Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Thirteenth Floor

By Marc Savlov

JUNE 1, 1999: 

D: Josef Rusnak; with Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, Steve Schub, Bob Clendenin, Rachel Winfree. (R, 120 min.)

With "The Matrix," "eXistenZ," and now "The Thirteenth Floor," filmgoers' collective sense of reality has been taking a real pummeling of late. That thematically similar films tend to arrive in clusters is old news, but these three deal with almost identical themes of false realities and that age-old stoner question (these days I guess we ought to revise that to cyber-question) that asks, "Hey, what if we're all just figments of someone else's imagination?" "The Thirteenth Floor," adapted from Daniel F. Galouye's novel of the same name, lacks the stylish overkill of "The Matrix" and skirts the Cronenbergian cyber-angst of "eXistenZ" in favor of a vague futuristic bent that involves video-game simulations and Teutonic existentialism. Unfortunately, it's a mix that comes off as sublimely ridiculous when it's not struggling to be highbrow (sporadic flurries of giggling accompanied the semi-full screening I attended). Bierko plays Douglas Hall, a software developer who, along with techie pal Whitney (D'Onofrio) and boss Hammond Fuller (Mueller-Stahl), has developed a full-body video simulation of 1937 Los Angeles. Think of it as the ultimate virtual reality, one where you can lie down, go to sleep, and have your consciousness "transferred" via computer scan to a pre-existing game character in good old L.A. The film is sketchy on the "whys" of all this, but, presumably, it's a great way to pick up virtual one-night stands without all the icky real-world repercussions. When Fuller turns up dead after leaving Hall a mysterious message within the game's structure, Hall takes it on himself to enter into L.A. '37 in search of both the message and possible clues to who-dun-it. Enter Detective McBain (Haysbert) who thinks Hall himself may be responsible for the murder. While Hall's busy poking around in the past (for only two hours at a time -- any more and the Beta-test game could presumably fry his neurons), he encounters a mysterious blonde (Mol), who then turns up in the real world, which leads to the question -- wait for it! -- "What is the real world?" Despite intricate but creaky plotting, Hall quickly discovers that reality, as is so often the case these days, isn't what it's cracked up to be. Rusnak's CG-enhanced vision of old-time L.A. looks picture-perfect (after an early experience jacked in to the system, Hall pronounces "the color's a bit off"), but the rest of his film is a jumbled mess with as many plot holes as a year-old chunk of Swiss cheese. Granted, it's tough to pull off such an ambitious storyline, but The Thirteenth Floor fumbles on so many levels it's just plain silly. To paraphrase the film's tagline: The Thirteenth Floor: You can go there, but why would you want to?
1.5 stars

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