The unforgiving wages of time and the dangers of simulation turn out to be ironic benchmarks for “The Thirteenth Floor,” since time — and movie trends — have passed it by, while its attempts at conveying a simulated cyber-reality are an extremely mixed bag. The makers of the pic, quite loosely based on Daniel Galouye’s 1960s sci-fi novel “Simulacron 3,” are clearly entranced with the notion of a supercomputer designed to provide the user with simulated time travel, but never figured out how to build a dramatically intriguing story around the concept. It also comes too late, far surpassed by similar and more visually stunning devices in “The Matrix,” and even by the mind-bending realities of “eXistenZ,” and will be squashed in general release by the “Star Wars” express, with the only hope being some overseas coin and promising post-theatrical life.
Pic from Roland and Ute Emmerich’s Centropolis production squad (with Emmerich’s usual writer-producer partner, Dean Devlin, nowhere in sight) is another variation on the general sci-fi genre in which Emmerich has immersed himself, and specifically on some of the time-travel ideas from “Stargate.” But scripters Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez and Josef Rusnak (who also helmed) become entangled in so many knotty plot problems that not even the greatest minds at Intergraph Computer Systems, home of the movie’s supercomputer, would be able to solve them.
The bit of Cartesian wisdom that everyone knows, “I think, therefore I am,” is pic’s opening graphic, signaling some lightweight intellectual pretensions. Any expectations of a sci-fi futurist setting are upended by the prologue, set in a sepia-toned 1937 Los Angeles, where a dapper gentleman named Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) gives an important letter about “the awful truth” to hotel barkeep Ashton (Vincent D’Onofrio) with instructions that it is only for the eyes of Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko).
Fuller zaps himself back into the present, but he’s made the last trip he’s going to make in the machine he’s invented, since he’s murdered soon after phoning Hall. On the case, LAPD Det. McBain (Dennis Haysbert) is increasingly suspicious of Hall, who stands to inherit the company fortune. Hall, in turn, is intrigued by Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol), who arrives from her home in Paris, claiming to be Fuller’s daughter.
With the help of long-haired assistant Whitney (also D’Onofrio), Hall turns from computer mogul into cyber-sleuth as he zaps back into Fuller’s simulated 1937 reality to uncover the truth behind the murder. It is here that Hall’s — and the audience’s — eyes are opened to the pic’s highlight: an astonishing re-creation of a bygone City of the Angels. Rusnak and the staff of Centropolis Effects have hatched a remarkable simulation in its own right, stuffed with such period detail as a view of southbound La Cienega Boulevard from Sunset Boulevard, cutting through undeveloped land forested with nothing but oil derricks.
Hall’s identity in the past is changed to that of a lowly bank clerk named John Ferguson, but his quest brings him to Stahl as Pasadena bookseller Grieirson and D’Onofrio as the threatening barkeep. While Grieirson is plagued by blackouts, the barkeep (having read the secret letter) has uncovered the truth that he exists within a simulated reality. This inflames the barkeep, leading to some distracting, violent fight scenes.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Hall’s sense of deja vu with Jane becomes overwhelming, until the baroque plot reveals another layer of reality — that this seeming present is itself a simulation, hatched by someone, somewhere else in time. It is here that pic is decidedly unimaginative in its cinematic storytelling and its haplessly written exposition, despite a memorable moment when Hall stands in the Mojave Desert, looking at the edges of the cyber-simulation. What appears to be a tragic end for Hall, who is, in a sense, cyber-possessed by Jane’s actual, very jealous husband, turns happy in an epilogue set in L.A. circa 2024.
Alas, the bright gloss at the end (in a poorly realized visualization of a futuristic city in which buildings seemingly pop up out of the ocean) feels like a cheat, and the last gasp of a thoroughly winded plot.
Narrative miscues begin at the start, with too much of Fuller’s cyber-fantasy past being revealed, and a resultant lack of shock and surprise as Hall discovers the truth. What might have been an intriguing metaphor for filmmaking itself is eroded by dumbed-down dialogue of the tritest sort and a fatal lack of humor.
The Devlin-Emmerich tradition of casting comic actors in lead roles in their sci-fi epics is carried on here with dour results. Bierko is completely incapable of holding his own as a lead, let alone as a character who transforms no less than twice. Innocent-looking but bland, he is continually upstaged by his heftier comrades, especially the classily subdued Mueller-Stahl and the versatile D’Onofrio. Bierko’s blandness, though, is electric compared to the vacuous Mol, who has the ideal ’30s look but nothing going on inside.
Much of the cutting (care of editor Henry Richardson) is crucially sharp, yet dulled by the repeated and unconvincing wormhole f/x (far better done two summers ago in “Contact”) as characters zap themselves into simulations. Production details are textured and ironic (Hall’s present-day offices are in fact a Frank Lloyd Wright interior), but much greater attention is given to the ’30s-era effects than to the cyber-magic. The work of a predominantly German creative team, including d.p.-turned-producer Michael Ballhaus, pic’s look is a contrast of glassy sheen and sepia tones, care of Wedigo von Schultzendorff’s camera.