Sony // 1999 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // April 14th, 2009
Existentialism is nothing new to Hollywood science fiction. It seems like a common thread in sci-fi to question reality as we know it. In the late 90s there was something of a renaissance in this particular subgenre of mind-bending flicks. Over the span of a year or so we were blessed with Dark City, the slightly more subtle Existenz, and, of course, the juggernaut that was The Matrix. Tucked in on the tail end of the craze, mere weeks behind The Matrix, was another film with similar themes, though with little in common, The Thirteenth Floor.
In 1990s Los Angeles, Computer whiz Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises) has, after several years of intense work, developed a total virtual reality simulation of 1937 Los Angeles housed on the 13th floor of his company's building. It seems Fuller has been "jacking in" prematurely, downloading his consciousness into the system before it has been perfected. The simulation is flawless, with a colorful assortment of personalities driven by programs based on real people. These sophisticated programs are driven by artificial intelligence and act as vessels for "real" people interacting with the VR, and the computer servers run the world constantly, even when a user isn't jacked in. On his most recent trip in, Fuller has discovered something, and left a note with virtual hotel barman, Jerry Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio, Full Metal Jacket) to be given only to his partner. Shortly after his trip is done, he is murdered in a local bar.
Enter Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko, The Long Kiss Goodnight), Fuller's aforementioned partner and fellow programmer. Lacking any kind of airtight alibi, he becomes the prime suspect in the murder, and Detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert, The Unit) is hot on his heels. Douglas, it seems, is missing time, he's been having blackouts, and he begins to doubt his own innocence. The answer of, of course, lies in the letter handed to a virtual program in Fuller's virtual world. Doug dives in himself, and finds that the programs are learning, adapting, and one in particular, the shifty hotel bartender, knows something is very amiss. On top of that, the "programs" in the virtual world have been having blackouts of their own, including one humble bookstore clerk named Grierson, the program based on the late Hannon Fuller. Also thrown into the mix is Fuller's beautiful daughter (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 to Yuma), fresh back from Europe following his death, knowing considerably more than she lets on, and planning to terminate the project.
I'm sure this all sounds very convoluted, and The Thirteenth Floor is definitely a convoluted film. The screenplay by writer/director Josef Rusnak (also responsible for several direct-to-video Wesley Snipes flicks) claims to be based on the novel, Simulacron-3, but the connection is tenuous. What Rusnak and producer Roland Emmerich have done is essentially infuse the blood of a noir thriller into existentialist sci-fi, and for the most part, the combination actually works pretty well. It traverses a lot of the same rugged terrain as Dark City and even Existenz, but remains significantly more grounded in our reality, even when it does take the journey completely off the rails. The user/program dichotomy is played to the fullest extent in the film, and while it does have a few twists and turns, they're pretty easy to telegraph, right into the final brain-bending moments, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable.
When the film travels back to the California of the 1930s, it looks great. The relatively small budget (under 20 million in 1990s money) is up on screen, making the locale convincing and immersive. The 90s scenes are a little more stock, and at times look like Showtime-fodder, but the lighting's noir-ish style serves the film pretty well and saves it from looking too blasé, even if the stark lighting and smoggy sets are oftentimes mired in low contrast grays. Rusnak's direction also remains pretty textbook for early-mid 90s without throwing MTV editing and jump cuts galore at the viewer. In many ways, as far as style is concerned, the film is the polar opposite to Dark City's chaotic sense of desperation; it's almost too laid back for the subject matter.
Second fiddle to the visuals is the acting, which is utilitarian and competent. Bierko is a relative unknown to me, but he's more in his element here than he was in Renny Harlin's The Long Kiss Goodnight (Good God! Ugh!). Mueller-Stahl is what you'd expect considering his character, and Vincent D'Onofrio does his usual, "I'm one freaky bastard!" shtick. Gretchen Mol and Dennis Haysbert play little more than dime store clichés, but they do it well enough. There's really nothing here that offends, and in this kind of movie, that's marvel enough.
Sony's treatment of The Thirteenth Floor on Blu-ray isn't what could be considered exemplary, though I can hardly fault them for it considering the pedigree of the film itself. Quite frankly, I'm amazed it's getting a Blu-ray release at all. It's a catalog disc first and foremost, featuring a film that crashed and burned on release (buried under the one-two punch of The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode 1) and never really did garner any kind of following, so you can imagine how it was treated. You get a decent transfer of the film that looks solid enough in 1080p but isn't really any kind of a marked improvement over your typical upscaled DVD. It's a soft image, but it isn't marred by grain or print defects and remains pretty clean and natural throughout. I've never seen the film before now, so I'm not familiar with the previous incarnation on DVD, but I'm sure it's a step up from the disc released in 1999. The sound is much the same, with nothing worthy of note. It sounds good, but it won't rattle fillings or wake neighbors.
In terms of supplements, again the lack of substance continues. We get a full-length commentary track with the director and the production designer that is neither particularly interesting nor entertaining (and so far as I can tell, ported from the 1999 DVD). We also get a music video for the Cardigans' "Erase/Rewind" track that closes out the flick (and I do like me some Cardigans). Sony also tucked a few stock trailers in there, and then pretty much called it a day. The DVD release wore the "Special Edition" moniker, so I can't help but think there may be some material missing that was present on the old disc, so fans are advised to hold onto their copy.
Existentialism always makes for great sci-fi fodder, and when you take a character in a film like The Thirteenth Floor and turn his world on its head, you usually get entertaining results. Yes, the film is easy to predict, but it's presented in a reasonably thoughtful manner, and as far as this sort of film goes, it's pretty well written. Going in blind, I was very pleasantly surprised by the final outcome, and if nothing else, it deserves a look see if you enjoy the more cerebral side of sci-fi.
Sony's treatment of the Blu-ray could have been better, sure, but I was ultimately satisfied to have the film, and as an unremarkable Hollywood production with a stable of unremarkable talent, there's really nothing of substance worth talking about from my perspective.
The Thirteenth Floor is given a reprieve. In spite of lackluster presentation, Sony is ultimately handed a pass as well for keeping things within acceptable safety standards. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Music Video