The Thirteenth Floor
Rating -

Sci-Fi (US); 1999; Rated R; 111 Minutes

Armin Mueller-Stahl: Hannon Fuller
Craig Bierko: Douglas Hall
Vincent D'Onofrio: Ashton
Gretchen Mol: Jane Fuller

Produced by Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich and Marco Weber; Directed by Josef Rusnak; Screenwritten by Josef Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez

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Written by DAVID KEYES

When someone shouts "this sucks" toward the theater screen, chances are you're dealing with a pretty terrible film. Sure, the same conclusion applies if a movie puts one to sleep, but there's quite a big difference from being unconscious and shouting words out at the top of your lungs. Typically, you'd find viewers passed out at movies that are dull or boring. These are what you call 'dead-zones.' Films that can generate the anger in a viewer to yell and cuss and throw tantrums at the screen are likely films with impelling plots but disappointing payoffs. In any case, the audience was sure of how this particular viewer felt during the final moments of Josef Rusnak's "The Thirteenth Floor." Had the movie been more complex, or ridiculous, I could just imagine the other words that could have come out of his mouth.

Movies like "The Thirteenth Floor" strike a match under occupied theater seats: sometimes you feel so inflamed with anger and dislike that the mouth becomes a cannon without ammunition. Words rush by our lips without realization or care. Why is that? Because the movie is ridiculously complex. The director's ramblings are odd, philosophical, intelligent, fascinating, and sometimes so empty and plain that you can easily see the twists long before they happen. There is one moment early on when we see an old man found stabbed to death after he returns from a simulation of 1937, and his partner is suspected of the murder. The target suspect, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), then gets into the simulator, hoping to find the real killer somewhere in the virtual world. Sitting there, I remember asking myself--"if the simulator is built on the impermissible 13th floor, doesn't that make it the real murderer?"

I must admit, however, that I enjoyed the picture to a point. Most didn't, probably because the subject of "artificial reality" has been used in many more films recently, as with David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ." The idea itself is the target of much speculation; why would so many filmmakers generate their movies strictly around this one perception? Answers vary, depending on the person. But most would agree on one simple thing: that the idea is intriguing, full of depth, and deserves to be explored. With "The Thirteenth Floor," however, director Josef Rusnak shows us that some ideas, to a point, have limited life spans. Arguably the most ludicrous and dismayed effort revolved around the "is reality real?" theme, his film fails to match up to the others because most of our questions have been answered in other films. But it is an effort nonetheless. That doesn't make it a great movie, but it doesn't make it a bad one, either.

The title refers to one of the oldest superstitions around: that, when something has the number "13" in it, a supernatural force is likely at work. That certainly appears to be the case in "The Thirteenth Floor," at least, with the audience. When the film opens, we are briefly introduced to the old and chipper Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) of 1937. He pays off a prostitute, flings a letter into the hands of a bartender, returns home to his wife, and is transported back to his native time--L.A., 1999. Later, he is found dead, stabbed several times.

Who better to pin the murder on then the old guy's corporate successor, Douglas Hall? He says he is innocent, but that doesn't appear to be the case when we see him wake up to a blood-stained shirt. The problem: he is not sure how the shirt got that way, and figures his only solution to the murder lies in the simulator. Accordingly, the plot puts its players in a whirlwind of total confusion. None are completely sure of what is happening, what has just happened, and how things got that way.

Characters move through these environments without much energy or effort, but that is okay, since our eyes are not concentrated on the actors, anyway. Here, we are given a blend of science fiction and film noir to perfectly underscore the gloomy theme of artificial reality. The 1937 art direction concentrates on muddy colors that spawn the essence of black-and-white filmmaking, when noir was stylish and believable. Meanwhile, the present day is done in more exotic colors, like deep blues and grays, which in turn produce the feeling, or the knowledge, that modern noir looks and feels almost nothing like that of the past. The movie shifts between these two environments very well, never over-stressing them. This gives us reason to tolerate some of the lackluster performances, just so we can see them walk past steep structures and look up at the magnificent skylines.

But some of the elements lack complete logical sense. The most incredibly outrageous thing, perhaps, is the epilogue, which I shall not reveal here, for fear that I may anger anyone for giving away 'the big secret.' Not that it's big or anything. We watch closely the unfolding of simulation and real world. Character from the past wind up in the present, go nuts, and--boom!--all goes haywire, setting us up for a nonsensical payoff. Underneath the projector, there are a couple of snickers, several puzzled looks, and even a few scratches to the head. Some people aren't sure of what just happened, while others know exactly what the director intended.

And then "this sucks" rings in our ears from someone in the first row. What can we deduce from this action? That something (at least) is going on in the movie, otherwise the enraged viewer would have been more susceptible to drifting off to sleep or staggering out of the screening room. In "The Thirteenth Floor," there's a lot going on, some of which is a letdown, and some of which is extremely satisfying to the challenging plot. The movie works. And yet it fails to be a great one because of the dissatisfying last hour, which gives us predictable twists and atrocious conclusions.

Can I recommend the picture? Yes, but only for those who have a serious taking to this "reality is artificial" theme that has been so popular in the movies these last two years. Like those films, "The Thirteenth Floor" generates some intriguing questions and answers, but considering that much of the subject has been explored already, I rank it fourth (behind "The Matrix," "Dark City" and "eXistenZ"). Some of these new ideas and questions just don't add up in the end. The first moment in the picture begins with the following line: "I think, therefore I am." They speak volumes of depth and intrigue. Too bad they don't generate the great interest as the words of "Dark City" do, in which Ian Richardson says, "as he follows the clues, so shall we follow the memories."

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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