The Floor within the Floor within the Floor
The Thirteenth Floor
I don't think it's a bold statement to say that The Matrix changed the cinematic landscape. Say what you will about the sequels, but that first film felt like it came out of nowhere and absolutely altered how people thought action should be filmed, how it could be presented, and what was possible with that groundbreaking technology. It practically became a meme, with so many action films after doing "bullet time" as a joke. And, really, that embrace of slow down and showing everything from all angles could then be seen to fuel so many directors embrace of slo-mo in general in the decades since (such as, sigh, Zack SnyderOften reviled for the bombastic and idiotic content of his films, there is no question that what Snyder's movies lack in substance they (at least try to) balance out with flash and style, making him one of Hollywood's top directors... sadly.).
Of course, in the lead up to The Matrix, studios were trying to figure out how they could capitalize on the buzz building for the film. The trailers for the film promised a lot of action, yet, but there was also a sense of mood, of ambiance. It seemed technological, and weird, and asked questions about what was reality? Was anything real? If a studio had a script, something that could tap into that mood and sense of wonder, then they could capitalize on it, steal some of the buzz maybe, and land their own little hit. You have to think that was what Centropolis Entertainment was hoping for with their release of The Thirteenth Floor. Whether they rushed it into production the second they heard about The Matrix, or this was one of those Hollywood moments where two similar films came out around the same time, certainly the thought has to be that one would boost the other.
Sadly (well, for a certain definition of "sadly") for The Thirteenth Floor, that really didn't happen. The Matrix came out on March 31, 1999, and went on to $467 Mil at the global Box Office, and impressive feat for a new franchise. Two months later, on May 28, 1999, The Thirteenth Floor came out and was prompt ignored by the general public. It felt like a dollar store version of The Matrix, not helped by cheap production values (made on a budget of only $16 Mil) and a lack of any real action. But what really hurt the film was that it didn't have anything new to say. Within two months, this film's story already felt like well-trodden ground. "A film questioning what reality really might be? Been there, done that." It was already too late for this little film.
At the start we're introduced to Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl). We meet Fuller not in 1999, the central time period for this film, but back in 1937 where he's going under the name of Grierson. He parties, has a great time at a dance hall, and then goes to bed, his mind traveling back to the future where he resumes being Fuller. What happened? Well, his company has developed a virtual world, indistinguishable from the real world, and users can plug themselves in and experience life in a different world, a different time period, all on their virtual service. Fuller has been using the system a lot but, when he discovers something shocking about the world, he has to tell Hall about it. He leaves a message for Hall in the virtual 1937, but once back in 1999 he's killed, leaving his company to his second-in-command, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko).
Hall wakes up after a long flight back from Europe, groggy and disoriented, and discovers that his clothes from the night before are covered in blood. Confused, but now sure what's happened, his concerns are quickly set aside when he gets a call that Fuller is dead. Rushing to the company, he heads up to the 13th floor where their virtual world is stored. He talks to the primary tech, Whitney (Vincent D'Onofrio), and learns that Fuller has been using the machine, which is still very much in beta, regularly. He then has to talk to a detective, Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert), who immediately suspects Hall for the crime. Weirder still, though, is that Fuller's daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol), has come to town and has her own suspicions. And it's weird, because Fuller doesn't have a daughter, or any other family. Hall has to figure out what's going on, who killed Fuller and, eventually, what's wrong with the world as more and more things stop making sense.
I would say that discussing what happens in The Thirteenth Floor would be spoiler except, for one, this film is 24 years old (at the time of this writing) and, two, the advertising materials for the film basically spoiled all its great surprises. So let's go in assuming you either have already seen this film or don't care if you're spoiled for it. As such, here's the big revelation: while Hall and his team (of two, which we'll laugh at in a second) have developed a virtual 1937, the real kicker is that their own world on 1999 is, itself, a virtual world and there's yet another world on top controlling everything. That question about "what is reality?" That comes from the fact that it's worlds within worlds within worlds.
There are parts of this concept that are really cool, no doubt. The idea that you could travel down into a virtual world, one where the people aren't just little automated characters doing simple life paths but, instead, are fully realized people with, just maybe, working brains and true souls, adds a lot to the idea of virtual worlds. The machine is shown to be a giant set of servers, presumably because controlling each and every person in this world is a massive undertaking. That kind of virtual reality would be hard to program. Hell, with more powerful machines now than anything 1999 had to offer, we still can't program that level of intelligent, soulful A.I. even for one person, let alone a whole virtual world with tastes and touch and smell. Think about how massive that would be and the setup for this system makes a certain amount of sense.
At the same time, though, the film raises a lot of questions about the creation of this virtual world that doesn't make any sense the second you have to actually think about it. For starters, we only ever see three employees on this project: Fuller, Hall, and Whitney, and it seems like (from the film at least) only Whitney actually does any of the technical applications. Hall and Fuller are just managers. But even if all three of them are on the project, it's impossible to believe that three of them could create this rich a world, with this many living, breathing avatars, on their own. Hell, Triple-A games, which still aren't as good as what's seen in the movie, come out today after four years of work and they have massive teams of hundreds of employees working on them. There is no way three dudes, working in a secret lab, could create this even on the timeline of six years that the movie gives us. That was obvious even back in 1999.
Beyond that, what is the actual practical application for this technology? Yes, a virtual world is cool, and being able to get people to pay to go into it is awesome. However, one issue is that they don't have portable tech for it. You have to go into the lab, and lay down in the machine, to tap pinto the tech. This was before everyone had a little device they carried with them everywhere, of course, so there was no way the creators could have thought of making this tech portable in 1999 (hell, the virtual glasses seen in the last segment of the film, in 2024, still seem bulky in comparison to what you'd expect now). But there's also a health issue associated: if you stay in the machine for more than two hours it's hard to get your mind to pull away from the virtual mind in storage. If this tech were miniaturized and hooked up around the world, people would go into the world, refuse to unplug, and then die. There's just no way to make money on this product from any angle you look at it.
Okay, sure. Fine. It's a blue sky project for the sake of it. If that's the case, then, it would have been nice if the film could have focused on the real "what does this all mean" application of the tech. What are they doing in the world? What does it mean to the characters? Are they playing god or do the beings inside the machine only exist as long as the power is on? The film gets itself mired in a murder mystery, that fails to seem all that mysterious and never really gains momentum, when there are more interesting questions about reality and humanities real place in this virtual stack. Of course, then the film sends Hall off to a super happy ending in the future (of 2024... oops), and that's the highest level we see. Shouldn't there be a question of, "is this actually reality? Is there another stack on top?" Nope, nothing like that. No bigger questions. Just, "you made it to the future. Be happy!" It doesn't work.
A lot of what drags the film down aren't the nitpicks over the story I raised above but the fact that it all feels so airy and lifeless, devoid of color or soul. I don't hate Bierko as an actor, and there are flashes of charisma in this film from him. But it feels like he didn't really get, or at least didn't care, about the story and he's just coasting through it all. Mueller-Stahl is a solid actor, but he's barely in this piece to liven it up. Mol is there to spout exposition and look pretty, but there's nothing to her character and the actress doesn't find anything to add to it. The only person having any fun is D'Onofrio, but even he gets sidelined for huge portions of the film, barely adding needed color to events.
And as far as the actual direction and composition of the film, I'd call it adequate. It's not stylish or interesting, with most scenes feeling very flat and basic. The 1937 sections look well tailored and lived in, to be fair, but we don't get a lot of time to explore this world. A different version of this film would have placed a lot of the events in virtual 1937 and let the main characters discover reality for themselves down there, sensing a greater flaw with the world instead of having to have it all explained to them. But the script doesn't really explore its ideas well, and the direction does make anything seem lively in the process. It just... exists.
Coming out around The Matrix certainly didn't help this film, drawing poor comparisons to a much more interesting movie, but I don't think The Thirteenth Floor would have succeeded even if it had been released all on its own. It's rather silly, rather stale, and doesn't really have much to say about its own concept. It exists, and unfolds, exactly as you'd expect, and then it ends in the most obvious place it could. It's not necessarily bad, per se (I've seen the film three times since its release and each time I come away saying, "it was fine"), but it's also not really good. It's middle-tier fare that never finds a way to elevate itself at all.