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31 March, 2007

Review: 'The Thirteenth Floor' (1999)

A 'Matrix' clone without the PVC (damn).
That's not an entirely fair summary, but if you were interested by the Wachowski brothers' exploration of layers of artificial reality, this is an alternative take on the same broad concept.

'The Thirteenth Floor' has a slightly dodgy script in places (especially some dialogue), and some of the effects look oddly dated, but the premise is good, and if it hadn't been released only two months after a certain genre-redefining film mentioned above, I imagine this would have been considered an above-average 'B'-movie. As it is, it seems to have been virtually forgotten.

It's undeniable that direct comparison with 'The Matrix' is unflattering. In my initial draft of the foregoing paragraph I wrote "... but the premise is intriguing,... " before reflecting that I couldn't honestly say that; the Wachowskis had already addressed the 'is this reality or a simulation?' issue earlier in 1999, reducing the novelty.
Actually, 'The Thirteenth Floor' is far from being a rip-off or a clone, being an adaption of Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel 'Simulacron 3'. It's only the timing of the release that was unfortunate.

Well, sort-of; this fares badly against 'The Matrix' in several other respects: it's pretty good, but not in the same league in terms of screenwriting, direction, acting or production (maybe cinematography), not to mention special effects. Yet that's like comparing haute cuisine with Chinese takeaway, and there's nothing wrong with the latter. I'd definitely rank 'The Thirteenth Floor' above 'eXistenZ', yet another 1999 film about layered reality.

Certain films redefined the standards of presentation in sci-fi films, genuinely advancing the genre. 'Stars Wars' was one, whilst 'The Matrix' was another. It's always interesting to see films made on the cusp of such changes, but that didn't help 'The Thirteenth Floor' critically or financially. Audiences had already seen the next level, so a reasonably respectable film made to the earlier standards just didn't cut it any more. However, that doesn't make such 'transition period' films bad.

The cast were good, if better known as supporting actors than stars; faces one might recognise without being immediately able to place the names. I'm not sure what I thought of their performances – I'd need to see the film again before criticising what could have been simply understatement, and my immediate impression was that they did their best with a flawed script. In places, the dialogue was just plain bad, and characters' reactions to discoveries which shattered their very perceptions of reality weren't credible. Then again, catatonic loss of sanity mightn't have been exactly cinematic.

To expand on my other main criticism from the second paragraph: the special effects weren't great, and not merely because this film's budget was a quarter of 'The Matrix's. Even without 'bullet time' cinematography and wire-work stunts, 'The Thirteenth Floor's effects seemed dated. Key transitional scenes involved a 1970s-style light-curtain (which didn't even seem relevant to the technology), and wireframe in films is so Eighties (yes, I'm being flippant, but it did detract). The digital reproduction of 1937 Los Angeles was impressive and, importantly, unobtrusive, but one can only be so impressed by what amounts to 3D matte painting.
Not that this was an 'effects movie' anyway (thankfully); I mean that those which were used could have been better.

So. Premise: good, if overshadowed by possibly the best Hollywood film of the year (no shame in that). Script: flawed, though not disastrously. That leaves plot, which was... okay. Ostensibly a murder mystery, even a sci-fi noir, the story held my interest for the full 100 minutes. Yet major plot twists were very predictable, and the only real suspense was in how they'd be introduced.
Incidentally, I'd better stress that though 'The Matrix', 'The Thirteenth Floor' and 'eXistenZ' all address the same concept, their stories are entirely different.

Evidently, even writing this review hasn't helped me to decide what I thought of 'The Thirteenth Floor'. I did enjoy it, and intend to watch it again some time. I also recommend it to others, not only because it has been unduly overlooked. It's worth seeing, but no cult classic.

I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed about noticing this, but the apartment occupied by Douglas Hall, the protagonist in this film, seemed remarkably similar to that of 'Blade Runner's Deckard – and it was: both were filmed in the same Frank Lloyd Wright building. I presume this was a deliberate reference, as the core theme of both films is whether artificial entities are 'real'.

Oh, and one scene does feature PVC. So that's okay.

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