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The Thirteenth Floor

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 4 June 1999

  Directed by Josef Rusnak

Starring Craig Bierko, Armin Mueller-Stahl,
Gretchen Mol, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert,
Steve Schub,Jeremy Roberts,
Bob Clendenin, and Rachel Winfree

Written by Daniel F. Galouye and Josef Rusnak

Any film that announces itself with a quote like "I think, therefore I am," without some smart aleck retort like "I think not," is doomed. Already saddled with the toxic casting of charisma challenged Craig Bierko, whose blank smirk practically cancels out his otherwise bland good looks, and curvy but vacant kewpie doll Gretchen Mol, this film can’t afford many more strikes, but ultimately it’s done by something far more damaging than it’s slack direction and derivative screenplay: bad timing. Let’s face it, the cyber-world thing has been covered as dystopia as video game (The Matrix) and thinking man’s escape from reality (eXistenZ). The Thirteenth Floor not only adds nothing fresh to the mix, it comes off as little more than a holo-deck adventure from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only with better production values.

We start off in the happy-go-lucky 1930s, a sepia-tinged world where man-about-town Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) indulges in women, dry martinis, and the preferred seating in LA’s poshest night spot. He gravely passes an envelope to his favorite waiter Ashton (Vincent D’Onofrio) and goes home to climb into bed in a tiny working class apartment, only to wake up in a warehouse sized room crammed with computers and lit in steely blue. He trudges to a skid row bar and places a cryptic call, only to see a familiar face and wander out of the dive and into oblivion. He’s found dead the next morning, butchered in the alley.

Bierko (likely best known for his villainous turn in The Long Kiss Goodnight) is Douglas Hall, a high styling executive in a blue chip computer research film who gets his fashion tips from GQ, right down to the ever present stubble that looks painted on. Practically a son to Fuller, he’s hit with one shock after another: Fuller’s death, a call on his answering machine from the old man that had been listened to and erased, and the mysterious appearance of an unknown daughter, Jane (Mol, recently seen as Matt Damon’s girlfriend in Rounders and Leonardo Di Caprio’s adornment in Celebrity). Jane is fighting to shut down the company and the "project," the virtual reality world that Fuller has been developing and slipping into for hanky panky. As clues keep pointing to Hall as the murderer, his only avenue is to search the boss’ playland. With the help of his research partner Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio again, this time in bleached, shaggy surfer locks) he steps into the meaningless laser light show and finds himself sucked back into the 1930s, emerging clean shaven and just slightly closer to a personality, inhabiting the body of a bank teller in visceral experience that feels so real he can’t find fault with the simulation (okay, one: when asked by Whitney about the lighting and texture he answers "The color’s off but no seems to notice"). Tracking down all of Fuller’s acquaintances in virtual-land he finally lands in Ashton’s bar, but he’s got nothing for Douglas. What’s he hiding?

The mystery plays itself out in parallel in the two worlds, as a seeming conspiracy winds tighter around Douglas in the present day and he makes a few discoveries in the past, like the fact that the bodies they inhabit continue going their own merry (if somewhat puzzled) way before and after a subject jacks in. The world is perfect, in fact too perfect as he finally cracks to message Fuller has been trying to get to him. What he discovers is tied not simply to the mysterious Jane and Fuller’s vicious murder, but the very foundations of his own world.

If only director Josef Rusnak (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez) had been able to invest the drama with the necessary weight to make it seem to matter. Based on a concept that could have come from a Twilight Zone episode (it’s actually from a 1960 novel that sounds fairly interesting), it’s a smart idea tied to a mundane story and executed with all the resonance of a music video. I mean it looks great, and I don’t mean merely the great hats, smoky atmosphere, and period details of the 1930s, but the whole tech noir atmosphere of the present day, a stylized LA of impossibly cavernous sets, 20 watt bulb lighting, and near perpetual night (courtesy cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff). Investigating detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) feels like a generic throwback to 40s detective pictures: rumpled suit, street smart confidence, and a throaty voice that gives him presence even while fighting the pseudo hip lines that are supposed feel nostalgic but sound like they were lifted from a comic book. But McBain has doesn’t have the worst of it. "They say deja vu is a sign of love at first sight," sighs Jane while mooning over Douglas over dinner in a restaurant where they must be the sole customers. Puh-leeze, just sleep together and get it over with!

Produced by Roland Emmerich, with executive producers Michael Ballhaus and Helga Ballhaus, the picture lacks nothing on a technical level. If the buildings moved at night it might be Dark City, another film that echoes through the plot and the look. But those echoes do nothing to help the film. I really should have seen the ending coming, but that moment of surprise didn’t help to reestablish interest on my part, and the turgid conventionality of the conclusion, with it’s swoony/silly romantic declarations, disconnected any residual interest leftover from a purely pulp perspective.

I once defined myself as a science fiction fan because I’ll see almost anything in the genre and find some enjoyment. This is an exception. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy D’Onofrio and Haysbert on the screen, because they are terrific (D’Onofrio is gleefully mercenary as the bartender Ashton, whose fuck-it-all attitude and violent nature make him a truly dangerous and unpredictable individual), but their parts are essentially minor in a story dominated by the vacuous presence of two unconvincing performers walking through one of the least gripping thrillers of the past few years.

Is it any good? I think not.

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