The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Directed by Josef Rusnak
Cast: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D'Onofrio, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dennis Haysbert.
1999 101 minutes
Rated: (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 29, 1999.
Even before filmmaker Josef Rusnak's new sci-fi picture, "The Thirteenth Floor," had been released, people were already comparing it to such recent films as "The Matrix," "Dark City," and "eXistenZ," but this comparison actually holds no water and is only related in a superficial way. Although "The Thirteenth Floor" has acquired a similar storyline concerning alternate realities and virtual technology, the style in which the subject matter is approached relies more on '30s film noir than action or fantasy (even though it has a little bit of both). If anything, the film reminded me of 1994's Jean-Claude Van Damme pic, "Timecop," if you can believe that.
Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a groundbreaking computer designer and leader of a corporate tower, has invented a virtual reality system that stands as a realistic simulation of Los Angeles, circa 1937. It seems Fuller has been "jacking in" quite a lot lately, and found himself a hunted man in both worlds, the simulation and 1999. Before he is killed, however, he leaves a note with a bartender in 1937 to be given to his close confidante and computer researcher, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko). When much of the murder evidence ominously points toward Douglas, he decides to go back to the simulated '30s in hopes of finding out why Fuller was killed, and if he really did do it. Meanwhile, a mysterious, fetching young woman, Jane (Gretchen Mol), claims to be Fuller's daughter, and immediately grows an attraction with Douglas, both of whom are struck with an odd sense of deja vu that they've met before.
Sony, the studio behind "The Thirteenth Floor" (which is based upon the Daniel F. Galouye novel, "Simulacron 3"), probably couldn't have chosen a more inopportune time to be releasing this film. The summer of big blockbusters has just begun to gear up in recent weeks, and this film is a deliberately-paced, rather un-mainstream movie without a "name" actor in the whole cast. Not only that, but "The Matrix" is still playing in most theaters, and the television spots for "The Thirteenth Floor" have probably been too similar to picque sci-fi fans' interest. Perhaps an early-spring berth would have been a more intelligent release time because, as is, the film has next to no chance at being a box-office success.
So, regardless of money, how is the actual film? Well, after a rocky opening twenty minutes that never really grasped ahold of my interest, the movie gradually got more and more involving and intriguing until I actually began to enjoy it midway through. The idea of alternate realities is not a new one, but it almost always seems fresh here, most likely because it doesn't follow the usual genre bandwagon and go for non-stop action, explosions, and special effects. There is an actual brain working within "The Thirteen Floor," and while this is always apparent, the film ultimately fails to take off in time to fully save itself. By the end, there are still many noticable plot holes that certainly needed to be worked out, but maybe I should just be thankful that it was at least comprehensible, as opposed to the overblown, overplotted, overrated "The Matrix."
The cast is good for what they're worth, but no one ever really comes off as fully developed and three-dimensional. Craig Bierko is an unfamiliar face who has what it takes to act as the protagonist, but I never really grew to care about his fate. The same goes for Vincent D'Onofrio, as Douglas' buddy in the present and a bartender in the simulation world. Armin Mueller-Stahl is thoroughly wasted as Fuller, the vital chaacter who sets the plot into motion, but all but disappears afterwards. And finally, we come to Gretchen Mol, a luminous young actress whom has occasionally, and unfairly, been criticized for her questionable acting talents. What "those" people fail to understand, however, is that Mol does have range, but her full abilities have not been put to the cinematic test yet, since most of her roles thus far have been relatively small. Mol is the one strong link in "The Thirteenth Floor," and in several scene, particularly one set at a grocery store, she manages to not strike one false note.
By the time "The Thirteenth Floor" had reached its climax, I was far more engrossed in the goings-on than I was in the first hour, but the film still came off as nothing more than a valiant failure. The screenplay, by Josef Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, brings up many thought-provoking questions and unpredictable twists, but the dialogue and characters needed another re-write. "The Thirteenth Floor" is one case in which individual moments and ideas come off as far more powerful, and memorable, than the overall whole.
©1999 by Dustin Putman