Virtual Reality Bites
The Best Thing About '13th Floor' Is Its Jab At Tucson.
By James DiGiovanna
JUNE 7, 1999: HERE'S A SENTENCE that's never been uttered: "The special effects were okay, but the plot was amazing!"
So far this year, three films have explored worlds where virtual reality is confused with reality. The best, by far, was eXistenZ, David Cronenberg's intensely imaginative fable about VR toys made of mutant frog parts. Second best was The Matrix, wherein Keanu Reeves acts like he's a confused man who's just been thrown into a world he doesn't understand. Whoa.
Thirteenth Floor comes in third, and makes up for its lack of originality by proffering one of the best disses against Tucson ever to hit the silver screen.
The movie opens with the famous Descartes quote, "I think, therefore I am," so you know it's going to be a deep and meaningful exploration of such things as "thinking," and no doubt, "being." Armin Meuller-Stahl, slumming here after his work on Shine and The X-Files Movie, is a computer programmer who has created a complete virtual-reality simulation of 1937 Los Angeles. He "jacks in" to his creation so as to have virtual sex with the virtual hotties who inhabit his virtual night club. (When I was a kid, we didn't quite call that "jacking in," but I guess times have changed.)
Anyway, he makes some kind of discovery in his virtual world, but before he can communicate it, he's killed in the "real" world. I put "real" in quotes here, because, man, like who knows what's real, dude. Whoa.
The top employee at the company that Mueller-Stahl's character founded inherits the project, and comes under suspicion for the murder. So this employee, Douglas Hall, has to enter the virtual world to see if Mueller-Stahl has left a clue for him there. He sets the timer for two hours (an obvious reference to the length of a film...could we, the audience, be participating in a virtual reality? Double whoa.). Then he slips off his shoes to more comfortably enjoy his computer experience. For some reason, every time someone goes virtual, he's compelled to take off his shoes, as if virtual reality were like entering a Japanese home.
Hall "jacks in" to the system, and finds himself transformed into a bank teller in old L.A. He then spends the next 10 minutes being overwhelmingly amazed by the realness of his virtual world. We know he's amazed because he makes a Keanu Reeves-face as he splashes virtual water on his hands. I couldn't really share in his amazement, in spite of the fact that the blaring music indicated that I, too, should be amazed. It's a little hard to relate to a character who's thinking, "Wow...water!"
After ditzing around in virtual L.A. for a while, he realizes the people who inhabit this world are every bit as real as you or I: the program is so good they're able to think and feel. Therefore, in reference to our introductory quote, they are.
Mueller-Stahl's character has left a letter for Douglas Hall with a virtual bartender, who has read the letter and discovered that his world is fake. "I did what the letter said," says the bartender, "and went some place that no one would ever go...Tucson! When I got there I found no movement...no life...what I saw scared me to the bottom of my soul!" Dude, tell me about it.
It seems that, just as in our reality, you can prove the non-existence of the world by going to Tucson.
Douglas Hall wonders why this letter would have been sent to him, since he already knew that the VR world was fake--unless it was meant to be about his reality!
Hall investigates this by sleeping with Mueller-Stahl's daughter, played by the fetching Gretchen Mol. He tries to woo her by going to the supermarket where she works and buying a 7-gallon drum of corn oil, which is an unusually bold but successful come-on.
Thirteenth Floor is one of those films where everyone talks in breathy whispers, as though what they were saying was of utmost importance--that is, to them. It's kind of like watching two people who are in love feed each other cake: it's much more interesting for them than it is for the spectator.
On the whole, 13th Floor suffers from an extremely trite and obvious script. There's the obligatory sequence wherein Hall might get trapped in the virtual world because he's forgotten to set the alarm on the timer. The screen keeps flashing, "Timer not engaged! Warning! Timer not engaged!" which is basically how I felt after an hour and a half of this stuff. Then there's a police officer who is basically a collage of every police cliché from every movie of the past 20 years. I kept waiting for him to complain about "the brass" as he explained how that damn computer had killed his partner.
Still, there're a few things to recommend 13th Floor. The actors do a fine job of playing different characters in the different realities, despite having to toss out lines like, "Perhaps we met in another life." Gretchen Mol sports some great acne scars, which I found refreshing in a young ingenue. And of course, it offers a perfect summation of the Tucson experience. At last, Hollywood has reckoned with the negative might of our tiny burg.
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