1999 was a virtual reality kind of year, at least in Hollywood. “The Matrix” was released the end of March, “eXistenZ” followed in April, and “The Thirteenth Floor” came out the end of May. And as far as audiences were concerned, it was an illustration of the law of diminishing returns. The best came first, and the least accomplished came last, and the reason has nothing to do with newfangled technologies or special effects. It all comes down to good old-fashioned filmmaking: telling a story that’s compelling, structuring it with scenes that create and sustain tension, and tossing in a few memorable scenes just so audiences can recall the film long after they’ve left the theater.
I decided to test this idea, and I watched “The Thirteenth Floor” a week ago, then went about my business, delaying the writing of this review. And what stuck with me? Not much.
“The Thirteenth Floor” is a sci-fi mystery that could have been a thriller with another rewrite and crisper direction. As it is, Josef Rusnak (“It’s Alive”) can’t seem to find the pulse of this film. Since it’s supposed to be a murder mystery with a sci-fi virtual reality twist I won’t spoil it for readers, and so my synopsis will be as brief as my recall of the film:
Based on a novel (Simulacron 3) by Daniel F. Galouye, “The Thirteenth Floor” has a tagline that says, “You can go there even though it doesn’t exist.” It’s all about a top-secret research project that’s funded and spearheaded by Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who creates a virtual reality simulator that doesn’t just create scenes or scenarios. It somehow recreates an entire functional working city from a different era: Los Angeles, in the Thirties. And when someone from the computer research firm enters the virtual reality simulator, he or she becomes a character, with a backstory, job, relationship (or not), and role to “play.” But the role seems real. It’s like someone who’s married to two different people in two different states and leading two different lives. Do it for long enough, and it’s tough to tell which one is the extramarital affair and which is the real marriage.
Everything is hunky dory until Fuller enters the world and leaves a note for his right-hand man, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko). That note is left with a bartender (Vincent D’Onofrio) at a hotel where he’s a regular in 1930’s L.A., and when he returns to “reality” he leaves a message for Hall telling him about the note. But whatever it says, it’s apparently enough to get him killed, because Fuller is found murdered. And so the murder mystery is set in motion across time and space, with Hall running into Fuller’s daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol) and having that weird sense of déjà vu that films like this depend upon. It’s no surprise that the police investigating the murder are considering Hall a prime suspect, and so he has to go back to L.A. in the Thirties as well as poke around his real world in order to solve the crime and stay out of prison.
The weird thing is, I don’t remember a whole lot of details–just the plot. If I try to recreate some of the scenes in my mind, I have a hard time. What stands out is the hotel bar and the interaction there, which means there aren’t enough “money” shots in this sci-fi murder mystery to make it much of a thriller, or even (if you think about it) a mystery.
All of Rusnak’s attempts seem to have been directed at making a period film that’s convincing, but like so many period films the wardrobe looks like it came off the rack of a theater company. Everything is just a little too new, and a sepia wash over the whole thing isn’t enough to blunt that fact. The other thing about the Thirties’ setting is that it could have lent itself to a noir treatment, but Rusnak doesn’t pull it off. Missing is the flirtation with melodrama that all but defines film noir, and a hard-boiled tension that derives from an investigation that depends upon a string of interesting characters and situations. Though the potential was here, Rusnak misses the noir point and instead just gives us a narrative that plods along and kills any immediate interest you might have in whodunit. You get complacent. You sit back and watch, never on the edge of your seat, when if Rusnak could have gotten us intothe virtual reality things might have been different. As it is, there’s nothing terribly memorable here. Yes, there’s a plot twist, but the scenes are such a drag on the narrative that it doesn’t make the payoff worthwhile.
Could stars have helped a film like this? Maybe. They might have found a way to squeeze a little more tension and personality out of some scenes. But unless they squeezed the narrative so it squirted out in a rush instead of oozing the way it does, it wouldn’t have been much of an improvement.
“The Thirteenth Floor” comes to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc via AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, but it’s not a very crisp-looking title. I’ve seen films that were twice as old that look better. It’s a soft-looking picture, and not just in the L.A. sequences, with so many imperfections in the film itself that you have to wonder what they used for a master. Black levels are a little light, which means so is the contrast, and that’s almost unforgivable for a film that purports at some point to dabble in noir. The color palette runs toward the sepia in the L.A. sequences and slightly bluish or metallic in the other “reality.” Skin tones are fine, but that’s the only real positive I can throw out there, because it all looks so soft and flat. “The Thirteenth Floor” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a little better, but not anything remotely like what we’re used to getting in Blu-ray. The featured track is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 in either English, French, or Portuguese, with an alternate track in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Thankfully (I know, it’s mean to say so) there aren’t a lot of extras. Apart from being BD-Live enabled, if you’re into Internet dabbling of a promotional nature, all that remains is a brief music video (“Erase/Rewind” by The Cardigans) and a full-length commentary track featuring Rusnak and his production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli. In it, all of my suspicions were confirmed: Rusnak seems to have focused all his energy not on the narrative or on scenic construction, but on the look of the film. That’s the bulk of their commentary, and readers who live for behind-the-scenes anecdotes and stories about the actors won’t find much entertainment value here.
I’ve seen better murder mysteries and better virtual reality movies. “The Thirteenth Floor” is only average.