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THIRTEENTH FLOOR, THE(director/writer: Josef Rusnak; screenwriter: Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez /based on the book “Simulacron ” by Daniel Galouye; cinematographer: Wedigo von Schultzendorff; editor: Henry Richardson; cast: Craig Bierko (Douglas Hall/Joe Ferguson), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Hannon Fuller), Gretchen Mol (Jane Fuller), Vincent D’Onofrio (Whitney/Ashton), Dennis (Detective Larry McBain), Steve Schub (Zev Bernstein), Jeremy Roberts (Tom Jones); Runtime: 100; Columbia Pictures; 1999)
“Though the film tried, it simply couldn’t create too much depth for its characters.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This science-fiction thriller is based on the 1964 novel “Simulacron 3” by Daniel Galouye. It asks the question, How would you react in finding out that your world is not real? This is a theme a number of ’90s sci-fi films have already done. It seems as if the movies are running out of ideas for this world and need the after-life for more material.

The film opens with a quote from Descartes (1596-1650): “I think, therefore I am.” Supposedly, I am being prepared for a film that will make me think. Instead, what I got was a sci-fi film that left me somewhat confused by its being both a murder mystery and a time travel sci-fi’er.

It was also very difficult to keep track of what was going on, as the film moved back and forth between two different time frames. It was difficult for me to grok what is meant by the creation of parallel dimensions and how it is possible for our world to be a copy of another. What made it even more difficult, was that the story line was built around the murder case and not around the more interesting ideas generated by time travel. Yet, it was this virtual reality computerized world that left me dazzled with its engrossing ideas.

Though the film tried, it simply couldn’t create too much depth for its characters. They remained tied to the sci-fi part of the story. This meant that they had to act as copies. They performed their task well, but their characters couldn’t expand because of the limitations they were presented with. They just didn’t have too much sparkle. Even the romance between the leads was jejune.

The plot centers around a virtual reality device created that allows the user to “jack-in” and play out various experiences in 1937 Los Angeles. These creations have feelings and emotions just like people; but, they don’t know they’re not real.

The film opens as Hannon Fuller (Armin) leaves a mysterious letter with an unreliable bartender, Ashton (D’Onofrio), in a virtual reality world of 1937 Los Angeles. The bartender reads the letter he was supposed to give only to Douglas Hall (Bierko). Hannon Fuller is next seen in bed with his wife. But he is soon in a hurry to leave his apartment and go to this seedy bar. Once there, he leaves an urgent phone message on his underling’s phone machine. When he leaves the bar he gets fatally knifed in front of the bar. This murder takes place in the real world of modern Los Angeles.

The letter Fuller gave the bartender had a warning that they must stop the program they are running. It is too dangerous. All signs point to the killer being his colleague and heir to the computer empire, Douglas Hall. He, unfortunately, can’t remember a thing, as he wakes up in his apartment with a blood-stained shirt in the wastebasket. Doug is forced to “jack-in” and return to 1937 Los Angeles to look for clues so he can find the real killer. He is helped in this endeavor by his colleague Whitney (D’Onofrio). Yes. Whitney is Ashton in the parallel world. In the 1937 world that Doug returns to, he will be identified as a bank teller named Joe Ferguson.

Detective McBain (Haysbert) is in the real world and it is his job to get the killer. He shows up at Fuller’s computer empire and starts grilling the logical suspect and number one employee, Douglas Hall. Jane Fuller (Gretche Mol) is the love interest of Doug. She turns up on the 13th floor of the computer empire claiming to be the daughter of Hannon, who was never mentioned to Doug. In the 1937 world, she is a gum-chewing check-out clerk in a supermarket.

The 13th Floor, directed by Josef Rusnak from a screenplay he wrote with Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, can be valued for its re-creation of a 1937 Los Angeles of fancy bars, booming oil wells, and a magnificent Wilshire Boulevard setting. All this ostentation taking place in the middle of our Great Depression. It was fun to see this opulent depiction of a town that was to only grow more opulent and depressed in the future. It took this cyberthriller into noir film territory, as the falsely accused hero goes searching for the bartender to help him solve the mystery. The simulations that brought him back to 1937, are a result of a computer chip developed by Hannon. In this original story, it seems Hannon has made one too many simulations himself and now wants to abort the project.

All the characters had different roles in their former lives. Hannon Fuller was a poor junk store owner in 1937 contrasted with his role in the present world, as the very wealthy corporate magnate. In his simulations, he frequented the glitzy bar which provided him with girls for pleasure.

I got mixed messages from this film. I thought it was an interesting concept, that somehow didn’t seem as exciting as it should be on the first viewing. I will reserve final judgment, since I think it could look better upon seeing it again. As for the flatness of the characters, that I’m afraid won’t change. But I must say, I thought the actors did a really fine job considering the limitations placed on them by the script. Also, the filmmaker did a good job with the costume and set designs. I wanted to like this film more than I actually did; but it was ruined, somewhat, because too much of the film was taken up by the uninteresting murder case.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”