`Thirteenth Floor' can't be for real

Review: `Matrix,' `eXistenZ' a tough act to follow for a good virtual-reality film. This stinker's got no chance.

May 28, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The makers of "The Thirteenth Floor" must have thought they were really on to something. After all, what's not to like in a thriller about a brilliant, attractive software genius whose forays into virtual reality cause him to question the very nature of his own existence?

Of course, there's nothing not to like about that premise, especially when it's executed with the verve and imagination of "The Matrix," or even when it's given David Cronenberg's creepy aesthetic in "eXistenZ."

Unfortunately "The Thirteenth Floor" comes on the heels of both those movies, and throws very little by way of skill or imagination into the kitty.

"The Thirteenth Floor" stars Armin Mueller-Stahl and Craig Bierko as Hannon Fuller and Douglas Hall, two software inventors whose latest, most sophisticated invention is a virtual-reality version of 1937 Los Angeles. After Fuller makes a discovery about that world, he is murdered, and Hall is a primary suspect. When Fuller's daughter Jane (Gretchen Mol) arrives on the scene, and Fuller's death begins to look more complicated, Hall finds himself forced to travel through time to find the real killer.

Taking a page from "Blade Runner," director Josef Rusnak has looked to film noir for inspiration in "The Thirteenth Floor," filming much of the movie in dark, moody tones and even dressing a Los Angeles police detective (Dennis Haysbert) in an overcoat and fedora (or at least a pork pie hat).

And "The Thirteenth Floor," which was inspired by a novel called "Simulacron-3," is admittedly high on atmosphere, from the high-tech deco of Hall's apartment to the sumptuous surroundings of the Wilshire Grand Hotel during the 1930s. (Here's the bad news: Los Angeles in 2024 looks an awful lot like Beaumont, Texas.)

But the most attractive production design in the world can't make up for lines like, "You can't plug your brain into a machine and not be affected by it" or "How can you love me? I'm not even real" -- especially in a movie that begins with an epigram quoting Descartes, as if "I think, therefore I am" is the deepest thing the filmmakers have ever contemplated. (Come to think of it, both Rusnak and producer Roland Emmerich had a hand in "Godzilla," so it probably is.)

With such strivings toward importance, overwrought melodrama and a bathetically coercive musical score, "The Thirteenth Floor" would be annoyingly pretentious, if it weren't so laughable.

`Thirteenth Floor'

Starring Craig Bierko, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent D'Onofrio, Gretchen Mol

Directed by Josef Rusnak

Rated R (violence and language)

Running time 120 minutes

Released by Columbia Pictures

Sun score *

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