Mladen and Del review ‘The Thirteenth Floor’

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Starring Craig Berko as Douglas Hall and another, Gretchen Mol as Jane Fuller and another, Vincent D’Onofrio as Jason Whitney, Dennis Haysbert as Larry McBain, Armin Mueller-Stahl as Hannon Fuller, and others. Directed by Josef Rusnak. 1 hour, 40 minutes. Rated R. Streaming on Google Play, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Vudu.

Plot summary: A computer programmer specializing in full virtual reality immersion tries to solve a murder without losing his grip on reality. As he bounces between the normal physical world and a fake 1930s Los Angeles his company and mentor built, the programmer, Douglas Hall, romances a woman who may not exist.

Are there spoilers in this review: No.

Mladen’s take

I can’t tell you if I liked “The Thirteenth Floor” because I’m not sure I’m the one who watched it. Who is writing this review? Beats me.

In a way, the preceding sentences summarize the film’s thrust. The longer “The Thirteenth Floor” progressed, the more difficult it became for me to determine if our hero, or anything, is real to begin with.

My inability to stay oriented as “The Thirteenth Floor” characters shift from actual being to existing as computer code that thinks, manipulates, feels, bleeds, and dies added to the film’s mystique. I was asking myself regularly what was going on but didn’t feel irritated by the ambiguity. Sure, the irises of the characters would flash colors as they transitioned from one state of being to another but, at some point, I lost track of which state they existed in before the shift to a different level.

 “The Thirteenth Floor” acting is good. D’Onofrio is particularly notable as the film’s good guy or bad guy. Also well executed by the cast is that each actor played a couple of roles. The characters looked the same but they acted differently, a feat sustained throughout the movie.        

It’d be an error (with one exception) to compare “The Thirteenth Floor” with “The Matrix,” though both were released in 1999 to make us ponder about “what is real,” if you’ll allow me to quote Morpheus. “The Matrix” is one of the two best films made. It’s slick from top to bottom while addressing heady issues such as sensory perception, fate, conformity, and mind-over-matter. And, I must tell you, Cipher’s justification for turning against humans shortly before he gets zapped and Neo stays alive, makes sense. What is the difference between taking orders from other humans or taking orders from machines? In both cases your autonomy is diminished.

“The Matrix” is about machines enslaving humans. “The Thirteenth Floor” shows people abusing and exploiting other people be they binary – as in 0s and 1s – or real. They’re different movies, though both tack the winds of existentialism.

What does amaze me, however, is the difference in the sophistication of the visual effects. “The Matrix” seamlessly folded hyper-effects such as slo-mo bullets popping supersonic and a Huey crashing into a skyscraper into the story. The “The Thirteenth Floor” FX are reminiscent of the original “Tron,” all laser light and 1980s arcade game graphics.

If you watch “The Thirteenth Floor” because of my review and like it, assume that it was the real me who recommended the film. If you watch the movie because someone called Mladen Rudman recommended it and you dislike it, consider the possibility that you were persuaded by the non-real me or Del.

Del’s take

Oh, that pesky metaverse, digimonde, cyberspace – whatever the hell they’re calling it these days. You never know who is who, what day or time it is, or if any of the crap surrounding you is real – I assume it is because who or what would bother to program things like our current political and economic landscape? A sadist, or somebody who specializes in black humor.

As Mladen said, reality vs. digital simulation is the overlying issue presented by “The Thirteenth Floor,” and let me point out this is one of those rare occasions when Mladen and I are in total agreement, I mean, right down to our letter grade for the movie, which can only mean one thing: The real Mladen is stuck in the Matrix and the Mladen who wrote this review is some kind of glitchy faux re-creation, because he and I never see eye-to-eye on anything.

“The Thirteenth Floor” started with such promise and limped to an ending that was probably generated by audience reaction surveys. It’s as if they grafted two thirds of a decent movie onto a crappy movie, saving the worst for last.

What I enjoyed about “The Thirteenth Floor” was the immersion into 1930s Los Angeles, with its luxuriant art deco architecture, elaborate and stylish clothes people wore to nightclubs and dance halls, and artistic flourishes of automobile design. Compared to the design-impoverished world of 21st century America, the inhabitants of 1930s Los Angeles lived in splendor.

Like Mladen, I was put off by the dated look of the 1990s technology. Special effects were about a decade behind the times, resembling the early days of MTV videos. More obvious was the rapid evolution of technology over the past two or three decades. I got a kick out of seeing a cell phone with one of those pull-out antennas. I owned one of those phones.

As the story progressed and began to answer some of the questions it asked at the beginning, the plot meandered into an area that is not well-supported by everything preceding it. By story’s end I was struggling to keep up with who was who and what was what, but the real struggle lay in whether I cared what happened because the stakes were much lower that what I’d been led to believe.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? In “The Thirteenth Floor” they do, and while Philip K. Dick might have loved this movie in the early 1960s, he’d likely skip it in 2024. Dick, who helped usher in science fiction’s New Wave and who presaged the cyberpunk movement of the ’80s and ’90s, might have related more closely with “The Matrix.”

You’ll notice the movie’s title refers to something that mostly doesn’t exist. Multi-story hotels routinely renumber their 13th floors because superstitious guests don’t like the association with bad luck. Maybe if they’d named this movie “The Floor between Twelve and Fourteen” I would have liked it better.

I’ll settle on a B-. Kudos for the look back in time, but demerits for a hard-to-follow plot, lame ending and clunky tech look.

Mladen’s grade: B-

Del’s grade: B-

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and writer.