Monday, May 6, 2013

Only In the World of Virtual Reality Can There Be a 13th Floor

To our modern 21st century eyes, there's something rather adorable about the excitement we and our elders had towards the prospect of virtual reality in the mid-1990s. Before the Sims could make us feel like gods or Wii Fitness could fool us into full body workouts (or arm flailing), the idea of video game make believe sparked the imagination of a full generation of mediocre sci-fi filmmakers.

We had The Lawnmower Man. It had a sequel. There were Strange Days and Virtuosity. Heck, even the steamy sexual harassment thrills of Disclosure feature a rather hilariously pixelated Demi Moore causing some mayhem. It was quite the rage, culminating in one of action cinema’s most frustratingly influential trendsetters, The Matrix.

Just before Neo took that pill, however, director Josef Ruznak (who, a decade later, would damn his soul to hell with the abominable It’s Alive remake) tackled Daniel F. Galouye’s 1960s era sci-fi novel, Simulacron-3, adapting it into the much more tongue-friendly title, The Thirteenth Floor.

Quick Plot: An elder gentleman with the steely blue eyes of Armin Mueller-Stahl wanders through a 1930s era LA with a mission to hand off an important letter to a shockingly blond Vincent D’Onofrio. We soon learn that Stahl is actually Hannon Fuller, a techno-genius-mogul of sorts playing around in his next big hit, a virtual reality program that drops users into the past. Fuller’s Bill Gatesian plans are foiled when he’s stabbed to death outside a bar in the present (1990s), leaving his next-in-command Douglas (the poor American man’s Clive Owen, Craig Bierko) to solve the mystery of his murder, decide the future of the program, elude future President Dennis Haysbert’s detective probing, and fall in love with Past It Girl Gretchen Mol.

Also, to rock a kickin' '30s 'stache

Science fiction is a complicated genre when it comes to time. On one hand, the ideas presented in the stories are supposed to be fairly speculative, meaning nothing should feel bound by its era. On the other, does any other genre age more noticeably? Part of it is that the ‘idea of the future’ is fragile, rendering visual imagination obsolete or out of date once that time finally arrives. Sure, Starship Troopers rather accurately anticipated iPads, but it’s hard to believe a Logan’s Run prediction of the next few centuries when everyone’s dressed as if they’re preparing for a typical Saturday night at a roller disco.

The Thirteenth Floor circles that problem, as the concept of virtual reality as defined by ‘90s cinema has all but become a punchline. Looking past that is equally problematic: without giving too much away, this is a story that had been done so much better (both visually and emotionally) in the then-underseen, now slightly-overrated Dark City. There are some deeply thoughtful ideas at play in The Thirteenth Floor, but there’s also a murder mystery to solve and gooey romance to slog through. At about 100 minutes, there’s simply not enough time for anything of genuine depth to transpire.

This is not to say that The Thirteenth Floor is a bad movie. It has Vincent D’Onofrio sporting long greasy blond locks for goodness sakes! It has Armin Mueller-Stahl in jeans! OF COURSE IT’S NOT A BAD MOVIE. 

It’s just kind of mediocre.

High Points
While The Lawnmower Man graphics still elicit a few good chuckles, the film seems to come alive most in its virtual reality experiment, playing with colors and visual style as Douglas experiences a post-Boardwalk Empire, pre-Wizard of Oz world

Low Points
At its core, there are some truly fascinating themes present in this film, ones that could explore identity, humanity, god syndrome, and so much more. But perhaps due to its marketability as a sci-fi thriller, The Thirteenth Floor never really commits to fleshing out its heart

Lessons Learned
Even simulated universes contain a steady supply of L-shaped bedsheets to best cover the female form after a night of lovemaking

When making a bargain martini, a pretzel is a sufficient, if not quite desirable substitute for an olive

The best way to channel a lack of class is to chew gum with one’s mouth open 

You Know You’re In a ‘90s Film When…
The grocery checkout cashier asks you whether you prefer paper or plastic 

One could buy three packs of cigarettes for less than $7.50

A pointed reference is made at America’s Most Wanted

The Thirteenth Floor was streaming on Netflix until the Great May 1st Purge of 2013. It’s unfortunate since that’s probably the best way to watch this film. It doesn’t REALLY merit a rental or purchase, but as a lazy weekend viewing, it’s more than adequate. The film’s ‘90s nostalgia ages in the typically interesting way of that era’s sci-fi, while the actual mystery aspects are strung out well enough to keep you curious until the end. The story has been done better, but hey...pixels!


  1. Wow, I had entirely forgotten about this one, but clearly remember seeing it and dismissing it in favor of the gigantic wish-fulfillment buffet The Matrix offered my teenage self. Too bad it's not streamable anymore - like you said, I dunno if I can justify giving it an entire DVD queue slot.

    And part of me is still waiting for VR technology that will enable me to wander Beyond the Mind's Eye-esque digital landscapes. It seems like that should be doable by now.

  2. I haven't checked this title specifically, but a lot of the purged Instant Watch pics returned to streaming a few days later. Maybe you can get your American Clive Owen sample after all!

    I could live without virtual reality, but I'd love it if we could get a Magic Schoolbus system going. THAT would be fun.

    1. Nope, unfortunately it's still not back on Instant. I guess I'll watch diligently for it to show up on the Food Lion DVD racks, or the Wal-Mart bargain bin...

  3. Boo hiss. May the gods of bargain bins smile upon thee soon!

  4. then-underseen, now slightly-overrated Dark City. Nailed it.