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The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 4/21/2009

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/22/2009

In my recent review for The Matrix, I wrote about how I remember certain elements of films, and I noted amongst my discussion of the film how much I recalled the trailer for that movie. Before watching The Thirteenth Floor for the purposes of this review, I had never seen the movie, but I did have some distinct memories about it as well. The film hit theaters about two months after The Matrix premiered and was a flop. I remember hearing people compare it to The Matrix and saying that The Thirteenth Floor was merely a cheap knock-off. While I can understand that sentiment, the two films aren't all that similar, but a decade later, it's easy to see why The Thirteenth Floor didn't grab audiences.

Craig Bierko stars in The Thirteenth Floor as Douglas Hall, an executive at a computer research firm. His employer, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), has been the driving force behind the creation of a cutting-edge virtual reality simulator. At Fuller's request, Los Angeles of the 1930's has been re-created in the computer, and when a person "jacks in" to the system, they take over the "role" of a "person" in that reality. One night, Fuller enters the virtual reality world and leaves a note for Hall with a hotel bartender (Vincent D'Onofrio). Upon returning to the real world, Fuller leaves a message for Hall telling him about the note, then he is stabbed to death outside of a bar. Hall is shocked to learn that his mentor is dead, and he's annoyed when Police Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) begins questioning him. Fuller's daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol), arrives and despite the fact that he was unaware of her existence, Hall swears that he's seen her before. To attempt to solve the mystery surrounding Fuller's death, Hall "jacks in" to the virtual reality world, where he learns that the characters there have taken on lives of their own. He must now search for clues in two worlds in order to clear his name.

The Thirteenth Floor is based on the novel Simulacron 3 by Daniel F. Galouye and it was actually filmed once before in 1973. (According to what I read on Wikipedia, the novel is credited as being one of the first pieces to use the term "virtual reality".) I haven't read the novel or seen the other movie, but I can't help but wonder if they share the same Achilles' Heel as The Thirteenth Floor -- the whole Los Angeles in the 1930s thing. It simply doesn’t work for two reasons. For starters, it simply comes off as corny. The whole thing plays like a stereotype of that time rather than any sort of accurate representation. (And perhaps this was done on purpose, as it was created for entertainment purposes.) The second reason, and this is sort of a double-edged sword is that the audience has gone in expecting a science-fiction movie about technology and possibly futuristic things, and they are treated to a trip to the past. On some level, The Thirteenth Floor should be applauded for trying something different, but this almost feels like a bait-and-switch and it’s easy to see why viewers would turn their backs on this.

To follow up that last statement, is The Thirteenth Floor trying something new? Forget comparisons to The Matrix for a moment and lets look at something else. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise could use the Holodeck to enter what were essentially virtual reality worlds. There were some episodes which dealt with Captain Picard entering a 1940s world to become private detective Dixon Hill. The Thirteenth Floor seems to have taken some pointers from this show and its noir approach. As for similarities to The Matrix, both films deal with virtual reality and characters who must be told that they are living in a false world, but that really where the comparison ends. If anything else, The Thirteenth Floor actually reminded me of Dreamscape. Hall must enter another world to look for clues in the same way that the Dennis Quaid character in Dreamscape went into dreams to help people.

The awful 1930s angle aside, The Thirteenth Floor did have some possibilities. Virtual reality is always interesting, especially when it can be used to make a character question their sanity. I must say that the story contains a great plot twist which arrives around the 70-minute mark. This shocker is so effective that it makes us wish that it didn’t have this lousy murder-mystery movie happening around it. The cast does their best, but Director Josef Rusnak has given the film a sluggish pace, and it really drags in places. The Thirteenth Floor wants you to question reality, but you really question why you decided to watch this movie in the first place.

The Thirteenth Floor “jacks in” to Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. This transfer is a head-scratcher. Some shots, like one of the very first ones in the film, look awful. They are grainy and almost blurry, looking like something from a VHS dupe. Others, however, are fairly sharp and clear. There are no noticeable defects from the source materials. The colors look good, most notably the use of green. The image is somewhat dark at times. The level of detail is average and the image shows no notable depth. This transfer does not show anything like the Blu-ray quality to which we have become accustomed. The Disc has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.0 Mbps. Unlike the video portion, this track really delivers. The stereo effects are nicely detailed and show good separation. The surround sound effects are prevalent and work very nicely when the characters go in and out of the virtual world. Subwoofer effects also come into play during these exchanges.

The Thirteenth Floor Blu-ray Disc contains only two extras. We get an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Co-writer/Director Josef Rusnak and Production Designer Kirk M. Petruccelli. The other extra is a MUSIC VIDEO for the song "Erase/Rewind" by The Cardigans.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long