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'The Thirteenth Floor,' Making 101 Minutes Disappear

By Rita Kempley
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
Plato, Descartes, Keanu Reeves, all the world's great thinkers have wrestled with the nature of reality. The topic, recently explored in "The Matrix" and "eXistenZ," now crops up again, in "The Thirteenth Floor," a earnest, pedantically paced thriller that shuttles between actual and illusory worlds.

Set in modern Los Angeles, the noirish tale follows the harrowing exploits of Douglas Hall (bland Craig Bierko) and his partner, Dr. Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), visionaries who create a living, breathing simulation of the city as it was in 1937. Though the equipment is still being safety tested, Fuller has been visiting the other L.A. with increasing frequency.

Unfortunately, simulated time travel brings unexpected changes in both "users" and the computer-generated "units" who play unwitting hosts to the otherworldly visitors. As far as these replicants are concerned, they're as real are you and me. They eat, get drunk, go to work, worry about their futures and so forth.

When possessed by the likes of Fuller, they have no memory of what the user experienced. Unfortunately for Fuller's unit, Grierson, the computer magnate turns into a skirt-chasing rapscallion while visiting the cyber city. A happily married, mild-mannered soul, Grierson can't fathom why he comes home late smelling of perfume. Of course, Mrs. Grierson demands an explanation.

The concept has the makings of a terrific bedroom farce, but director Josef Rusnak, a veteran of German TV miniseries, and his frosh co-writer Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez don't appear to possess a sense of humor. The filmmakers don't simply take their work seriously, they believe it is profound, as demonstrated by the movie's opening graphic of the Cartesian quote, "I think, therefore I am."

In truth, nobody seems to have put a lot of thought into this loose adaptation of Daniel Galouye's 1960s novel, "Simulacron 3." Basically, it's a fairly straightforward (and sometimes backward) whodunit that begins when Fuller is found brutally murdered in the here and now and Doug Hall, who stands to inherit the company fortune, becomes the prime suspect.

Even Hall, who has been suffering from blackouts himself lately, can't seem to remember where he was or what he was doing at the time of Fuller's death. (And what's that bloody shirt doing in his laundry hamper?) For his own peace of mind, the pensive corporate executive launches his own investigation into Fuller's activities in cyberspace. Unfortunately, the audience is way ahead of the hero by now, and his plodding search for answers is as tedious as watching jello mold.

Jane (vapid Gretchen Mol), a fetching young woman claiming to be Fuller's daughter, only adds to the mystery when she suddenly pops up in Los Angeles to claim her father's vast fortune. She quickly seduces Hall, who isn't the least troubled that his best friend and partner never once mentioned his daughter. Clearly, she's up to something, but, as geniuses go, Hall is a little slow to catch on.

But the truth is out there, and even this lunk is bound to bump into it given enough opportunities. And when he finally does, it's not much of a revelation that bad things happen when man plays God. "The Golem," based on the Jewish folktale in which a magician brings a clay statue to life with disastrous results, was first filmed in 1914. Countless episodes of "Star Trek" portray artificial intelligence as a threat to the humans who created it. Dr. Frankenstein lives.

Rusnak, who was the second-unit director of "Godzilla," brings plenty of style to this ambitious yet utterly anticlimactic thumb-sucker. Still, "The Thirteenth Floor" can't begin to compare with the stunning visuals of "The Matrix" or the grisly invention of "eXistenZ." However, the leads are completely convincing as computer programs.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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