Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language
Directed by: Josef Rusnak
Written by: Josef Rusnak, Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez
(based on the novel SIMULACRON 3 by Daniel Galouye)
Starring: Craig Bierko, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, Steven Schub
In this history of cinematic bad timing, I would wager that there probably wasn’t a worse year than 1999. Most of these misfires revolved around the smash-hit that was THE MATRIX. For example, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR was labeled as a bad knock-off before it was even released in the poorly thought-out summer spot of May 28. Only a two-month gap since THE MATRIX’s release had passed and it was easy to see why audiences might make the mistake of thinking that THIRTEENTH FLOOR was a rushed cash-in. This was a bad assumption, because this film is actually based on the 1964 novel: SIMULACRON 3 by Daniel F. Galouye. This also meant that those going in expecting an action-packed spectacle were given something else entirely as well. It’s a shame that the film has remained mostly forgotten, because THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR is an underrated gem of the science-fiction genre.
Imagine a device that could transport you into 1930’s-era Los Angeles. This machine would download your consciousness into a virtual reality for a designated amount of time. Douglas Hall, Hannon Fuller, and Jason Whitney are the trio of programmers responsible for this simulation. When Fuller is murdered, Douglas must venture into the simulation for clues regarding Fuller’s demise. A few other things are a foot as well. Who is the mysterious woman claiming to be Fuller’s long-lost daughter? Who is the unseen stranger trying to frame Douglas for the crime? Most importantly, what is the discovery that got Fuller killed?
To get the obvious comparison out of the way, THIRTEENTH FLOOR has some similar ideas to THE MATRIX. It is in the execution where things differ considerably. This film has a far more restrained and subtle approach than the (admittedly awesome) Wachowski siblings’ film. It’s almost like a noir injected with science-fiction. The only recognizable actor in the cast is Vincent D’Onofrio (which makes for another stupid reason to have released it in summer blockbuster territory). Despite the lack of familiar faces, the cast all do excellent jobs in their roles. I feel kind of bad that most of them haven’t become bigger names in the industry. It’s even more impressive that some people are pulling double-duty (playing both characters in the real world and those in the simulated Los Angeles).
The look of the 1930’s realm clearly sets these sequences apart from the real world scenes. The color scheme is toned down. A thick atmosphere permeates through every scene. The costumes and set designs are appropriate for the time period and it was clear that plenty of attention was being paid to little details. There is an appropriate sense of danger lurking around every corner in the simulation and the real world isn’t much friendlier.
Some movies would have just been content in entertaining the viewer with the idea of a murder-mystery split between two worlds: one grounded in reality and the other a virtual simulation of a classier time. Plot-wise THIRTEENTH FLOOR has far more going for it than one might expect from reading the general premise. Herein, lies my sole complaint with the film. I thought that while there were plenty of cool twists, there wasn’t enough running time to fully let the viewer digest each revelation after they hit.
The final 40 minutes unload so many unexpected surprises at a rapid fire pace, that I wish this movie had another solid 30-40 minutes added to expand on these areas of the story. If there was sufficient enough time to get this plot perfected, then would have the potential of being an unknown classic. THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR is a film that could definitely benefit if there were more space to flesh out the creative ideas in the latter half.
At the end of the day, this is a clever film that left me with a lot to mentally chew on. It didn’t deserve to become a box office disappointment, nor did it deserve the scathing reviews that many critics wrote. THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR is a severely underrated piece of intelligent science-fiction. I’m glad to have stumbled across it and if this sounds like something you might be interested in, then definitely check it out!