Director Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor was released in 1999, and almost immediately vanished from peoples’ radars, and has never really gotten back on there. The reason why has less to do with its quality though, and more to do with two little words: The Matrix. The Matrix came out a few months earlier, and it seems there was only room in peoples’ viewing schedules for one virtual-reality-themed science-fiction movie.
The Thirteenth Floor stars Craig Bierko as Douglas Hall, a software developer whose firm is constructing the first full-fledged reality simulator. Designed by his boss Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the VR world simulates the city of Los Angeles, as it was in 1937. But Hannon has discovered there is something wrong about the setup, and leaves a message for Doug in the simulation, while Doug is away on a trip out of town. He then tries to get a hold of Doug in the real world, but before he can, he is brutally murdered. And Doug, who awakes to find himself with gaps in his memory, finds a bloodied shirt in his laundry basket and himself prime suspect. To find the clues to who the real killer is, he’s going to have to go into the simulation, housed in the 13th floor.
All those lasers can’t be good for the eyes.
There are some complications in Doug’s quest to find the killer. First, of course, is that Detective McBain (Dennis Hasybert), is deeply suspicious of Doug… which isn’t helped at all by Doug’s memory lapses. Then there’s the memory lapses themselves; his co-worker Jason Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio) speculates they may be caused by spending too much time in the simulation, but the simulation is where Hannon left the full message. Doug knows there’s a message waiting for him there from a recording on his answering machine, but if he wants to know exactly what Hannon knew that got him killed, he has to go into the simulation. And he may not have much time to do it, as Hannon’s hither-to unknown daughter Jane (Gretchen Mol) has just arrived, and wants to shut the simulation program down as soon as she gets control of the company. But the biggest complication of all is the simulation itself; it runs 24/7 whether people are using it or not. The units in the simulation have their own thought processes, their own emotions. Jacking in to the system means taking the place of a pre-created unit designed to look like one’s self, but which has its own life and personality when one isn’t jacked in. So when Doug enters the simulation, he’s entering another man’s life, and interacting with familiar faces that behave in completely different ways.
People are strange, when you’re a stranger.
This affords a few members of the cast a lot of opportunities to show off their range. Bierko’s double is barely seen without Doug in mental control, but he still gets a few minutes to act as a different character here and there. Mueller-Stahl has a fair amount of screen time after his real-world character’s death as the mild-mannered bookstore owner he was taking over in the simulation. Gretchen Mol doesn’t have as much time playing dual roles, but she does get to put on a different accent and mannerisms between the wealthy Jane Fuller and a humble grocery clerk. But the man who gets to do the most is Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Whitney as being high-strung and a bit out of it, and gets to play his VR counterpart Ashton as a slick and somewhat psychotic snake. The only major cast member who doesn’t get the dual-role treatment is Dennis Haysbert, and he has such film presence he dominates the scenes he’s in anyway (which makes me wonder when we’ll see him in something again; I’m sure the Allstate commercials pay well, but he’s better than that.)
The one weakness of the script is that it all seems just a little too abrupt. Things happen fast, and there’s sometimes a feeling like you’re watching a summary of the plot rather than the plot itself. Jane falls for Doug quickly, and we don’t really see much of a reason why. And the murder plot is revealed and resolved in a fairly perfunctory manner; it’s also not too hard to figure out, nor how it will be resolved. It might be that the film suffers a bit from a sense of having been there, done that, in that somebody familiar with the genre is going to be more prepared for where the plot is going.
Even so, it’s still a reasonably entertaining little film. The actors are the main reason to watch it, though. The story is good, but nothing too mind-blowing in this day and age (maybe it would have been in 1999). But the opportunity to see a group of skilled actors play several different characters all interacting with each other is what really sells this film.