The Thirteenth Floor

If indeed there are 13 levels of hell, the filmmaker’s behind “The Thirteenth Floor” make no apologies for dragging us through each and every one of them. A dull, dreary exercise in futility, “The Thirteenth Floor” is another example of style over substance.

The film looks sensational, largely thanks to cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff and production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, who have created there distinct worlds in which the characters inhabit.

I just wish the rest of the film was as interesting. Even though “The 13th Floor” deals with computers and virtual reality, it seems old and dated. There isn’t a single original idea in the film, which seems to drag on and on even after it has made its singular point.

Somewhere on the 13th Floor of a high rise in Los Angeles is a virtual reality computer that can take transport users back to 1937 Los Angeles. It’s a neat gimmick, one cleverly played out in the first few moments of the film. It’s here where we meet Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), one of the computers programmers, who uses his trips back in time to wine and dine sweet young things.

When Fuller suspects that something is amiss, he writes a letter to his partner Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), and leaves it with a bartender at the Wilshire Grand. Upon his return from 1937, Fuller is viciously murdered, and all fingers point to Hall as the main suspect. Young, good looking and wildly successful, Hall is appalled when Det. Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert) suggests that a change in Fuller’s will leaving him the company is all the motivation he needs.

Desperate to clear his name, Hall convinces computer programmer Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio) to send him back to 1937, where he hopes he can piece together Fuller’s last night. Hall is amazed at the clarity of the virtual Los Angeles, where everything looks and feels real. He’s even more amazed that both Fuller and Whitney have populated the virtual world with characters that resemble them.

Fuller’s double is a kindly store owner whose marriage is in trouble because his wife suspects that he is having an affair. Whitney’s double is a dubious bartender named Ashton, who holds the key to Hall’s mystery. Since the virtual reality computer has the power to scramble the brains of the user, Hall can only go back in time for two hours at a time. Sort of a “Somewhere in Time” with computer chips.

That means the film bounces back and forth between the cold and steel blue modern world, and the pleasant hues of 1937, where the filmmaker’s attempt to capture a film noir look. “The Thirteenth Floor” even jumps ahead to 2024, but we won’t get into that. The film is confusing enough in a muddle sort of way, which doesn’t mean it is hard to follow. You just stop caring after about an hour into the film.

German director Josef Rusnak (who last served as second-unit director on “Godzilla”) makes pretty pictures, but his subjects are dull and lifeless. Visually, “The Thirteenth Floor” is eye candy for the computer age. Once the actors open their mouths and start spewing forth Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez’s silly dialogue, the illusion is destroyed.

It’s not really the actor’s fault. They do their best with what they have, but are never as interesting as the world their inhabit. Craig Bierko is okay as Hall, a man who slowly realizes that 1937 Los Angeles may not be the only computer generated world. Bierko manages to play two distinctly different characters, and he rises to the challenge.

Every film noir needs a mysterious leading lady, and Gretchen Mol does her best to breathe life into a confusing and underwritten role. She sort of has this young Anne Heche thing going on that seems to work for her.

Armin Mueller-Stahl is always a pleasure to watch, and he manages to rise above the mess and escape unscathed. He brings the film a much needed dose of reality and humanity. Vincent D’Onofrio is such a chameleon that it takes a while to warm up to him as the shaggy blonde haired computer programmer.

The remainder of the cast are nothing more than chess pieces for the director to move around in order to get the best move. “The Thirteenth Floor” benefits from a pulsating score by Harald Kloser and sharp editing by Henry Richardson. You just wish they had something more significant to work with.

It’s odd that Columbia Pictures would dump this film into the wake of “The Phantom Menace” and “The Matrix,” two films that obviously share the same audience. It’s definitely not a heavy hitter, even though it comes from Roland Emmerich’s (“ID4,” “Godzilla”) production company. It’s a trifle, a film that should be in and out of theaters faster than you can say Direct-to-Video.



Craig Bierko, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert in a film directed by Josef Rusnak. Rated R. 100 Minutes.


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