In olden times, say in the early ’60s when "The Twilight Zone" was having its first run, if someone wanted to tell a story about a character, or characters, who slowly come to realize that the world as they know it is actually a simulation, somebody else’s dream or perhaps a projection from their own unconscious, a certain mix of philosophy, psychology and fantasy could serve as the expository base. Now the enlightened fabricator must add science to the mix. Chances are, if the world around our hero begins to dissolve, there’s more microchips than madness behind the nightmare.
The Thirteenth Floor is the latest entry in this new genre and it suffers by comparison to some of its recent predecessors. Less edgy than eXistenZ, less state-of-the-art than The Matrix, it plays out like a neonoir, semiaction flick with more attention than usual paid to the cinematography and decor, but with characters that remain, for the most part, thinly drawn.
Our protagonist Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), moves between a computer-created, sepia-toned past (Los Angeles, 1937) and an equally stylized present (nameless metropolis, 1999), where dusky-blue shadows dominate the color scheme. The ersatz past is populated by clones of three of the present’s main characters – Hannen Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the creator of this project whose purpose remains vague; his assistant Hall; and a further-down-the-line assistant Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio) – plus a phalanx of extras whose origins are never explained.
The film opens with a murder and the suggestion that someone from the simulated past might have somehow "escaped" into the present to do the dirty deed, but this is a red herring soon dispensed with. There’s a much more complicated game afoot and one of the disappointments of the movie is the way it tosses out a handful of interesting ideas without fully exploiting them.
As for the actors, Bierko is a stalwart but uninteresting hero; D’Onofrio, in a juicy part, underacts to a fault and Gretchen Mol shows up as a rather wan damsel in distress. Only the always-soulful Mueller-Stahl adds a touch of humanity to this mildly interesting computer game.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].