

Largely ignored when it first came out, this movie’s since cultivated a respectable following that’s been willing to approach it on its own terms rather than in an unfavorable comparison. To me, it felt a bit like a time travel movie at a slant, one with a fantastic soundtrack and continued relevance as our own virtual worlds continue to emerge and grow. I loved that each setting had its own visual style, with 1999 being more dark and gritty and 1937 offering a film noir color-diluted palette.

Like many underrated movies, The Thirteenth Floor has clear flaws — slow pacing among them — that kept it from being as widely received in the first place, but that shouldn’t keep you from it. It’s like reading a good novel that gets more satisfying with repeated viewings.

DnaError’s Rating: More effective then valium

DnaError’s Review: The sucess and utter hipness of The Matrix created a flood of existentialist scifi flicks, all struggling to answer the question, “What will people pay $7.50 plus popcorn to see?” The answer, according to this movie, is that people want to see deadeye actors stare into space while ruining a perfectly good idea.

The concept is good enough, scientists on the aforementioned level create a VR simulation of 1930s L. A only to have it *dramatic music* start to kill people. My beef isn’t with the idea, it’s with how it’s done. The “investigation” is as tedious and dry, the dialogue in inane, with grand revelations greeted with “Who cares!” Aside from being mind-numbingly dull, It makes about as much sense as a Star Trek Voyager episode. For this movie to work your disbelief will have to be suspended into the Ionosphere via a large pulley system.

Not going into the movie’s thief of every scifi movie since the early ’80s (Drecker called, he wants his set back), I’m moving on to The Thirteenth Floor’s very liberal use of pauses. Example:

John: Martha, I………………………………

Martha: John, do………………..

John: Get……the milk

Martha:….we…..are…….out.

Now, wasn’t that THRILLING? The director must have thought so cause in the time it takes one pause to end; whole nations have risen and fallen with the tide of time. The actors, (none worth mentioning except for Vincent D’Onofrio, cause if I don’t Clare will skin me alive. ) sound like mildly defective Sony toys waiting for a battery change.

It’s not a complete waste, the cinematography is well done, Art-directed shot with Gattaca-like with single color schemes. And if you need a sleep aid and the doctors took away your happy pills, I could see watching this again. Then again I see grubs with the faces of Kitty Carlise coming after me in the night.

2 comments

  1. Meh. It didn’t change my life, but I liked it better than Existenz. The twist wasn’t as obvious then as it would be today (or if someone had somehow seen The Matrix first, anyway).

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