The Thirteenth Floor is like a failed romance. When we meet we are full of hope. The screenwriter courts us with a unique science fiction premise, the actors work hard to convince us, and the direction and cinematography seem as certain as a rock on an index finger. We find ourselves thinking that perhaps this is the one: a sci-fi movie we can learn to love again. No more silly phantom menaces but real characters in a virtual world that forces us to think, to mull over the chimerical nature of reality itself. Could this be – dare we think it – another 2001?
Nope. It never gets past Y2K. Halfway through the film all the power goes off. If we listen closely perhaps we can hear people rushing around and shouting: "Y2K! The Sky is Falling! Hurry and explain everything!" Our hearts fall like the pretty girl in the bloody elevator. "Quick! Make the guy get the girl! Knock her around a few times too! Then tie up the 4,000 remaining loose ends, even if they make no sense! Y2K! Y2K! Ai-yeeeee!"
What else could explain a movie that loves us so at first, then drops us like a used-up bag of popcorn, to wallow in our disappointment and wonder if we shouldn’t have tried a little harder to like that nice, rich Lucas boy?
Director Josef Rusnak, actors Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, and Vincent D’Onofrio (who is wonderfully evil, as always) initially intrigue us with the idea that humans in the next century have developed computer-simulated worlds so lifelike that no one can really know whether he is virtual or real. It’s like Deja Who? The concept is complex and fascinating. The on-screen computer world, a re-creation of Los Angeles in 1937, is wonderful. Facts are falling so fast we can’t keep up with them, but we like going along for the ride because it’s exciting to be moving so fast and there’s a lot to see.
Enter the love story: David, I mean Douglas, is, married to Bridget, I mean Natasha …I mean Jane…but that was then, see, and now…whaaa? What about that insane bartender? You want me to believe Armin Mueller-Stahl, the sweet little grandfather from Avalon, is a bad guy? Is he dead or alive? And…well, can you really make love to a simulation if you’re a simulation?
An interesting sidelight to the issue of confusion here is that three-fourths of the way through the film the soundtrack either malfunctioned, or was meant to sound as if it were malfunctioning. I thought it was intentional. My partner, Miss I’d Rather See Harrison Ford, thought it was a screw-up. Since at that point everything was being shot through a blue filter and the story had careened far out of control there was no way to know for sure.
In its defense, The Thirteenth Floor may be a film you have to see more than once. It is possible that there are inklings in the fabulous first half that on several viewings will help clear up the wreckage of the second half. There are interesting special effects, in particular the way the characters zoom back and forth between then and now. The acting is more than adequate.
So see it – but don’t expect to fall head-over-heels. It might work best as a rental at home with the sound turned off so the laughable dialogue ("but…you can’t fall in love with a dream…") will not insert itself between you and the movie you’d hoped would last forever.