Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Films of 1999: The Thirteenth Floor

The Thirteenth Floor (1999) had the misfortune of being produced and released at just around the same time that the similarly-themed Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) also bowed. Sadly, it very much got lost in the 1999 - 2000 VR shuffle.

Much like those other efforts, The Thirteenth Floor, from director Josef Rusnak, concerns simulated realities, and also boasts a kind of film noir veneer. What it notably lacks in comparison to these more well-known genre films is the budget, simply, to stage incredible action, or meaningfully visit other, non-traditional, genre realities.

Thus, The Thirteenth Floor, in many ways, is a more intimate, more organic examination of its “virtual reality,” ethos: a world in which the concept of “I think, therefore I am,” defines sentience, even for computer-generated life-forms. 

The film is based on Daniel F. Galouye’s (1920-1976) novel Simulacron-3 (1964). That literary work told of a character named Hall coming to reckon with the fact that he was living inside a computer simulation, even as he visited a world that he and his co-workers had created as a computer simulation.  

In other words, the sense of reality in the novel was layered, with worlds upon worlds stacked atop another. In each world, the individuals inhabiting it believed they were "real," not simulations...but were in error.

The Thirteenth Floor faithfully recreates this creative dynamic, and features all the trappings one expects of the sturdy film noir format. The film then applies these standards to its science fiction premise with aplomb and meticulous attention to detail, both in the depiction of its 1937 setting, and in charting the possibility of multiple realities, with personalities overlapping. 

The Thirteenth Floor isn’t a big and showy film by any means. I should get that out of the way early. It certainly doesn’t qualify as an epic, or as spectacular in presentation. 

Yet it garners audience respect through its consistent sense of curiosity and intelligence, and by the apparent pleasure the filmmakers take in unraveling the mystery’s clues, one at a time.

At least one sequence orchestrated by Rusnak involves a visual revelation that is nothing short of mind-blowing.

The Thirteenth Floor may not hold a place in pop-culture as coveted as that occupied by The Matrix, or Dark City, but it is nonetheless worth re-visiting.

“They say ignorance is bliss.”

In a computer simulation of a 1937 Los Angeles, a man of 1999 named Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) learns a terrible secret. He writes down the secret in a letter, and asks a bartender (Vincent D’Onofrio) to deliver it to his business-partner, a man named Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko).

When Fuller returns to 1999, however, he is stabbed to death by someone he recognizes.

Meanwhile, Hall -- who is suffering from bouts of inexplicable amnesia -- finds a bloody shirt in his laundry, and learns that Fuller attempted to telephone him immediately prior to his death.  

The police, including Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) suspect Hall may be guilty of murder, especially because he stands to inherit Fuller’s two billion dollar company. 

But then, out of the blue, Fuller’s heretofore unknown daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol) appears, ready to stake a claim on the company, and to provide Hall an alibi for the night her father was killed.

Hoping to prove his own innocence, Hall goes into the simulated world of 1937 Los Angeles, using hardware on the thirteenth floor of his building.  

He inhabits the body of a man in 1937 named Ferguson, and goes in search of the message Fuller left him.

Unfortunately, Ashton -- the bartender in 1937 -- has opened and read the letter, and has made a disturbing discovery about his reality.  

“They’re as real as you and me.”

The Thirteenth Floor adopts all the standards of the film noir format. There is a terrible crime -- a murder – and a decent, hard-boiled cop (McBain) investigating it. The film also features a central character who becomes drawn into the murder and suffers from a malady like amnesia, thus proving himself unable to establish his innocence…even in his own mind.  

And finally, we meet the mysterious woman in this mystery -- in this case, Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol) -- who could either be a damsel-in-distress or your standard femme fatale.  Even the noir’s overall sense of a corrupt world, is echoed in The Thirteenth Floor’s with the discovery that reality isn’t even true; it’s a lie that preserves an illusion.

But what truly marks The Thirteenth Floor as a noir is its hero’s powerful journey.  The best noir films (and consider such modern horror examples such as Angel Heart [1987] or Polanski’s The Ninth Gate [1999]) are -- at their core -- about the search for self; for the recognition of self.  

The journey of helping another individual (like Jane), or solving a murder (like Fuller’s) is merely the “cover” journey that actually cloaks a deeper one: a story that reveals identity, character or nature. In the act of following a mystery through to the end, a hero finds not just an answer to a riddle, but an answer that reveals him or her fully to the audience and to the protagonist too.

Here, that is also abundantly true. Hall comes to realize that he is not real, but a computer-generated individual made by computer programmers in a different reality. And yet, in the end, he is re-affirmed in his self-hood, individuality and very sentience by the fact that at least one of the real world personas he encounters – a brutal murderer named David – is eminently less human than he is.  In fact, he’s a monster.

Thus, the viewer must confront a powerful notion. A computer simulation can be a better human being than a flesh-and-blood person, in some cases.

The Thirteenth Floor sees Hall awaken in the real world -- of 2024 AD -- and assume David’s life as (presumably) a biological being and not a simulated person. This Pinocchio, in other words, achieves the dream of becoming a real boy.  

But the glorious thing about this journey is not necessarily Hall’s transition to 2024 -- and the golden-lit paradise the film portrays there - but all the questions we must ask, even if the film doesn’t raise them explicitly.

Specifically, how can any of us be sure we are living in the real world? 

How does Hall know that he has now arrived in concrete reality, and not in a simulation?  He asks Jane at one point, how many simulated worlds there are, and she replies, with no further elaboration, “thousands upon thousands.” 

Could 2024 be one of those thousands? Could our world be just another simulation, one created by the inhabitants of some other reality or universe? 

Surprisingly, perhaps, that very idea is one that is still debated and argued in science today, and so The Thirteenth Floor reflects this key question about creation.  How can we know that we are in the real universe? 

 And more so, does it even matter if we’re not?

I think, therefore I am.  That’s all that matters, right?

Although it is never a driving film in terms of pace or acting, I appreciate how The Thirteenth Floor keeps tossing out these little, meaningful clues about the nature of reality. Haysbert’s detective, McBain, for example, notes an advertisement he likes about apartments in the downtown city area.  Those advertisements declare “You can be home already.”  

In a sense, that’s a key phrase in the film. Those who travel between 1937 Los Angeles, 1999 Los Angeles and the 2024 version of the same city never actually leave their homes in any physical sense.  They “jack in” (in the terminology of the film) but stay home the entire time they voyage.

Like The Matrix does, The Thirteenth Floor also diagrams a kind of virtual reality meaning for the phenomenon of “Déjà vu.” In The Matrix, an instance of deja vu meant that the machines were re-ordering reality; it was a glitch.  In The Thirteenth Floor, simulated characters experience déjà vu when meeting people who they had only previously encountered when “possessed” by visitors from other realms. Although their consciousness wasn’t present for that meeting, some part of their mind nonetheless remembers, and experiences the sensation of déjà vu.

The most memorable shot in the film, and one featured on some posters -- thus ruining the surprise, I suppose -- involves what Douglas Hall and D’Onofrio’s character, Ashton, each find at the “end of the road” literally and metaphorically in their worlds.  

They see the equivalent of a grid; the wall or boundary of their simulation.  It’s not “here be dragons,” but rather, here be the end of everything.  The world is finite, and constructed not by God, but by scientists. Everything you know is made up.

The Thirteenth Floor is also clever in the way it maintains Hall’s innocence throughout the story. A murderer from the “real world” of 2024 inhabits his body for periods, resulting in memory loss, and proving a perfect corollary for the noir standards of amnesia, or alcoholic black-out.  

Hall can thus be both killer and investigator; just as Jane can be both innocent and knowing, simultaneously in need of romantic rescuing, and manipulative at the same time. Consider the end of the film and ask yourself about Jane’s motives.  

Has she arranged much of what we see in the film, simply to rid herself of the “soul” in her husband’s body?  

That’s one possible reading, certainly. Jane ends the film with everything that she wants, and -- in keeping with the idea of "engineered" realities -- one must ask exactly what kind of architect of realities she truly is.

Cleverly, The Thirteenth Floor also draws parallels between the world it depicts and the world of motion pictures and television.  Hall and Ashton, for instance, discuss the similar nature of their realities (both simulations, as it turns out), while an old black-and-white movie plays on a TV nearby.  

So, by visual connection, their world is no more real than the movie is. Instead, movies and the simulations share in common the idea of “smoke and mirrors” as Hall notes.  Our world is one on top of another (movies), just as Jane’s world (2024) is atop both Ashton’s (1937) and Hall’s (1999), to use the movie’s vernacular. Featuring a movie in the background while characters discuss layers of reality is just one nice self-reflexive touch in the film.

By exploring consciousness and its very nature, and by using the film noir format to do so, The Thirteenth Floor demands respect, and engagement. It may not be a "wow" film like The Matrix is, but it remains, nonetheless, one of those genre treasures that succeeds as a work of art, and richly rewards repeat viewings.


  1. Well, I must say it was nice to wake up and find a thoughtful article on one of my favorite films waiting for me today. Though I did find the mention of Dark City a bit odd. Not to say I don't enjoy that one, it's another of my favorites. More that, for films from the late 90s, I would have thought eXistenZ was more in line with the theme of simulated realities.

  2. Love this article, and this movie. Another great analysis. For Star Trek fans reading this, I think the TNG episode "Ship In a Bottle" is worth checking out. This movie always reminded me of that episode.