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The Thirteenth Floor is a cybermystery full of ideas. It borrows The Truman Show’s idea, for example, about certain realities being finite. It also uses Blade Runner’s ideas about the validity of the soul in simulated beings, and Existenz’s ideas about the nature of interaction among computer-generated characters and their creators. Then there’s the idea from Dark City about positioning half of a pulp murder story in an art director’s dream of a computer-generated late ’30s. The art director, for his part, is simply overflowing with ideas as well, most of them from either Chinatown, the first movie in which it was cool to posit that Los Angeles had a past the way a bad woman has a past, or from The Shining, whose backlit hotel-ballroom sequences have gained a new lease on life even if the film’s late director hasn’t. The Thirteenth Floor has some other ideas, for a while, but it gets bored with them and, you know, trails off….
Precomputer science fiction traditionally concerned itself with fighting outside forces—far outside, from other planets and galaxies, whether Earth’s righteous went to battle against those beings on their home turf or they invaded this one in the form of pods, armies of moon men, or radiation. Cold War-era sci-fi, exemplified by the influential works of Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick, looked inside for the enemy and found it among and between human populations, and in our sliding scale of faith.
If the Cold War spurred the fantasy literati to ask what connected humans, the computer era raises the question of what constitutes humanity. The introduction of virtual worlds and artificial intelligence has been a boost for sci-fi; the introspection is more complex and plausible, the terrors it raises more mind-bendingly contradictory—if we don’t exist, then how can we think about existing? The simple values of earthling good guys vs. evil aliens are no longer relevant to a public as intent on gazing into its own navel as at the stars.
But just because computer technology is the best thing for sci-fi to come along since sliced Blob doesn’t mean every scenario knows what to do with it. The Matrix was halfway to something smart and thoughtful, but it never got there, because the digital technology used to make the movie was better than that in the movie, and the whole movie became a way of showing off—and very impressively—while maintaining that humans literally make a religion of their humanity. The Thirteenth Floor takes The Matrix’s premise a few steps further—there’s not one computer-generated world but “thousands”—and then has absolutely nothing to say about them.
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The Thirteenth Floor stars a big, cow-eyed slab of beef in need of a shave named Craig Bierko as Douglas Hall, a computer researcher who works with long-haired cybergeek cliche Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio) under the tutelage of “the Einstein of our generation,” an easygoing old guy named Hannon Fuller, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. Fuller has been fooling with his big invention, a virtual-world transference machine, jacking in to a virtual 1937 for the sole purpose, it seems, of thanking heaven for little girls. On the last day of his life, he leaves a note addressed to Doug in the care of sinister bartender Ashton (also D’Onofrio). Upon returning to present-day Los Angeles, Fuller is stabbed to death outside a bar; Doug is framed for the crime, and an uninteresting blond Jane, who claims she’s Fuller’s daughter (Gretchen Mol), shows up, ready to take over the company and shut it down.
The premise requires a huge suspension of disbelief, but the scenarists give us no reason to jettison large chunks of our rationality to swing with this story. The 1937 characters, we are told, exist independently, without oversight from their creators; each of the three lab guys has a computer-generated corollary whom he inhabits, once jacked in, thanks to a hilariously unconvincing “mind-transference” process, which is announced in a cool, sexy female voice like that of the Star Trek computer. Fuller steps into the body of a kindly antiques dealer; Doug is bank teller John Ferguson, and Whitney becomes Ashton. At great but unspecified risk to his mind and body, Doug must return repeatedly to his simulated world to gather clues about Fuller’s murder since, meanwhile, back in the ’90s, a snide detective (Dennis Haysbert) has fingered Doug for the crime.
Most of these plot threads are left hanging, even the killer’s identity is uninteresting, the rules of simulated-world mortality are slippery, and character motivations are maddeningly vague. Those hundred monkeys with their typewriters we keep hearing about seem to have finally sold a script: “I was working late with Whitney,” Doug protests by way of an alibi. “Was somebody with you?” “No.” (This after he’s already claimed to have been on a plane during the time of the murder. Our hero.) Nothing makes any sense, or tries to, although the flashback bits are intermittently enjoyable. Bierko loosens up when he’s the mustachioed Ferguson; his face thins out, and he has a snivelly, oppressed demeanor much more interesting than mouth-breathing stud Doug’s. D’Onofrio is marvelous as the maleficent Ashton, as is Los Angeles as a hazy ’30s dreamland, where the gleaming towers along brand-new Wilshire Boulevard, built specifically for automobile traffic, fade off into scrubby farmland and run-down shacks along “La Cienega Heights.”
Suspecting that one’s world is not quite real is a genuine fear, especially now—I can think of no better reason for the confluence of pop-cultural desires that include World War II fever, the comforting piffle of Star Wars’ outdated intergalactic diplomacy, and the movies’ use of computers as proof that we’re pawns in someone’s video game. The problem with scenarios in which this fear is realized—here as well as in The Matrix—is that it doesn’t matter. So what if we’re a simulated projection? Even the knowledge that it is so doesn’t change the course of our lives.
Computer technology has, in fact, clouded the issue. The notion of human life as a reflection in some god’s eye is an idea as old as consciousness. But whereas Blade Runner supposed, as Descartes did, that beings who feel and love and hurt and believe they exist do exist for just those reasons, and whereas The Matrix vaguely suggested a secular-humanist renaissance in which the Second Coming becomes a rebellion against godlike control, The Thirteenth Floor dumbs down those notions by positing that love can supersede simulation. Computer control has become a metaphor for faith; they both propose that someone created us, but can’t prove how it matters here and now. If filmmakers took this idea to its logical end, they’d have to conclude that the worlds within us—our various chosen gods—are as irrelevant to the actual machinations of existence as the worlds that created us on their little screens. CP