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A puppet doesn’t have a soul.

The Thirteenth Floor
(1999)

(SPOILERS) The somewhat ignored third major Hollywood studio late-90s exploration of the nature of reality, The Thirteenth Floor had the misfortune to come out a couple of months after The Matrix turned everyone’s world upside down. And two weeks after Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It also made the decision to embrace a noirish virtual world, one that proved less than compelling to general audiences in the previous year’s Dark City. Plus, the critics trounced it. The latter is the most surprising part in retrospect, as Josef Rusnak’s movie has a lot going for it, not least the best mind-bending twist of any of the artificial-realm pictures.

That twist being, of course, the simulation-within-a-simulation idea. You know, the one everyone thought the Wachowskis were going to produce out of their hats following the end of The Matrix Reloaded, in order to explain Neo’s sudden “real world” powers. Except they didn’t. I recently saw it suggested (in this article’s comments section) that this was their initial intention. But with The Thirteenth Floor getting the drop on them, they were forced to cobble together their dud of the concluding (for now) movie. Of course, The Thirteenth Floor wasn’t a new concept. Based on Daniel F Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) it had previously been adapted – atypically – by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a two-part TV film in 1973 (World on a Wire/ Welt am Draht).

Ashton: So what are you saying? There’s another world on top of this one?

Where The Thirteen Floor has a notable advantage on Dark City is in sustaining its plot. Even on repeat viewing, the connecting dots of this world engage. Certain choices by Rusnak and co-adaptor Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez add a sharpness to the proceedings, along with welcome misdirection. If Vincent D’Onofrio’s in a movie, he must be the villain, but his programmer Jason Whitney, friend of Craig Bierko’s Douglas Hall, really is the bumbling geek he appears to be. It’s his 1937 alter who is nefarious, discovering the limitations of his world and (as per The Matrix Reloaded) engineering an escape. In tandem with this, Hall, on the next layer up, also learns that he is in a simulation. The driving on and on out of town idea, until one reaches an undisguised wireframe grid, is also much better visualised than the edge of the dome in Dark City.

Where The Thirteenth Floor doesn’t quite pay off is in failing to embrace the potential of its idea fully. Gretchen Mol’s Jane Fuller, taking the avatar of checkout girl Natasha Molinaro, informs Hall that she has entered the programme – the 1999-set programme we initially believe is real – to shut it down. She lives in 2024, where there are thousands of simulated worlds, “but yours is the only one that ever created a simulation within the simulation. Something we never expected could happen”. Putting a restrictive lid on this means the story can be tied up neatly, even if the screen going dark at the end, akin to a computer being turned off, leaves open the possibility that this might actually be infinitely recursive.

Jane: Why did you butcher those people?
David: Because it was fun!

That’s welcome, but the bigger problem with the ending is that it wheels out the tired psycho trope. The hitherto unseen David, the 2024 Bierko and Jane’s betrothed, has become unhinged through overuse of the VR and developed a taste for killing within it, as Hall (hence Douglas’ blackouts). It’s the least imaginative direction to take – albeit based on the source material – in an up-until-that-point keenly configured plot.

Even then, it isn’t all rote, as Jane herself has manoeuvred her abusive husband into a position where Dennis Haysbert’s Detective McBain guns him down. We’ve already seen, with Ashton, that when Whitney is killed in the 1937 VR, it is his avatar who revives in 1999. That’s a reasonably solid twist (again, derived from the source material), but I’m not so sure about the theory that Jane’s the only one who knows about the up-levelling of avatars on death. Indeed, it seems inconceivable that, with thousands of simulations and more users, one didn’t die “in game” before and the consequences were revealed.

There’s another issue with The Thirteenth Floor, less severe than it might have been with a less solid plot, and that’s Bierko’s resolute blandness in the lead role. He has that rather interchangeable Ron Livingstone/ Brendan Fraser quality whereby he can pass through a movie virtually unnoticed despite playing the lead. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast. In particular Mol, something of a next big thing at the time who never quite cracked it. Her pleading with a disconsolate Hall that he does have a soul despite being an avatar is almost enough to persuade you of the entirely indeterminate Bierko.

Ashton: Why are you putting us through this? Why are you fucking with our minds?

Which means that the picture is ultimately less about who controls our prison (The Matrix, Dark City), than the existential trauma that results from it. McBain, who has evidently been given the lowdown by Jane at some point, only has an interest in the status quo, as one might expect from a hardboiled detective (“Just leave us all alone down here, will you?”; the major clue that 1999 is not real, long before it’s broached, is that McBain strolls around in a fedora).

The sensitive Whitney, before he has even entered the simulation, protests Hall’s intention to shut it down: “These people are real. They’re as real as you and me. You can’t just pull the plug and go home”. Hall himself is entirely despondent on realising the truth, that “None of this is real. If you pull the plug, I disappear, and nothing I ever say, nothing I ever do, will ever matter”. Later, he mocks Ashton’s rage at being used (“I’m just like you. I’m just a bunch of electricity”).

That the picture takes time to account for the avatar’s point of view might be seen as a case of predictive programming, elevating the value of AI to (and beyond) human status, but I think the attention given is rather stressed in spiritual terms (the possession of a soul), and so more focussed on ourselves and our own identities, and certainties or lack thereof (some of Ashton’s questions are the same ones you’d ask of an unfair or reckless creator being).

Armin Mueller-Stahl appears, as an avatar having sex with avatars. D’Onofrio is expectedly strong at playing both nerd and psycho (both sides of Private Pyle, then). Shiri Appleby shows up as a chorus girl (the same year she snagged a lead in Roswell High) and Alison Lohman is another of Mueller-Stahl’s girls. Notably, Roland Emmerich was a producer, representing more cerebral fare than usual.

Can we learn anything from The Thirteenth Floor’s future vision? Well, in LA 2024 (June 21 to be precise) crime is at an all-time low. And there are buildings out of a 50s SF novel cover. So maybe there’s something to look forward to after all. That 29% RT score ought to chafe, because it’s entirely unfair. The Thirteenth Floor is no masterpiece, but it’s as least as interesting as its fellow reality-scrambler Dark City.




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