June 8, 1999 -- "The Thirteenth Floor" has a basic premise which is somewhat similar to "The Matrix," but that's where the similarity ends. While "The Matrix" is a pure action film, "The Thirteenth Floor" is more of a murder mystery combined with science fiction and philosophy.
Based on the novel "Simulacron-3," by Daniel F. Galouye and co-written by Josef Rusnak, also the movie’s director, the film portrays a computer simulation so realistic, peopled by cyber-beings so complete that these beings have achieved sentience and they think they are real people living in a real world.
The creator of this virtual world, modeled on Los Angeles of 1937, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl of "Shine" and "The Game") is brutally murdered. All the clues point toward Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko of "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), a fellow programmer and the man who stands to inherit the company.
Hall was the last man seen with Fuller and his shirt is bloody the next day, but he can't recall where he was. He decides the answer must be inside the computer simulation. He downloads his consciousness into the virtual body of a bank teller and seeks to find a clue left behind for him by Fuller in virtual 1937 Los Angeles.
His quest for knowledge, driven by the need to clear his name of the murder charge, leads down a dark path to a terrifying and mind-boggling discovery. At one point, a character in 1937 Los Angeles drives down a deserted road and comes to the end of the world, the very limits of his computer-generated reality. He is only a computer program, electrons flowing through circuits. The knowledge drives him mad.
The movie, like Matrix, questions the very nature of our reality, but in a different way. In Matrix, the people were real, it was only the world around them that was an interactive computer program. In "The Thirteenth Floor," we have cyber-beings discovering the truth, not only about their world, but themselves. In the end, one cyber-being tells a "real person" to "go away and leave us alone." He's saying he just wants to live his life without "real people" interfering in his existence just for the fun of it.
Our own world can be viewed in the same terms. Science teaches us that we cannot really see, hear, taste, touch or smell anything. Our world is a simulation, a construct of our minds, which are only electrons flowing along neurons to chemical receptors in our brains, not that different from the circuits of a computer. When I see the color red, does it look the same to you? We have no way of knowing if our shared universe is anywhere near the same. We like to think so. Maybe that is the only way to stay sane.
The movie opens with the famous quote from the philosopher René Descartes, "I think, therefore I am." It argues that sentience is dependent on that realization, not on whether the brain which thinks that thought is made of flesh or micro chips. The movie also questions the very nature of reality and explores the dangers of playing God.
The movie also makes the unconvincing argument that the brain of a cyber-being can be downloaded into a human brain and that this will will somehow work. One would think that the two types of minds would be different enough that the cyber-brain would be completely incompatible with brain synapses, motor skills, eyes, ears, etc. Even if the two types of minds were compatible, wouldn't it take some time for the mind and body to adjust to each other? And how do you go about erasing the memories and personality of the original brain? Those memories are, in part, chemically-based, not entirely electrical.
This film does not have the stunning visuals of "The Matrix," but the sets of 1937 Los Angeles are spectacular in their detail, scope and authentic look. The cinematography by Wedigo von Schultzendorff effectively uses subdued colors to evoke an air of antiquity in the scenes of old Los Angeles. Apart from that, this is not a big special effects movie and it is not an action movie. It is just good science fiction.
Gretchen Mol ("Rounders," "Celebrity") does a fine job with the character of Jane Fuller, although the romantic angle doesn't work because it isn't developed enough in the script. The chameleon-like Vincent D'Onofrio ("Men in Black") is very effective in his dual role of Whitney and Ashton. Dennis Haysbert ("Absolute Power") is good as the Detective Larry McBain, who has the thankless task job of trying to solve the murder of Fuller.
This movie is one of those science fiction sleepers like "The Arrival," "Gattaca" or "Dark City," which are good, thought-provoking, adult-oriented science fiction films, but for one reason or another, don't do well at the box office. "The Thirteenth Floor" had the bad luck to come out after "The Matrix" and during "Star Wars." It is also a film aimed at adults, rather than children and teenagers, which comprise the larger science fiction market. This film rates a B.
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