In Which it’s Turtles All the Way Down.
With a few rare exceptions it’s a bad sign when a movie focuses so much on architecture. Now I’m not talking about the camera lingering on intricate production design or focussing in on background details to fill out a world, no I’m talking about insert shots of skylines and buildings between every transition and scene. That on a regular schedule the viewer can expect another helicopter sweep of a metropolitan skyline to re-establish a setting or situation. This in and of itself isn’t inherently a problem, but a symptom of a larger issue: you have nothing to say.
The Thirteenth Floor has absolutely nothing to say, and you can tell from interminable helicopter shots of downtown LA that populate the film. Every seven minutes the viewer is treated to another swoop across the skyline to reinforce some sense of modern living, or urban malaise, or what appears to be real, or something. The truth of the matter is that it’s just padding out the runtime to hide the fact that The Thirteenth Floor is a hollow retread of stories you’ve experienced before.
It feels appropriate that The Thirteenth Floor is the second filmed adaptation of the 1964 novel Simulacron-3 after Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 70’s television special World on a Wire: because it feels like a copy, a pale imitation of artistic success in the past and a desperate scramble to incorporate modern elements into a then decades old story. The ideas and structure of Floor feel tired and re-used, salvaged from the sci-fi scrap heap into something that could pass a sexy neo-noir for the cynical decade known as the 90s.
The story goes like this. One night after making an important discovery Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is killed. Fuller was a brilliant computer scientist who set up a company to do research into artificial intelligence. A part of this research involved constructing a fully functioning simulation of 1936 Los Angeles that Fuller travels to and relives the glory days of his childhood. After his murder the police begin to suspect that Fuller’s protege Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) may be involved. So Doug digs deep into the simulation to discover the truth of the murder and the nature of reality itself. Along the way he falls in love with Fuller’s never before seen daughter Jane (Gretchen Mol), clashes with nerdy coworker Jason (Vincent D’Onofrio), and fights with Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert). His investigation leads Hall to discover that he is in fact living in a simulation, and seeks a way to escape to be with Jane in the real world.
If this all sounds rote for May of 1999 than you would be right. Not only has the story been done before (and much better) but every aesthetic influence on the film felt tired by the end of the decade. Where the The Matrix felt like a shock to the system Floor feels like an indifferent nod to the past of cyberpunk and noir. Director Josef Rusnek can barely keep the energy up as he recycles through half a century worth of cliches and visual cues.
It seems like the film wants to literalize the noir/crime genre elements that serve as the structure in a lot of cyberpunk movies, but it doesn’t go any further than surface details. The simulation set in the 30’s certainly looks handsome, what with the conspicuous sepia tones and lush sets, but there’s no real reason why the simulation has to be set in the 30’s. No thematic strings are pulled about the depression or the heyday of the studio system, it just feels like window dressing for a story about computers. Maybe Rusnek and company thought the setting would make the film visually distinct from many of its tech thriller contemporaries, but it doesn’t because as soon as we are sent back up to the 90s we are treated to every visual trope that the decade employed. Do we have stacks of servers reflecting the urban design of cities? Yes. Do we go to a garishly lit club that constantly plays house music? Absolutely. Some shitty CG to represent a sort of “matrix” that the characters live in? You know it.
The noir sensibilities seem to pop up again in the form of Mol’s character. Who appears to be to a classic femme fatale before reverting into just another love interest for our distressed hero to fall in bed with. There’s really nothing to her character besides a pretty face for the audience to look at, and it feels gross for the only major female character in the film to be relegated mostly to the lusts of competing characters.
So what about the big picture, “think about it man” sci-fi headiness that the film wants to traffic in, does anything there hold interest? The answer is a resounding no. The film tries to get some mileage out of a fun conceit, that a person entering the simulation has to switch minds with an AI. That means that while Douglas is in the 30’s the mind of the character he is inhabiting is living in his body in the 90’s until they switch again. This allows the movie to play around with the nature of identity as different personalities are allowed to inhabit the same body. However outside a rather hoary twist (Hall is the murderer, but only because a different person from above the simulation was inhabiting his body at the time of the incident) nothing is really done with this setup. Yes D’Onofrio does get to play two different wacky characters with weird hair, but the whys and whats of the situations are never really investigated.
There are glancing shots at thematic depth, but it’s all really nothing. The Thirteenth Floor is a full blah of a feature film, with each and every single one of its ideas being better represented elsewhere. It has none of the paranoid thrills or formal excellence of World on A Wire. Despite aping many contemporary productions it lacks the 90’s cinema junk appeal of something like Hackers or Johnny Mnemonic. The Thirteenth Floor doesn’t really have anything, and so it fills its time with a few more shots of the LA skyline, hoping you won’t notice the emptiness on display.
Odds and Ends
- Really just watch Fassbinder’s World on Wire. It’s great and free to stream on Kanopy now.
- Scrolling through the credits it seems like this was a movie propped up by a variety of European sources of funding (specifically German as Roland Emmerich serves as a producer) might be one of the reasons this feels so out of place with its setting.
- This is the most imminently skippable movie I’ve covered. Really just a dull, rote piece of work with nothing to offer. If someone says it’s better than The Matrix that person is lying.
Next week we enter the new millennium to see what the The Matrix wrought with 2002’s Equilibrium.