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The Thirteenth Floor – film review

June 25, 2015


Ripe for rediscovery: a forgotten gem of a cyber mind-bender.


A US-German co-production. Directed by Josef Rusnak. Screenplay by Josef Rusnak & Ravel Centeno Rodriguez, based on the novel ‘Simulacron 3’ by Daniel F. Galouye. Starring: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Year of release: 1999. Running time: 100 minutes.

It is the late 1990s and gifted billionaire computer scientist Hannon Fuller (Armin Meuller-Stahl) is brutally murdered after having created a computer generated recreation of Los Angeles circa 1937. It is up to Fuller’s protege and prime suspect     in his murder investigation, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) to enter this simulated world and recover a clue to solve the mystery of his mentor’s death. When Hall meets the mysterious Jane (Gretchen Mol), claiming to be Fuller’s daughter, his world view of reality is altered forever.

Released the same year as The Matrix, and perceived, I guess, as just another         B movie in the vein of 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor apparently got lost in the shuffle and never received a theatrical release here in Australia. While produced under the auspices of Roland (ID-4) Emmerich’s Centropolis Entertainment banner; the film was, more interestingly, co-executive produced by Martin Scorsese’s resident DP Michael Ballhaus; whose interest in producing The Thirteenth Floor most likely stems from his lensing of the previous German television adaptation Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) for director Rainer Werner Fassbinder back in 1974. Being unfamiliar with author Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel ‘Simulacron 3’ – upon which The Thirteenth Floor is based – I’m uncertain just how faithful Rusnak’s screenplay (co-written with Ravel Centeno Rodriguez) actually is to the source material. Although, as I understand it, the 1974 210 minute TV version is pretty much a faithful adaptation of the book.

The Thirteenth Floor is something of anomally in that its complex but cleverly constructed plot treats its audience with a modicum of intelligence (something of a rarity these days – with such ham-fisted faux-intellectual drivel like Prometheus and Interstellar pretending to do so). This is definitely deep-thinking and philosophical sci-fi for adults. Sure – there are no spectacular action set pieces or CGI expolsions, but this matters little when its big ideas which provide nourishment and keep you thinking about it long after seeing it.

thirteenth floor gretchen mol

And the apparent prescience of  ideas explored in The Thirteenth Floor has been brought home recently with Aaron Brown’s Daily Express article in which NASA scientist Rich Terrile suggested that we could indeed be living inside a computer simulation and not even realize it. Interestingly, my seemingly random stumbling across this article occured the very morning after I had viewed The Thirteenth Floor for the first time. Pure coincidence perhaps, but, as I wasn’t consciously seeking out this information, I like to put it down to synchronicity. Without getting too far out – is   it possible then that this unexplained but very real phenomena of synchronicty could indeed be proof we ARE in fact living in a computer simulation? (cue The Twilight Zone theme). If one is to believe reports, Fuller’s vision of creating a virtual computer simulation of the real world is currently unfolding for real; with the masses of cyber data collected by US intelligence agencies allegedly being used to construct a super-complex computer model of the world and its inhabitants – known as the ‘Sentient World Simulation Program’ – in order to predict outcomes of various scenarios: including civil unrest due to natural disasters. A fascinating parallel if true.

thirteenth floor los angeles 1937

The simulated world of 1937 Los Angeles (Hannon Fuller has chosen this setting based on his idealized memories of growing up in this particular place and time) is peopled with a teeming population of seemingly conscious beings who are unaware they are living inside a computer-generated simulation. In what might be considered a form of ‘cyberpossession’, individuals from the real world are able to upload their own consciousness into the virtual bodies of particular characters in this simulated world. While Fuller’s initial motivation for creating this world is unclear at first, it soon transpires that he’s been spending time in this nostalgic recreation of LA in order to sate his sexual appetite with as many young women as possible; an unsavory use of experimental technology which recalls a similar motivation of one of the scientists in Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm. This concept of jacking in and taking over the bodies of already existing personalities provides opportunities for several amusing moments; particularly when Hall ‘jacks in’ and suddenly finds himself mid-swing in the throws of a 1930s dance contest.

The engaging cast do well in multiple roles (with several of the lead characters having a counterpart in the virtual world) with Mol in particular demonstrating a nice acting range in her various roles. And the on-screen chemistry between Mol and Craig Bierko is also clearly apparent; adding significantly to their overall appeal.

The atmospheric lensing by Wedigo von Schultzendorff (Pandorum) together with Kirk Petrucelli’s sumptuous production design (creating an authentic; if deliberately idealized vision of 1930s LA) combine to lend the film a far more expensive sheen than its relatively modest budget might suggest. The earthy tones of the 1930s scenes also contrast nicely with the darker, more stylized feel of the 90s setting.

Part noir mystery, part romance, part high-tech cyber-thriller, part meditation             on the nature of consciousness, seamlessly integrated, The Thirteenth Floor is         an entertainingly mind-bending and clever sci-fi which may well leave the viewer contemplating their own sense of reality. Highly recommended.

Viewed on Blu-ray.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. This sounds really good! Why haven’t I heard of this? That’s why I love this blog – there are so many movies I want to watch based on your reviews. 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks table9! Yeah, every time I come across a little-seen or forgotten movie like this one – it makes writing about it all the more fun for me. I hope you’ll check it out! 🙂

      • I will! Eventually. Yeah, I far prefer writing about lesser known films than the big blockbusters. 🙂

  2. Mark permalink

    Agreed Greg. An absolute ripper and not well known. Love the review: my sentiments exactly. We need more good writing, acting and slick directing like this one! 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      Absolutely! This and PREDESTINATION would make a great double bill I reckon! 🙂

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