There are movies without flaws or particular problems, yet they have the misfortune of coming out at the wrong time, as with The Thirteenth Floor in 1999.
Indeed, despite being an intriguing thriller about virtual reality, that same year, on the same theme, an inevitable The Matrix came out, a successful precursor to a successful saga that cannibalized public attention, overshadowing any other competitor.
However, I want to bring back this little sci-fi gem, giving it back the consideration it deserves.
The story’s protagonist is the young and talented programmer Douglas Hall, who is working with his colleague Jason Whitney to complete a revolutionary computer simulation.
This simulation is so perfect that it feels real, recreating a world in the style of old 1930s noirs populated by sentient artificial intelligences.
Unfortunately, the market launch of their sensational product is set to be delayed because their boss and mentor, Hannon Fuller, was found brutally murdered in his apartment.
To make matters worse, out of nowhere comes the daughter of the man they had never heard of, the charming and mysterious Jane.
The girl unceremoniously warns them she plans to take over their shares and close the business for good.
Unable to comprehend the abrupt turn of events, Douglas enters the simulation searching for a clue to Fuller’s death.
So he discovers the elderly programmer was spending a lot of time in that cyber world, taking advantage of the young, beautiful simulated girls for pleasure.
Equally suspicious is Detective Larry McBain, who does not believe the random murder theory but thinks there is a bigger plan behind it.
So Douglas must hurry to find the mysterious message Fuller left him in the virtual 1930s Los Angeles, which will contain many more answers than he would like to know.
Perception is reality
Compared to The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor is a kind of noir/thriller movie, less gripping for 1999 audiences but just as fascinating for anyone willing to explore parallel worlds and unravel plot mysteries bit by bit.
The characters are perpetually caught between reality and this cyber world, where the boundaries between what is real and what is virtually become increasingly blurred until they disappear altogether.
Aesthetically, the characters’ alter egos in virtual Los Angeles are striking and have very different morality from their real-life counterparts.
Just as the story develops and evolves, the style shifts from a frenetic pace to a calmer, more reflective one.
In the virtual world, camera movements and narration are slower and tighter controlled, suggesting a sense of mystery and suspense typical of old noirs.
In these moments, the photography employs a sepia color palette, creating a dystopian atmosphere without falling into the excess of looking like a silly Instagram filter.
Instead, in the real world, the dark and light mood is more perceptible, with shades tending toward blues and greens, giving the style a look similar to The Matrix.
The cinematic genre shifts fluently between sci-fi and thriller in a blend adding the delicate romance note of the relationship between the protagonist Douglas and the enigmatic Jane.
Moreover, the assortment of virtual alter egos, each with a distinct personality, provides an additional psychological dimension in the tiny line between good and evil, as in the best noirs.
I agree that The Matrix is definitely more spectacular, yet even this movie keeps the spectator stuck to the screen until the last second, wonderfully between surprise and disbelief.
Unfortunately, if instead, we need to stick to the cold box office numbers, then The Thirteenth Floor was undoubtedly a failure.
Futuristic nostalgia one step away from 2000
For Josef Rusnak, The Thirteenth Floor remains the most important and famous feature film, even though he later directed equally exciting films such as Valerie or It’s Alive.
The up and down rhythm and skillfully dosed narrative twists and turns combine perfectly with each shot and the impeccable stylistic choices, enhancing the sci-fi atmosphere and the plot’s mystery.
Craig Bierko perfectly embodies the strong, charismatic character typical of noir protagonists like Humphrey Bogart, yet with an insecure, tormented soul of someone not quite sure of his choices.
Even Gretchen Mol, who initially seems only a stereotypical femme fatale, instead holds some surprises and secrets which make her relationship with the protagonist even more fascinating and complicated.
Somewhat sorry for Armin Mueller-Stahl, unfortunately too short for only a part of the movie, who nonetheless does his duty diligently with an impeccable performance.
Instead, we have Vincent D’Onofrio at the highest level, simply phenomenal in two diametrically opposite and equally compelling roles.
Indeed, just as shy and goofy in the real world, he is equally insane and dangerous in his 1930s version, becoming almost a serial killer.
Finally, I want to mention the excellent honest face of Dennis Haysbert, playing a tough cop character, and I will remember him as the first fiction black president, well before Barack Obama, in the celebrated series 24.
Successfully combining elements of sci-fi, noir, thriller, and romance is no easy feat, but in this case, the magic succeeds with an engaging cast and impeccable direction and screenplay.
Although it arrived before the rise of the mass internet and social networks, The Thirteenth Floor already deals with issues like isolation and alienation from reality, making it a movie still as relevant today as it was in 1999.