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'Thirteenth Floor' Breaks Down

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Thirteenth Floor
Craig Bierko seeks answers from a mysterious woman (Gretchen Mol). (Columbia TriStar)

Josef Rusnak
Craig Bierko;
Gretchen Mol;
Armin Mueller-Stahl;
Vincent D'Onofrio;
Dennis Haysbert
Running Time:
1 hour, 41 minutes
Contains minor doses of profanity, sexual situations and violence
When a movie quotes Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" right at the beginning, you should probably consider yourself warned.

"The Thirteenth Floor," based on Daniel F. Galouye's science fiction novel, "Simulacron 3," uses the French philosopher's most famous utterance to launch an initially compelling mystery about parallel universes.

Perhaps writer/filmmaker Josef Rusnak should have altered the quotation to "I download, therefore I am," since characters spend so much time transferring their consciousnesses to look-alike counterparts in virtual-reality worlds.

One such artificial world – a virtual replica of Los Angeles in 1937 – has been created by Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a visionary computer designer who wanted to revisit the setting of his youth.

But Fuller, who has been entering or "jacking into" the system an awful lot lately, has learned he is in great danger. Working desperately against the clock and a mysterious enemy, he leaves an important letter in Virtual L.A. with a strange bartender called Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio). He instructs Ashton to deliver it to a man named Douglas Hall.

It turns out, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) is Fuller's right-hand man, a computer researcher with good looks and fashionable stubble, who helped create this world in a laboratory on the 13th floor of an office apartment building.

When Fuller is found dead, Hall is horrified to learn that circumstantial evidence points to him as the prime suspect. His only clue to the mystery is an 11th-hour phone message from the late Fuller that informs him about the letter but is interrupted before identifying the bartender. I hate it when that happens.

With the help of Jason Whitney (also D'Onofrio), his colleague who happens to be a dead ringer for Ashton, Hall jacks into the virtual world to get to the bottom of the mystery. Entering a look-alike virtual being called John Ferguson (also Bierko), he starts his investigation.

Did he kill Fuller without realizing it? Who has the letter? Will he solve the puzzle before Los Angeles detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) busts him for murder? And what is it with the beautiful Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol), who appears out of nowhere, claiming to be Fuller's daughter and demanding legal possession of his virtual world?

"The Thirteenth Floor" is an enterprising project, full of provocative ideas and wonderful sets, saturated in period sepia tones. And for a great while, the story does keep you guessing and wondering.

But things become almost too strange and convoluted to handle. The story's dramatic effectiveness starts to seriously malfunction. The fascinating and the mysterious become the silly and occasionally comical. The movie gets so caught up in its own tortured stratagem, you'll feel as if you're stuck in some futuristic elevator between floors, wondering when filmmaker Rusnak – or perhaps a virtual maintenance man – will come bail you out. Never quite happens.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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