The Thirteenth Floor Movie Review

If you couldn't wrap your head around "eXistenZ"or "TheMatrix," this year's other two virtualreality thrillers, "The Thirteenth Floor" may be more your speed.

Similar in theme -- with simulated worlds layered uponone another and actuality strongly in question -- but aimed squarely atthe lowest common denominator, this high-gloss, high-concept string ofshallow surprises and gaping holes start well but quickly becomes so absurdthat the audience at the sneak preview I attended was laughing out loudat some of the movie's most somber moments.

The biggest chortle came when one of the characters tearfullydeclares her love for a guy who, it has been revealed, is merely a computersimulation. I mean, human-hologram love stories were silly when "StarTrek" did them 10 years ago.

In the early going, "The Thirteenth Floor" isa passable and seemingly complex puzzle in which a leading-edge computerengineer (Craig Bierko, "Fearand Loathing in Las Vegas") sleuths aroundin a fully-realized, independently functional simulation of 1937 Los Angeles-- which he helped create -- trying to solve the murder of his programmingpartner, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl ("The X-Files," "Shine").

Mueller-Stahl had made a startling discovery regardingsimilarities between reality and their virtual world, which is so advancedthat it is populated by sentient, self-aware characters capable of emotionand independent thought. Before he died, he had left a letter about hisfindings with a smarmy bartender inside the simulation (Vincent D'Onofrio),who in turn reads the letter, realizes he isn't real and begins to testthe perimeters between the two worlds.

Computer-generated visual effects have never been put tobetter use than in creating the landscape of the simulated old L.A. forthis film. It is so seamless, vivid and authentic that I wondered at firstif German writer-director Josef Rusnak hadn't colorized stock footage fromthe '30s for the street scenes (the color is slightly off on purpose --it's a bug in the simulation). This is the movie's one really strong element.

By contrast, back in present day, Bierko's lab is a typicallysteely sci-fi set with lots of green laser beams flashing through mistyrooms for effect and computers running the Moron 1.0 operating system thatfills monitors with useless red-lettered alerts in 200-point type and announcesrepeatedly in a tinny voice things like "Warning! Timer not engaged!"

Such warnings are frequent, as Bierko spends a lot of timecoming in and out of the simulation looking for clues to clear his nameafter becoming the prime suspect in the murder when he can't account forlapses in his memory (just like the character whose skin he jumps intowhen he enters the simulation...hmm, what could it mean?).

Most of the cast has dual roles, playing both a presentday character and that character's computer-generated doppelganger insidethe system. The versatile and under-appreciated D'Onofrio ("TheNewton Boys," "MenIn Black") gets the most out of this duality,doing a mousy John Malkovich as a pasty, reclusive simulation programmerwho whose alter-ego is the warped and evil (for no explored reason) bartenderthat eventually finds his way out of the simulation. Gorgeous GretchenMol ("Rounders")plays Mueller-Stahl's evasive daughter, who leads a different kind of amnesia-induceddouble life.

But for all its complexities, "The Thirteenth Floor"is little more than flimsy made-for-cable fare catapulted into theaterson the boffo box office merits of its producer, Roland Emmerich ("IndependenceDay," "Godzilla").

The story goes into a ludicrous downward spiral in thelast act with that aforementioned real girl-digital guy romance and onemore plot twist that's the kind of thing soap opera writers come up withwhen they try to add a sci-fi storylines to daytime dramas.

The movie is riddled with blatant continuity errors andshopworn genre staples (passing between reality and simulation takes usthrough one of those ubiquitous wormhole effects). What's more, the charactersoften have to avoid obvious solutions to their dilemmas because if theyacted logically, the movie would be over in a hurry.

With two similar and vastly superior movies already playingin theaters right now, there's really no reason to bother with this sub-parlate-comer.


The Thirteenth Floor Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, Friday, May 28, 1999


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