The Thirteenth Floor (review)

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Blade Bummer

It’s gotten to the point where this is a deal-breaker for me, when it comes to believing in a movie: If there’s a character with a two-day growth of beard for more than two days, I get annoyed. I mean, either it has to grow some more or it has to get shaved off, right? It simply is not possible to have a two-day growth of beard for a week, is it?

The offending facial hair in The Thirteenth Floor belongs to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and if that were the only distraction in the movie, I could let it slide. Instead it’s just one more thing to pick on in a flick that’s neither as bad as it could have been nor as good as it deserves to be.
Douglas is a computer software designer in contemporary Los Angeles, and with his boss, Hammond Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl, from The X-Files and The Peacemaker), they’ve created a kind of virtual reality that’s nothing new if you’re at all familiar with the science fiction of the past twenty years: It’s a Star Trek-ian holodeck that you plug your brain into. Their working prototype program is 1937 Los Angeles, and even though they’re supposedly months away from a trial run, Fuller has been secretly jacking in and passing time with the local girls, who are “as real as you or me.” Thanks to his experience in the program, Fuller has made an astounding discovery…

That covers about the first ten minutes of the film, and from there on in, The Thirteenth Floor moves along by rote, going through the motions that will allow Douglas to unravel the mystery. A puzzle box of a movie, it’s all about finding the way out of the maze. But here’s the problem: If the concepts of the film are nothing new to the viewer (as they will not be to anyone who’s seen Blade Runner, The Matrix, Dark City, The Truman Show, or The Game), there is nothing to be puzzled out, and the path through the maze is obvious. And there’s nothing beyond the mystery — no intriguing characters, no ambiguous subtext — to hold a savvy viewer’s attention. The film even skips what should have been a glaringly obvious final touch, in the last few moments of the film, that would have given it a tiny bit of ironic zing.

Which left my mind free to wander, seeing as it was not particularly caught up in the story, to be annoyed with Douglas’s shaving habits. I also was unengrossed enough to be struck by inane dialogue that might have slipped by me otherwise. Douglas’s computer geek Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio, and more on him later) calls Fuller “the Einstein of our generation,” which is absurd, not because of anything to do with Fuller’s genius but because, at a good thirty to forty years older than either Douglas or Whitney, Fuller could in no way be considered part of their generation. (“The Einstein of our day” would have conveyed the same idea just as well.) Jane (Gretchen Mol, from Donnie Brasco), who shows up claiming to be Fuller’s daughter, says to Douglas, when they’re both feeling as if they’ve met before, “They say that déjà vu is usually a sign of love at first sight.” Who says that? I’ve never heard that before.

And the more I think about it, the more I’m bothered by the film’s title: apart from a shot of someone pressing an elevator button with the number 13 on it, the title has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie. I was expecting a hidden floor in a menacing corporate tower to have something to do with something, but nothing doing. If we’re meant to connect the psychological trick we play when we skip from 12 to 14 in numbering the floors of a building to the themes the movie touches upon — though that would be a big stretch — there’s no hint of that to be found in the film.

While there’s not much to recommend this movie to genre fans, those unfamiliar with its conceits probably would find it diverting, and it certainly isn’t a bad production. Directed by Josef Rusnak, The Thirteenth Floor looks good, from its noirish contemporary L.A. to the oddly blurry — yet fittingly so — look of the virtual 30s L.A. Its young cast is fine and holds mild promise, with the exception of the chameleonlike D’Onofrio, who’s already brilliant (his one scene, as young Orson Welles, in Ed Wood is riveting and unforgettable, and he all but steals Men in Black from Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith). Though he’s mostly wasted here, he does bring a nicely menacing quality to Whitney’s alter-ego character in the computer program.

Cerebral but passionless, The Thirteenth Floor is the latest in the current wave of reality-questioning, existentialistic science fiction, though it unfortunately has nothing new to offer.

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