Watching The Thirteenth Floor was for me sort of like going back in time, but not skipping alternate realities like in this movie – going back in time to the nineties video store in Chicago that was housed in the garden apartment on the corner of Clarendon and Irving Park, right down from a cobbler’s shop where I had my roommate’s never-worn Italian shoes remarkably restored after my puppy chewed them up. I wonder which folded first, the video store or the cobbler… Days of yore.
But my time machine experience: I used to spend forever perusing the VHS covers, scrutinizing the synopses on the back, deliberating as I checked off stars and directors, cocking an eyebrow in doubt at the stills they used to tempt me into rental.
All that intense consideration, and I still ended up with so much unwatchable shit.
Back then, I was always wary of The Thirteenth Floor because I’d heard that it paled in comparison to the similar simulated-reality films, The Matrix and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, both of which I liked immensely. Something about infusing the 1930s into virtual reality left me cold, and I couldn’t really place any of the actors or the director. “No, no Thirteenth Floor tonight. What about this Leprechaun in the Hood? I’ll go with that one.”
And so it was that I missed out on The Thirteenth Floor. Thing is – it was more or less what my 1999 video store recidivist peruser imagined it to be: a lesser version of The Matrix and eXistenZ, though the 1930s era was not the problem.
Instead, a murder mystery without much tension and uninspired leads sank it. The murder – and the revelation of the culprit in the final third – held very little interest, especially since the victim was probably the most compelling character, also played by the best actor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, with a second place going to Dennis Haysbert as the take-no-shit modern-day detective trying to solve the murder. Vincent D’Onofrio also has roles – plural, remember, there’s a simulation – and I liked him better as the bartender/heavy in the thirties piece as opposed to the scraggly-haired computer genius in the contemporary scenes. Also, he should never appear blonde ever again.
Craig Bierko has the lead role, and while he might have been better suited to nineties television, say, as one of the Friends‘ friends, he was far out of his league trying to forge a wedding between film noir and simulated reality. Not a leading man, but maybe a clumsy sitcom figure. As the femme fatale, Gretchen Mol has only slightly better luck. There’s no mystery behind her eyes, just a plot convention we’re waiting to unravel. Maybe as technology advances, someone will remake this film with the simulations of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck to add another layer to the already multiple layers of simulation. Scratch that. I want Ava Gardner and John Garfield as long as I’m casting simulations as simulations.
I think I did have a greater appreciation for the film today as opposed to a dozen years ago because I’ve been immersed in shows like Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse, which pose questions about the intersections of life, memory, being, simulation, and simulation-as-being. Who is real and what constitutes real is a question in The Thirteenth Floor, but only superficially, as if the mystery were more important than people discovering that they are simulations.
Daniel F. Galouye wrote the source novel, Simulacron-3, the title of which sort of serves as a spoiler, as does the word simulacrum and its interpretations: here, when a simulation begins repeating itself until it becomes a thing apart from its original source. At what point does the copy of the original become distanced enough so that it now exists as an independent entity? After how many copies? At what degree of the simulation’s cognizance or non-cognizance? Where does will emerge and how does it evolve? I wonder if the book drove this home harder than the screenplay adaptation by writer/director Josef Rusnak and co-writer Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez. It should have.
And I’m curious as to who edited the trailer, as they give away the twist: the reality world that created the simulacrum 1930s Los Angeles is itself a simulacrum of another unidentified, assumedly real Los Angeles.
Now I’m really yearning to see the two-part 1973 German television project, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder! It’s set in 1970s Paris and based on the same novel by Daniel F. Galouye! Why am I not watching this right this minute?
Maybe I best stick to Philip K. Dick stories. Or maybe I need to think more closely about Dollhouse. Note to self and anyone who watches Dollhouse: Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) was afraid to find out her original identity because she was afraid of dying, of Dr. Saunders, the simulation, dying. Does one feel being as a simulation? Does one mourn the passing of a simulation? Maybe only once it transcends simulation into simulacrum? One terrific, terrifying speech from Amy Acker in the Joss Whedon series summed up more than the whole of The Thirteenth Floor. Dollhouse and and especially Battlestar Galactica took the simulation/reproduction/simulacrum further than The Thirteenth Floor, which in the end becomes so enamored of its own somewhat predictable mindfuck attempt that it slips away from the questions about identity and being that should ground the film and make it great, as I’m assuming Fassbinder’s will be.