Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Top Fives or Tens: Favorite Sci-Fi Movies of the 1990s

Aaron: This time our choices of topic were a bit easier to pin down. We briefly considered our Top Five Paranoid Thrillers (too broad), and Top Five Films Featuring Simulated Realities (too narrow), but in the end, the choice was obvious: our Favorite Sci-Fi Films of the 1990s. The nineties represents probably the largest sustained period of movie watching in my entire life. I spent much of the decade in video stores, and for a stretch at least one theatrical movie per week (largely aided by the local dollar theatre). At one point, I was such a regular at Video City that clerks would let me take four or five movies out in the morning without charging me, because I would be back by closing time to return them, at which point I would rent a half dozen films that I would pay for. I was generally a year or two behind the curve on most of the major releases during this decade, but I think I've seen most of the major sci-fi releases from the nineties. And it turns out it was a pretty good decade for science fiction fans (though the 2000s were just around the corner to give that record a run for its money).

I think it goes without saying that the usual disclaimers apply. I know, for me, that this list is in no real order, and placement alone should not denote preference over another title. Also, it should go without saying by now, but this list is in no way definitive, nor is it trying to be. There are many great films to choose from, and if you want to read a list ranking them all, several are just a short google search away. This is, instead, a list of sci-fi films that were notable to us. Like all such lists, it is highly subjective, but we'd like to make the case that all of these films are worth seeking out.

Rik: Speak for yourself. Don't watch any of these goddamn movies! I keed, I keed... Yes, the '90s had some truly wonderful movies in this particular genre (but then again, so has every decade since the 1950s). I know that when we look at the huge list of science fiction released in the decade, the real question was "Where do we begin?" Just too many possibilities to just choose five, so I am glad we decided not to have crossover titles at all. 

On my end of things, while the big budget epics are more obvious and a hell of a lot of fun, I tried to pick at least one film for my Five that operated on a much smaller level. I think we have been spoiled as special effects have advanced through the decades, and we have forgotten that science fiction is supposed to first be about the ideas, not the action that may result from those ideas. But, of course, action and not words sell movie tickets, so I understand why the scale is balanced in that direction. Still, there are less well-known films out there that deserve recognition. And, might I point out that The Matrix is not on our final list?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Rik: I do recall there was a fleeting moment before seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day in its original release where I had a twinge of doubt that it could possibly live up to The Terminator. That first film was such a game-changer in my mind back in 1984, and it still holds up completely for me today. The then-groundbreaking visual effects, Ah-nuld, the time-leaping story, a lovely shag-do bearing Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn back when we thought he was going to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and best of all, Dick Miller. Loved it all. We had no idea who this James Cameron guy was (or what a pain in the ass he would turn out to be), but a few years later, post-Aliens and The Abyss, I had a nearly complete faith in him. Naturally, once the lights went down and "T2" (an abbreviation I still hate) began, that tiny little twinge dissipated instantly. It is usually a bad thing when a production company extends many times the original budget for a sequel, but in the case of Terminator 2, it proved to be that bigger actually was better. That is because Cameron incorporated mind-bending effects work that he was slowly developing through his other films and brought them fully to the fore in this film. The smartest choice was in its villain, an otherwise unknown Robert Patrick, who felt so cold and mechanical throughout the film that years later, when I almost ran smack into him after running off of Grizzly River Rapids in California Adventure soaking wet, I stuttered a bit when offering my apology to him. (He turned out to be rather a nice guy.) One more note: this film was so great that it really marked the last time that I could possibly care about the Terminator franchise (Summer Glau and Lena Headey being mega-hot in The Sarah Connor Chronicles notwithstanding).

Starship Troopers (1997)

Aaron: It seemed, for a short while during the 1990s, that Paul Verhoeven might just be the savior of big budget, blockbuster sci-fi films. He combined the muscular, propulsive style of James Cameron with a much more cynical and ironic worldview. His work with screenwriter Ed Neumeier (this film and Robocop) achieve what the best sci-fi novelists often strive for: a future that actually feels forward-looking and futuristic, and stories that so pointedly examine issues of their time that they are often confused of being what they mock. It's difficult for me to believe now, but Starship Troopers was, at the time, considered part of Verhoeven's downfall as a big Hollywood director. The film was a pretty big flop, and it's many detractors, smart people who should have known better, criticized the film for its glorification of xenophobic violence and its focus on teen-soap opera-ready love triangles. To say that those people missed the point is an understatement. I'm not sure how anyone can see this film, one of the most subversive anti-military films to come from a major studio that I can think of, and come away thinking that it glorifies fascism. What I really think happened is that people got caught up in the rah-rah action, the thrillingly staged gunfights against hordes of impressively rendered giant insectoids, and then felt betrayed when it's revealed that the heroes are the Nazis in this allegory. For those that missed the subtleties at play in Michael Ironside's speechifying that might makes right, it must have felt like having the rug pulled out from under them to see Doogie Howser himself, Neil Patrick Harris, come out in full Nazi regalia for the film's triumphant ending. The years have been kind to this film, as it's become a full-fledged cult darling. Part of that can be attributed to the special effects, which hold up remarkably well, looking more convincing than many big budget films released over a decade later, and easily outshining Star Wars Episode 1, which wouldn't come out for two more years. But beyond that, the film itself rewards those who get onto its wavelength and can appreciate the world that Neumeier and Verhoeven build for us, and all of the little touches they throw in to reward multiple viewings.

Would you like to know more?

Dark City (1998)

Rik: I remember that Dark City came out after a particularly strange break-up with an old girlfriend. Needing a release beyond the mere emotional, I lost myself in the movie theatre within the layers of this still utterly strange film for about three straight weeks, seeing it over and over again. 
I will freely admit that part of the allure was in watching Jennifer Connelly lusciously inhabit the extremely stylized 1940's noir atmosphere of this film as Rufus Sewell's wife. Exquisitely designed in every aspect, Dark City is a veritable feast for the eyes and a head-scratcher of a mystery built around a city where the citizens, naturally, only seem to exist in darkness). Each evening at midnight, the whole population of the city falls asleep for a period while the Strangers, a group of pale, bald men (who are corpses inhabited by aliens) use their incredible powers (called "tuning") to physically rearrange vast portions of the city and shuffle the identities and often the memories of some people. Mostly everybody, but not Murdoch (played appealingly by Rufus Sewell) who has not only grown immune to the powers of the Strangers (the creepiest of which is played by Rocky Horror scribe and star Richard O'Brien), but he suddenly has the ability to "tune" for himself. This gives him the potential to fight back against the Strangers, something they do not like one little bit. It is hard to discuss Dark City without revealing too much for anybody that has not seen the film, and there are plenty of surprises in store. Even eighteen years later, this film still looks stunning and is a complete delight for the senses. I had such monstrously high hopes for director Alex Proyas after his debut, The Crow, and then this film. I guess that I was OK with his take on I, Robot, but then he made Knowing, and while it had interesting visual moments, I couldn't buy into it. (I have yet to see his latest, Gods of Egypt, but the trailers have me doubting why I should.) But I also somewhat knew that it would be extremely hard for anyone, even Proyas, to top Dark City. And Connelly? Well, she doesn't really do it for me anymore, but I still love to visit Dark City when I am feeling down.

eXistenZ (1999)

Aaron: Like your experience with Dark City, this film is inextricably tied to the theatrical experience in my memory. I saw this film one afternoon at the University Center theatre, just a couple years before it eventually closed for good, when the mall it was attached to was sold to the University of Alaska, fulfilling the promise of the mall's name. I was stranded after my morning classes at the aforementioned University, and with friends and family all preoccupied, I began the hours-long walk home. Passing by the theatre, I saw this film on the marquee, and due to my budding Cronenberg fandom recognized it immediately. Stopping at the nearby Safeway for some cheap snacks, I went and bought my ticket for the show. I've always enjoyed communal theatrical experiences, where the combined enjoyment of a large crowd permeates the air and increases the film's impact. eXistenZ was not like that. I was alone in the theatre, and I mean alone. Not a single person joined me for the show, which was actually fairly common at this point in the theatre's life (that same year some friends and I went to see Cradle Will Rock and were 15 minutes late. We expected to miss the trailers, maybe part of the opening credits, but when we bought our tickets the guy at the booth called back to tell the projectionist that he could start the film, because some people finally showed up), and the solitary nature of that viewing made it seem as if the film had been made just for me. Looking at Box Office Mojo, that might have been closer to the case than the producers would have liked. But I've always found eXistenZ to be a more-than-worthy entry in Cronenberg's ouevre of films about how technology degrades, corrupts, and warps our bodies. I also think the film has a quite canny understanding of the psychology of videogames, and how unsettling it would be to interact with fully immersive virtual reality. More than any other film that came up during our Thirteenth Floor discussion, eXistenZ feels truly mindbending at times, as Cronenberg captures and conveys the disorientation of his characters. The film might not occupy the upper echelons of Cronenberg's filmography, but I've always thought it was worthy of more attention.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Rik: Any friend of mine – and any reader of my other blogs – knows how truly obsessed I am with dinosaurs. I had Snap-Tite dinosaur models as a kid, and even some motorized models as well. I devoured books on paleontology. My early attraction to genre film was largely based on films like The Beast of Hollow Mountain, King Kong (where the dinos were the initial appeal before I turned to Fay Wray), the Godzilla films, and The Valley of Gwangi. But I had always been annoyed that there were so few examples of excellent dinosaur effects work, apart from Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, and a handful of others. Since the public adoration of these creatures was so huge and seemingly ever growing, I could never fathom why there weren't more quality dinosaur-centric films being made. When an Advanced Reader's Copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton showed up at the news agency warehouse where I worked in the summer of 1990, I remember grabbing it before anyone else could see it. (Still have it, as a matter of fact.) I whisked it home and read it immediately. I knew Crichton's writing and films full well already, and now he was basically reinventing the Westworld concept with a T. Rex instead of a rampaging cowboy robot? If there is a prime example of my multiple worlds colliding, it was reading Jurassic Park at that exact moment. And I am not lying when I say that as I read it, the filmmaker I instantly envisioned to director a possible feature film was Steven Spielberg. Now, this could have turned out badly if the resulting film had gone on to disappoint me even the slightest bit, but I am still flabbergasted that it came off so remarkably well. Sure, you can criticize the thin characters and some of their motivations, but I am not watching Jurassic Park for characters and motivations. As the film that made me fully believe that dinosaurs on a movie screen were absolutely real and not mere special effects work, Jurassic Park succeeded mightily.

12 Monkeys (1995)

Aaron: Twelve Monkeys, when it came out in 1995, combined two of my burgeoning loves: the films of Terry Gilliam, and movies dealing with time travel. I've always loved time travel stories, even if I sometimes tire of having discussions that deal with the inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies of the genre. I don't care if time travel is possible or not; if it's in a movie, I will buy that it exists in that universe. All I ask is that the film or story creates consistent rules for the phenomenon and sticks to them. To my mind 12 Monkeys might have the most ironclad time travel story I can think of, as its infinitely looping story affords the audience to both hope that the past can be changed, and also the terrible knowledge that it never can. Terry Gilliam was, at this time in his career (and for years to come), one of my all-time top five directors, and any film he released was a highly anticipated event. I saw this with my best friend at the time, and one thing I remember most clearly about seeing this in 1995 was that during the scenes set in 1996 there were advertisements and billboards in the background for albums and movies that didn't exist. We noticed this because one of the advertisements was for a band we liked, and was for a previously unknown album. When that album finally came out, in 1996, it gave a brief thrill of connection to the experience. Of course that sort of things happens all the time; movies set in the near future will often try to throw in little Easter eggs like that, but 12 Monkeys was the first time I had ever consciously noticed it, and I thought it was a really cool touch to one of my favorite movies of that year. 

I am just now realizing that out of my five choices for this list, I saw all but one of them in theatres, three of them at the University Center Theatres, two of them with my high school best friend Justin, and two of them starred Bruce Willis. Above all else, this list is clearly informed by the experiences and emotions of that time in my life.

Darkman (1990)

Rik: What a world we once lived in when superhero thrills were far and few between on our movie and television screens. Apart from a Batman film here and there, we had little hopes that any of the big superhero characters would end up in a halfway decent film. So we turned to variations on the superhero theme, and somehow, our pal Sam Raimi, who made us fall in love with a goofball with a chainsaw arm named Ash, gave us Darkman at the beginning of the decade. Yes, placing a superhero film in the science fiction category is debatable, though I would argue that anyone receiving extraordinary abilities to battle the evils of the world does belong in there somehow. So, let me point out that the powers Liam Neeson's doctor character receives from medical operations to save his life (incapability to feel pain due to severed nerve endings and, thus, enhanced strength) and the technological advancements he creates (replaceable and absolutely believable temporary skin that the wearer can use to disguise himself, but only for 99 minutes at a time) fall fully into the requirements of the genre. It's also a nice twist on the mad scientist subgenre, in that this time, the doctor decides to turn his new talents towards stopping an ambitious crime kingpin (a sublimely slimy Larry Drake) and an unscrupulous land developer (Colin Friels). All this, and Frances McDormand and Ted Raimi, too (and Bruce Campbell, originally meant to play the lead, in a blink-or-you-will-miss-him cameo). The film is, in the Raimi style, fast, flashy, dark-humored, and uber-violent. I loved it from the moment the film started playing on that first showing, and I have never stopped adoring this film.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Aaron: If you asked a hundred people what their favorite Star Trek movie of all time is, I'm pretty sure a fair percentage of the answers would be Galaxy Quest. Proof that you have to love something in order to successfully poke fun at it in a satisfying manner, Galaxy Quest works as both a takedown of and homage to the original Star Trek television series. This is another on my list I saw theatrically, and another where it was an almost empty room; just my three friends and a father with his children were there. It was a pretty great experience, as my friends and I nearly fell out of our seats laughing, while the father would have to follow up each bout of laughter with an explanation of the joke to his confused children. I don't think I laughed harder at a movie during that decade than I did when the crew lands on an alien planet and Tony Shalhoub opens the shuttle doors much to Sam Rockwell's shock and terror, and says, "Is there air? You don't know!" Speaking of Shalhoub and Rockwell, get a look at that cast: Tim Allen has never been better with the Shatnerian swagger, Alan Rickman brings real frustration and gravitas to even his character's silliest moments, and Sigourney Weaver gets to point out the often demeaning sexism of the ever-optimistic Star Trek universe. Galaxy Quest occupies the same air as Young Frankenstein for me, a film that can be appreciated as both a good story and a pretty good example of the genre it's aping, while also serving as a hilarious takedown of said genre.

Late for Dinner (1991)

Rik: So, this film is my different choice, the one that steps away from the high budget special effects thrills and loud violence, and gives us a far quieter story and concept. It's a time travel movie, only there are no complicated machines or time portals in which the two main characters – brothers-in-law who have been framed for a kidnapping and murder in 1962 by yet another evil developer (Peter Gallagher) – travel through time. With one brother (Brian Wimmer) wounded from a gunshot and the other (Peter Berg) unknowingly dying from a kidney affliction, in desperation they happen upon a doctor in Pomona who is experimenting with cryonic freezing. Without their knowledge or approval, the doctor puts them to sleep for 29 years, and when they wake up accidentally in 1991, to a world with cell phones and diners where you can't get two burgers and two orders of fries for less than ten bucks (with change). They return to their Santa Fe home to Wimmer's now much older wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and grown daughter. The sci-fi trappings in Late for Dinner are so low-key as to be almost non-existent, but the payoffs in this film are on a far more emotional level than mere genre thrills. The film's main characters have a charming way with dialogue, as you would expect in a film directed by W.D. Richter, who also made The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension and who co-wrote Big Trouble in Little China. When Berg's child-man character worries about Wimmer having been shot, his brother-in-law tells him, "I've just been brutally grazed, that's all." The film drifts along nicely on the chemistry between these two actors, but the entire cast maintains the same light and ultimately romantic tone (though Harden comes off a little too "actor-y," as she often does). A year later, Late for Dinner would be all but forgotten when Mel Gibson's Forever Young, with a much bigger budget and similar concept but an even more convoluted plotline, would be a huge worldwide hit (both films received mixed reviews initially). I feel Late for Dinner has been rather a lost treasure, and this tender, nostalgic story deserves a modern audience.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Aaron: For those keeping track at home, this is the second movie on this list that I saw with my friend Justin, and the third at the University Center. The major difference in the experience was that here, two years before eXistenZ, the theatre was a bustling place. Or maybe we saw the film opening weekend. Whatever the case, I remember not finding a seat during the movie and sitting with Justin against the back wall of the theatre. I also remember we weren't the only ones doing this. I'm not sure what management's position on this blatant disregard for fire codes was, but we were luckily not escorted out and sent to a later showing. In 1997, I was only vaguely aware of French director and one man film industry Luc Besson, having seen and loved The Professional and La Femme Nikita, but not really being aware of his extensive career or overall style. The Fifth Element changed that, and Besson immediately became a name I sought out and followed thereafter. I loved the mix between high art and crass exploitation that he often indulged in, and in many ways never more successfully than in this film. The Fifth Element is one of those sci-fi movies where imagination trumps actual science, making it more akin to the fantasy of Star Wars than anything else, full of crazy looking aliens, meticulously detailed backdrops, and high concepts about the galactic importance of love. Also Milla Jovovich (Besson's wife at the time) as the 'perfect specimen', a casting choice I could find no fault with at the time, Gary Oldman as a hilariously evil intergalactic arms dealer, and Chris Tucker screeching his way through the movie in a manner I'm surprised I never find annoying. I've since cooled, considerably, on Besson's films (and don't even get me started on some of the garbage he produces or writes for other directors), but every time I see his name attached as director I make sure I get around to watching it. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: The Thirteenth Floor (1999) Pt. 2

Welcome back for Part 2 in our discussion of the 1999 sci-fi thriller The Thirteenth Floor. If you've missed part one, you can click here to get caught up, and then come back to join us as we delve into the deep end of this film's philosophical ramifications.

Aaron: I mentioned Craig Bierko in the first part of our discussion, and I want to talk a bit about his acting in this film. As I referenced earlier, I knew him at the time mainly from his frequent talk show appearances, and I was under the impression that he was primarily a stage actor transitioning over to film. I hadn’t seen him much in the intervening years, and when I did see him I’d always wonder why he hadn’t become a bigger name. He’s got camera friendly looks, a natural ease about himself, and a pleasant demeanor, and it seemed odd to me that he couldn’t quite make it as a star. Re-watching this film gave me a few clues. In this film, he seems a little too wide-eyed and lost at all times, as if he’d just been told a joke he doesn’t quite understand. Of course, you can argue that he chose the right way to play his character for many of the mysterious scenes, but it also seems to be his one real way of playing this character. It really adds to the false impression of mediocrity that this film engenders; Bierko is the main character, and also, in a way, the least interesting. From both a character and performance standpoint, the character (or should I say characters?) Bierko plays is fairly indistinctive. Which, come to think of it, may be a comment on the preprogrammed nature of his personality in this film.

Rik: In 1990, Valerie Bertinelli was launching a new sitcom named Sydney. By that point, though Eddie Van Halen had been despoiling her for about a decade, the crush that I carried all through One Day at a Time’s run meant that I naturally had to try out her new show. The surprise was that Sydney, which even had a Van Halen song as its opening theme, was pretty damn funny (at the time). Matthew Perry, in one of his first adult roles, played her brother and was already the fast-quipping guy that we would see for far longer on Friends. The other lead in the show was Craig Bierko, also in one of his earlier TV roles, as Sydney’s intended eventual love interest. (I had seen him on Newhart before this, recognizing him in Sydney but, of course, did not know his name at the time.) Bierko fit well into the show, and I recall that he had excellent chemistry with Bertinelli, but despite excellent reviews, the show did not get decent ratings, and it died after thirteen episodes. I saw Bierko on other shows and films in guest roles through that decade, and he did get a fairly decent villainous role in the Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight. He also had a small part as the photographer who joins Hunter S. Thompson (Johnny Depp) at the desert auto race in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Based on his appeal in Sydney alone, I thought Craig Bierko was going to blow up huge, but on my radar, he pretty much disappeared, except to show up on those talk shows you mentioned, where he was constantly humorous and charming. Otherwise, the game became, for many years up to even now, “Spot the Bierko”.

With his big, naturally wide eyes, Bierko has a certain look to him of seeming to always be staring too intensely at something in wonderment or of being astonished constantly. I think his basic look actually works well for him in The Thirteenth Floor, because, there are indeed things at which to stare hard (Gretchen Mol in three different personas, but more on that in a second) and multiple layers of reality to ponder and over which to appear astonished when they do manifest themselves. I think you might have it right, however, when you mention that perhaps his main character is supposed to seem a bit stiff, like a computer simulation of a real personality. But when he switches to his other personas from the other levels, I think he inhabits them (or they inhabit him)  quite appropriately, and in the case of the more villainous version of himself, kicks into another darker layer we don’t often get to see him play (the aforementioned The Long Kiss Goodnight, which I hope is still the crazy ass film that I remember seeing years ago).

Armin Mueller-Stahl does a yeoman-type job in his own multiple roles, steady enough to never play outside of his range, and in some way, it kind of makes him the odd man out for me. This is to say that he is good, as he is in many roles, but he is also really kind of just there for me. But there are a couple of other actors I want to discuss at some length, because most of what I feel towards the film, both positive and negative, is wrapped up more in their performances.

The first is Vincent D’Onofrio, who has been a favorite of mine for a great many years. I have a general rule about films and the actors that have been cast in them. It’s called “The McGoohan Rule,” which is, if you hired the late Patrick McGoohan in anything but a lead role then the chances were very good that he was going to turn out to be the big villain that got revealed by the end of the film. Taking McGoohan out of the quotient, if a star is a relatively big name to the point where he is either prominent on the poster and/or in the opening credits, and by a certain point in the film he has been severely underused as a character, then there are probably some really big, revelatory scenes coming up where he will have a more than casual influence on the plot for the remainder of the film. I named the rule after McGoohan’s performance in Minority Report (or as I prefer to call it, “Minority Repority”), where he kind of hangs around in the background for a major chunk of the film, and then suddenly is revealed to know a hell of a lot more about the dastardly goings on in the story than we assumed. Because of “The McGoohan Rule,” you can kind of just sit back and relax, knowing full well that Mr. Big Name Actor who has barely been in the film thus far is more than likely going to turn out to be “The Big Bad”.

D’Onofrio manages to gets around “The McGoohan Rule” to a certain extent because he gets to play two different characters, of very differing natures. (We assume there is a third version of him by a certain point in the film, but we never meet his “real world” counterpart). The ever-quirky D’Onofrio has certainly played some villains in the past, but in this film, he gets a chance to show his sweeter side as a longhaired computer programmer named Whitney who seems to be the best buddy of Bierko’s main character. This role rather surprised me, as it is exactly the type of role you would expect Philip Seymour Hoffman to have played, and D’Onofrio does look a little like him as Whitney. D’Onofrio also essays the role of a bartender in the 1937 level of the film named Ashton, who seems like a straight arrow at first, but gradually reveals much darker tendencies. However, since it is D’Onofrio playing both men, he also has the wherewithal (and talent) to give shadings to both characters that make us easily empathize with the more villainous one and also remain somewhat uncertain about the motives of the nicer guy until late in the film. And the filmmakers know that D’Onofrio is their ace in the hole, playing up these moments for all they are worth.

Not having quite the wherewithal or talent is Gretchen Mol, caught here in a triple role (the credits will tell you that she only plays two characters, but there are three distinct personas on display from her in this film) that is a bit beyond her grip. Of course, we know full well now that she had The Notorious Bettie Page in her future, where she somehow got the acting thing figured out finally. I’d say it was just a much better role, but the complexity of the parts here in The Thirteenth Floor should be a rather juicy get for an actress of any caliber, but Mol seems to sleepwalk through much of it. I think she underplays far too much in the entire film, and this is a shame, because if there is one thing that will get my attention in a film from the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it’s to tell me that Gretchen Mol is in it. I had a rather rich fantasy life built around the quite lovely Gretchen in those days (starting with Rounders), for some very personal reasons I would rather not go into now or ever. (I will say that this is yet another example why it is so surprising that I never heard anything about this film.) 

Despite my excitement at seeing Mol in the cast of a film, including this one, it was almost always on the acting side of things (in those days) where she tended to disappoint. Her characters often disappear in the films in which she appears (mainly due to being underwritten; not her fault), and because a lot of her early roles were usually as arm candy or wives, she often served mainly as some rather nice-looking wallpaper. It seems she was given a pretty grand opportunity here in The Thirteenth Floor, with some rather nuanced characterization coming straight from the script, to show greater range. While I feel her performance is not bad – if anything, it is pedestrian – there is a sense that she rather dropped the ball here.

Aaron: To say something nice about Gretchen Mol in this film, I thought the eventual reveal of her character being just a program that had been inhabited by her upper level counterpart showcased a bit of nice acting from her. Nothing meaty, as you say, and nothing flashy, but the transition from professional heiress to heavily made up, bubblegum chewing grocery store clerk was pretty believable. Again, not a huge stretch in acting, but I did believe they were two distinct characters.

This seems as good a time as any to bring up the metaphysics of this film, and its layers of personality. There are three levels that we know of in the film: 1937, 1999, and 2024. Each level can project their consciousness into a lower level to walk around and experience that world. The consciousness of the person in the lower level apparently switches places and resides in the sleeping body of the person in the upper level. I’m assuming keeping the body asleep is part of what the machine does, and why characters have no memory after the invading personality departs and they return to their level. Here’s one more twist; when a person is killed, it is the consciousness in charge that dies. This means that when poor Vincent D’Onofrio decides to visit 1937 and is killed in a traffic accident (seriously, you’d think that they could monitor what their avatar character is doing so they wouldn’t jump in at such inopportune moments), it is the 1937 personality that suddenly awakes in 1999. This means that each person we see, preprogrammed though they might be, is 100% a real human being, minus the physical body. I wish they’d developed this idea a little further, because it’s such an entertaining can of worms. When Craig Bierko realizes that the people in the simulation are real and his team has been playing god with them, his first response is to shut the whole project down, which would be akin to mass genocide. Instead this development is used mostly to justify a happy ending to a scenario that seems otherwise unwinnable.

Throughout the film, Bierko and Mol develop a romance, and it is revealed that Bierko’s character in 1999 is modeled after Mol’s 2024 husband, who she has fallen out of love with. When the 2024 Bierko downloads to 1999 and finds out what his wife has been doing, a fight ensues, and the police kill him. The 1999 Bierko, the hero we’ve been following, then wakes up in 2024 with Mol at his side, finally seeing the real world with the woman he loves. As sci-fi ideas go, switching consciousnesses between layers of reality is a pretty great one, but one that I wish had been explored more. I like that this film merely presents a story that we can formulate our own opinions about, but I also wish it had had a more specific point of view.

Rik: I was having a problem with the idea of the consciousness of a character in a lower level suddenly having access to another level just because his body was being inhabited and so a switch was automatically made. Of all the mind-stretching ideas at play in this film, that was the one that seemed the most far-fetched to me. That was the breaking point. But in the way that you explained it above, the concept suddenly makes much more sense to me. And I, too, wish that the tech company in the film had a surer way of targeting their entrances to and exits from another level. It was far too hit and miss, and far too capable of creating quite noticeable accidents and fatalities.

However, musing on this idea of multiple layers of consciousness does make me wish that the filmmakers had actually taken this concept one step further. They wouldn’t have a need to lose the computerized trappings of the story; they would just need to expand their reach a little bit further. It also would have added, pardon the expression, another level to the metaphysical wonkiness of The Thirteenth Floor. What if everything was revealed to be the way that our dreams worked? Or at least, the tale we are seeing this movie is merely a construct created within these layers of “reality” that served to obfuscate the characters from the truth of the matter. In a dream state, it often seems that we are tapping into a consciousness that is recognizably our own, but everything that surrounds it seems a little bit off, and sometimes wildly different from our perceived reality.

Apart from The Wizard of Oz and a couple of other small examples, I generally hate stories where characters wake up and everything fantastical about the adventure is revealed to have been nothing but a dream. This is not what I am proposing here. What I am talking about is that they could have revealed that there are an unquantifiable number of realities, and if you start the story on a particular level, each of the other realities serves as a form of dream-state to that initial reality. In a phase of REM sleep, the character on the initial reality could plug into his doppelgänger on any other level, and the sleeper would perceive his experiences on that other level as his dreams for that evening. In the course of this film, for instance, this adventure through three different levels could have been revealed as the dream-experience of the Bierko character who exists on an even higher fourth level.

Or the story could have been reworked slightly where that “happy ending” that we see was really that character’s arrival into a form of heaven, the ultimate happy ending for many major religions. When we were discussing the Koreeda film, After Life, in an earlier edition of Visiting and Revisiting, we discovered an afterworld run by a civil agency that prepared the recently deceased (and sometimes not so recently) for their eventual final journey to an undefined state of heavenly grace. I am not saying that The Thirteenth Floor is any way on the level of that far more ambitious, lovely, and rather understated film; I am merely speculating on what it could have taken to make The Thirteenth Floor possibly more compelling to a modern audience than a third-hand film noir musculature.

While the atheist in me rather rolls his eyes when everything in a film is easily explained away as the blanket workings of an invisible god (and I am really working hard to hold back here), I am not against philosophical conceits entering into the framework of a story to give the plot deeper richness and the audience something to actually discuss as they drive home from the theatre. I feel like the makers of The Thirteenth Floor believe they had a surefire “wow” factor built into the story, but could have gone just a little bit further to make the film memorable. Having the tech company actually be a front for the machineries of a god/creator, which would manifest itself in different ways on different levels in order to create the level below that one, could have introduced even more visual fireworks into the production and possibly the film up to a bigger audience.

I suspect that you may have something to throw in on this one…

Aaron: I think your ideas are much more mind-bending than the ones we get in this film, and I definitely think a great movie could be made using the concept of consciousness that you bring up. Quick! Let’s get to work on a script! It would be like a sci-fi extension of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. To put it in Simpsons terms; your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. I actually don't have too much to add on to your musings, mostly because I think you've done a perfect job highlighting this film's basic failure of imagination. Also, as much fun as it could be to stay up all night discussing metaphysics with you, it would quickly begin to feel like I was reliving my college freshman year.

I was having a problem with the manner in which consciousness worked in this film myself. It isn’t very well explained, and in fact, the way I put it forward might not be what the filmmakers intended. But it’s really the only way I can justify why a personality would move in both directions through the various levels of reality. If the simulation is, for all philosophical reasons, a complete person, where does that personality go when the upper level counterpart inhabits their body? I think D’Onofrio might have a line at one point about keeping people in the waiting room, which definitely seems like a Quantum Leap idea, but other than that the film never explores it.

Rik: One other note I would like to make before calling it on this film. Dennis Haysbert plays the police detective who is investigating the murder of Mueller-Stahl’s original character. I think Haysbert is a fine actor, though he never really gets a lot of recognition for it. (He was seriously unappreciated for his excellent work in Far from Heaven.) However, when Haysbert first shows up in The Thirteenth Floor, the tone of his voice sounds exactly the same as that which he uses in describing a home accident in his now ubiquitous Allstate Insurance commercials. His first lines are: 
"We found him in an alley at Spring and Grand. Looks like he ran into some guy who wasn't just asking for a quarter. Carved him up like a Christmas ham. Took everything: wallet, credit cards. Got a real kick out of it."
His reading is so matter of fact, almost staccato, and you keep thinking that his very next line is going to be, “That’s Allstate’s stand. Are you in good hands?” He loosens up a bit for the rest of the film, but that opening bit stuck with me so that it rather smothered the rest of his performance (though, admittedly, it is a pretty small role).

The Thirteenth Floor is a good, solid science fiction film. It’s as simple as that. I am sad that it never really found much of an audience, and got lost in the shuffle of other similar films in the time of its release. And I am a tad upset that no one ever tipped me off (or had the chance to tip me off) so that I could have seen the film earlier than just recently. So I am happy that you finally brought it to my attention for Visiting and Revisiting. I would probably turn the film into a “Revisiting” for me in the future if The Thirteenth Floor showed up on cable, though I doubt that I would ever purchase a copy. It has decent performances overall, an intriguing concept that is probably underserved by the screenplay, and just enough visual flair to keep one’s eyes involved. D’Onofrio is enough to make me give it another watch, as he is always an interesting actor in my opinion, though I also never mind having another chance to watch Gretchen Mol. One my ratings scale, that’s a 6/9: just a good film.

Aaron: I’m glad you brought up Haysbert, as he’s one final aspect of the film I wanted to touch on. Beyond the 1937 settings, his character is the most direct nod towards film noir. He wears fedoras and long dark overcoats, and has the five o’clock shadow of a classic cinematic detective. He also speaks in a more florid manner than anyone else in the film, with the hard boiled purple prose of a jaded homicide detective. And yet he’s another sign that the film isn’t ready to commit wholeheartedly to its concepts. Ostensibly, Haysbert is supposed to be an antagonist to our Bierko. He’s not a villain, but he’s meant to be at cross purposes to our hero, at least for part of the film. And yet he never really seems like a threat, he never feels dangerous, or like a potential disruption to the mechanics of the plot. He just shows up once or twice to make Bierko question his own innocence, and then disappears for large chunks of the film.

In a nutshell that is my overall problem with The Thirteenth Floor, which I should once again state is a film I enjoy. It has a lot of great concepts, a sturdy plot, and very solid execution, and yet it never surpasses ‘good’ to become ‘great’. By any metric I can think of, The Thirteenth Floor was a flop. It had a modest budget (even in 1999 dollars) and still lost a couple million dollars at the domestic box office. Even when you factor in worldwide sales, it barely made back its production budget. The film made no real positive impression on critics or audiences, and has largely faded from memory over the years. However, if the film had probed further in its ideas, if it had followed the ideas it sparked in your imagination, it probably would have flopped even harder. But here’s the thing; it would have found the right audience, as the right people told their friends all about this crazy high-concept neo-noir all about perception and consciousness. In the intervening years The Thirteenth Floor could have become a true cult favorite more fondly remembered than films that were more profitable in their day.

But of course it’s a useless exercise to spend too much time criticizing a film for what it could have been. It’s not fair to compare a movie to the one you create in your mind. On its own merits, as it stands now, The Thirteenth Floor is a perfectly fine movie, one that I’ve enjoyed watching each time I come across it, but one that doesn’t stay in your mind long after it’s over. I use a slightly different rating system than you do, but I think I’d rate it about the same way you do. If I were to give this one a letter grade, it would be hovering between a C+ and a B-; it’s somewhat above average, but never quite reaches the required next level.

Aaron: And I believe that brings us to the end of another installment of Visiting and Revisiting. We hope you've enjoyed the discussion, and above all hope that it's inspired you to check out an overlooked film worthy of a second, or in many cases, first look. Join us again soon for our next film discussion concerning the 1988 apocalyptic thriller, Miracle Mile.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: The Thirteenth Floor (1999) Pt. 1

Aaron: I’m thinking of a movie, a science fiction film from the late nineties, which revolves around a virtual world whose inhabitants are unaware of their own artificial existence. No, I’m not thinking about The Matrix, I’m thinking about the one where the non-virtual characters get so involved in the virtual world that they begin to confuse the line between what is real and what is artificial. No, I’m not thinking about eXistenZ. I’m thinking about the one with a film noir setting, where characters fall asleep at odd intervals and when they wake up find that they have done something they can’t recall, or that their world is suddenly changed. Nope, not Dark City. Give up? I’m thinking about The Thirteenth Floor, the 1999 sci-fi thriller from German director Josef Rusnak. I did not see this film in theatres, though I did see it almost immediately upon its home video release. I’ll be honest with you, while I liked the film just fine back then, watching it twice with different friends, I’ve never revisited the film until now, about sixteen years later. This will be a true visiting and revisiting, as you come to this movie fresh, and I come to this movie just to see if maybe I was wrong all those years ago, and maybe this movie isn’t really that good.

Back in 1999, The Matrix stole much of this film’s thunder, treading similar ground in a much more visceral and striking manner, the film became a worldwide phenomenon, while The Thirteenth Floor was met with mostly negative or dismissive reviews, and ignored by audiences. The Thirteenth Floor was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, but, predictably, lost to The Matrix. Over the years, it seems to have mostly disappeared from the public consciousness. It might be brought up in a discussion of pre-21st century sci-fi films, but most likely just as a footnote. Fittingly, my strongest memory of the film isn’t even part of the movie at all. Sometime after The Thirteenth Floor came out, star Craig Bierko made one of his many regular appearances on Conan O’Brien’s old Late Night show and they briefly discussed the film. Bierko, self-deprecating as he always was, recounted how disheartening it had been to do press for the film while The Matrix, released two months earlier, was still the hot ticket of the year. He had been told by the marketing department to describe the film as “like The Matrix, but without the special effects,” which he said was “like a root canal but without the Novocain.” My understanding of Mr. Bierko at the time leads me to believe that he meant the statement as an insult to his film, not the more successful competition.

In light of this film’s complete lack of reputation, Rik, I’m going to eschew our frequent question of how you’ve managed to miss out on this one, as I think the answer is fairly self-evident. Instead I’ll start by asking what your impression of the film had been before watching it. This movie has an interesting pedigree, if nothing else, and I’m curious if anything from this movie, or its origins, had popped up on your radar.

Rik: I will be completely honest and say that I never heard about The Thirteenth Floor when it first came out, have never had — or don’t recall having — a conversation with anyone that has seen the film (apart from the brief ones you and I have had recently in deciding to watch it), and don’t even recall seeing the film sitting on a video shelf either for sale or rent (though I had pretty much stopped renting videos by the year this came out). No one, outside of you, has ever said anything to me close to the likes of “Hey, ya know what movie you should give a chance?” or “What?! You’ve never seen The Thirteenth Floor? I can’t believe it!!”

Even with many films that I have yet to see, if they are of particular popularity or reputation, I am still able to sometimes summon up a mental image of a poster or DVD cover for the film if it has been promoted decently. I’ve never seen The Prince of Tides or Hocus Pocus, just as two examples, and yet I can tell you what their respective posters looked like. But this film, The Thirteenth Floor, has gone completely under my radar. It has remained a complete mystery to me. The only reason I have heard of the film is that every once in a while someone puts it on a list of underrated genre films. Even with that, merely reading the title in a list of other films didn’t allow me to learn anything else about what it is. The title sounded like a horror film to me – perhaps pertaining to the story of a ghostly hotel with a particularly haunted level – and as I don’t have a superstitious fear of the number thirteen, it’s not even a very interesting title at that. Thus, it escaped my usually far more perceptive eye for finding odd or offbeat horror and science fiction titles.

And as soon as we decided to make The Thirteenth Floor a part of our Visiting and Revisiting series, I purposefully avoided reading anything about it, even a synopsis or description. Since I had gotten this far already while remaining inside a bubble of complete unawareness as to the contents of the film, I decided to take it all the way to my first viewing. I’d made it seventeen years without knowing a thing; why not wait another week or two?

In retrospect, now that I have finally watched The Thirteenth Floor, there are a couple of solid reasons why it is surprising that I had not heard about it, but I want to save that until we get deeper into discussing the film. Before that, Aaron, stepping into the world – or should I say “worlds”? – of the film for the first time in a while, how did it hold up for you

Aaron: Yeah, I’m in agreement with you about the title. It’s so bland and generic, and has such a tenuous connection to the actual plot, that I can’t imagine the movie was filmed with that title. I have a feeling it was a marketing decision some executive made, when they realized the difficulties they would have selling the film to the public. It sounds more horror than sci-fi, and does nothing to set the stage for what you’re about to see. As to how the film played for me, I’d have to say it was pretty much what I expected. I won’t say I was disappointed or let down by the film, because it still engenders the same level of respect I afforded it after my initial viewings. I will say now, seventeen years later, it’s a bit more obvious to me why the film failed to grab the public’s attention in 1999, and why it hasn’t really caught on as a cult item. (The film’s Wikipedia entry calls it a cult film, but has a citation asking who is saying that. From the idle searches I’ve made lately, I’m not finding a lot of appreciation out there.)

The film opens in 1937 Los Angeles, where we see Armin Mueller-Stahl's character leave a hotel room, deposit a note with a bartender (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), leave the hotel and return to his home, where he climbs into bed with his wife. When he opens his eyes, it is in a dimly lit room full of highly advanced technological equipment, and it is 2024 Los Angeles. The next morning he’s found dead outside of a dive bar, leaving the fate of his multi-billion dollar company in jeopardy, and his protégé/friend (Bierko) under suspicion for his murder. Bierko starts out angry at being accused, but as the film goes on he begins to doubt his own innocence. It turns out Mueller-Stahl was, as one coworker (also played by D’Onofrio) puts it, the Einstein of his generation, and had created an entire virtual world full of artificial intelligences unaware of their own artificiality. The goal of this experiment was to forecast trends in culture, politics, environment, advertising, and the future in general. The 1937 setting was simply nostalgia on the part of Mueller-Stahl, who wanted to recreate the world of his youth. It turns out he had been “jacking in” (to use the film’s immediately outdated terminology) to the program to have virtual sex with a variety of young women (adding another meaning to that outdated terminology).

From here on out The Thirteenth Floor becomes a sci-fi film noir in the paranoid Philip K. Dick mold (in fact, after my initial viewing, I was under the misguided assumption that the story was inspired by one of Dick's works), with Craig Bierko trying to figure out who would want his mentor killed, and why, and whether he was involved without his knowledge. Complicating matters is D’Onofrio’s bartender character, who read Mueller-Stahl’s note and has become aware that he’s living in a fictional reality, and Mueller-Stahl’s secret daughter, played by Gretchen Mol, who plans on contesting her father’s will and taking control of his company. I think, even from my somewhat vague plot description, most astute viewers of speculative fiction will have intuited the film’s big reveals by now. I won’t go into them just yet (though feel free to dive into the deep end if you’d like), but I’m curious what your thoughts about this set-up were. Did you figure out where the film was going, and how did that shape your experience while watching the film for the first time?

Rik: Because I have seen so many science-fiction movies... and computer movies... and detective movies... and every other type of movie besides, there were not a lot of surprises to be had in The Thirteenth Floor for me. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the film for what it was, but just that there was little in the way of anything that seemed really fresh to my eyes. I rather anticipated each move that it made that perhaps, once upon a time, possibly seemed fresh when the original novel was published over fifty years ago.

And because I spent much of my older teen years and my twenties smashing every Philip K. Dick book I could into my cranium, the paranoia (that you mention earlier) has already been so deeply embedded into my psyche that I almost invariably believe that any scenario I see, whether it is on a movie screen or in my real life, has to be the work of artificial intelligences and that nothing I am encountering could possibly be real. Despite a handful of relative high points (but very few in that handful), I’m still waiting to wake up from the last year of my life. Also, there is one piece of information that did give away a little bit of the film to me in advance: the comparisons that I did see to The Matrix. So, naturally, I start watching the film already believing that something in the world they are portraying in the film at its outset is going to be revealed as false, if not ultimately, then at least some point along the way.

Aaron: I am much the same way, although at the fresh young age of 21, I was definitely less jaded. I don’t recall actually being blindsided by that ending, in which Craig Bierko discovers that his reality is simply another simulation, nearly identical to the one he helped create. To its credit, the film doesn’t try to hide this information from the audience; it simply focuses on other mysteries and lets us draw our own conclusions. That’s one thing that I really respected about this film, the fact that it didn’t try to play too coy with its plot, and it also didn’t try to foreshadow the ending in an overbearing manner. There was a nice confidence to the screenplay, and it trusted us to be suitably engaged in the story to draw our own conclusions. If we guessed the ending, that’s OK, it’s still a good story; if we were completely blown away by it, even better.

I feel like we’ve been spoiled by twenty years of twist endings. There were a slew of “twist ending” films in the mid-to-late nineties, several of which came from M. Night Shyamalan, and many of them caught me off guard at the time, while people I show them to these days figure the ending out embarrassingly early on in the film. Maybe it was just my age and inexperience, but until that point in my life I was used to just taking a film at face value, and buying in completely to the story being told. Nowadays I’m a bit more cynical about these things, and I sometimes start looking for explanations and clues from the very first frame.

There have probably been plenty of academic articles and speculative blogs written about the dual tendencies towards dramatic reversals and fear of technology in the ‘90s, so I won’t be covering this extensively, but I’d like to bring up the tone of science fiction in that decade. Call it simple generational fear of change, the universal and eternal feeling that the world is on the precipice, or pre-millennial tension, but as December 31, 1999 grew nearer, people became more and more paranoid and anxious about the fast-approaching century. To be sure, neither of those trends is exactly new to science fiction; in fact, they represent almost the basic building blocks of sci-fi as a genre. But it’s worth putting this film, and others like it, into the context of their time, when many people were still worried that Y2K would suddenly make all computers self destruct, that the technology we had become increasingly dependent on would betray us and send us into a new dark age overnight.

In Japan, this era jumpstarted a cycle of horror films in which technology served as the conduit to viral haunting, such as Ringu, Pulse, or the super violent Tetsuo films, in which a man’s rage literally turns him into a machine. In America, the cultural paranoia found a focus in films such as Strange Days, Cube, and The Matrix, films where our technology was used to enslave us, but the message to never trust what you’re being told also spread out into the world of more mainstream genres, in films like Fight Club, The Game, and The Usual Suspects. Looked at that way, I think The Thirteenth Floor is very much of its time, and more a product of the cultural attitude than an actual attempt to cash in on the success of other films.

Rik, I want to get into the film’s interesting behind-the-scenes history in a little bit, but first I’m curious about how you view this film seventeen years after the fact. How do you think it fits in with the other genre films being made at the same time?

Rik: That’s a pretty broad category, since science fiction films were definitely experiencing a quite expansive period in the 1990s. I am not going to waste any more time and space here naming the rather influential genre films that were released throughout the decade, but I will answer your question in two parts. Does The Thirteenth Floor fit in well with the tide of massively budgeted science fiction films of the 1990s that seemingly sought to outdo each other with bigger and flashier visual effects, aliens, and spaceships from film to film? Then, no, this film is too small and too measured, and more concerned with telling a mostly coherent story in juggling its rather complicated layers of reality than in trying to burst the visual and aural senses of the average filmgoer. But does it fit in nicely with the other films of its immediate subgenre: the computer/virtual reality film? Definitely, though it goes its own way to do so, not trying to keep up at all with the likes of The Matrix and the other films you mentioned, but succeeding in other areas where its lack of visual overdrive is not such a concern. In retrospect, it is easy to see why The Thirteenth Floor was not a blockbuster in the slam-bang ‘90s, but this should never be held against a film, where quite often, huge moneymakers turn out to be complete pieces of crap.

Aaron: Since you’ve brought up flashy special effects, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the CGI on display throughout this film. I’m regularly amazed, when I revisit sci-fi films from the mid-to-late nineties, how good some of the CGI looks. Sure, there are some really awkward uses of the technology in films where it just doesn’t work, but surprisingly, for a technology that was still somewhat new, being made on computers with only a fraction of the capabilities of their modern counterparts (Jurassic Park was made using computers that were less advanced than most smartphones), I find the CGI to be integrated more successfully into the final film.

There isn’t a ton of CGI on display here, which, as you say, might have hurt the film’s commercial prospects. This is definitely not a film that wants to overwhelm your senses. The CGI that we do get is mostly used to enhance the skyline of 1937 and 2024 Los Angeles, but the clear centerpiece special effect occurs when Craig Bierko, following the advice in his mentor’s letter, drives as far out of town as he can, and comes up against the end of his virtual world, which is rendered as the landscape transitioning from real desert to the green wire-frame graphics of incomplete computer graphics. This seems like an odd thing to program into your virtual world, if you’re trying to keep the inhabitants from figuring out the truth about their existence. Video game creators have known for decades that you can just hide the borders to a limited map within the landscape itself. Impassable mountains, roaring rivers with no bridges, endless beaches, any of those would be better and more deterring than simply letting the world trail off into computer graphics. While Bierko is standing there staring at this development, a bird takes flight and passes into the wireframe, where suddenly it is represented by the same green computer visuals. What would have happened to Bierko if he had kept going?

There’s one other notable special effect in the movie, though notable only because of how few effects there actually are, not because of its own virtues. When someone “jacks in” to the 1937 world (interestingly, the 2024 world uses the far more acceptable term ‘downloaded’ to describe entering the 1999 world, which was a nifty bit of unintentional accuracy in differentiating the time periods), there is a brief effect to imply flying through digital space at great speeds. I like to think this is the one facet of production that Roland Emmerich was adamant about achieving, because it appears to be carted in directly from Stargate. It is almost an exact copy of the effect used when traveling through the universe in that film.

Which brings me to this film’s pedigree, and Exhibit A in my case for why this film feels like it should be a bigger deal. The Thirteenth Floor is based on the novel Simulacron-3 by American science fiction author Daniel F. Galouye, who began his career in the early fifties and spent the next couple decades contributing stories and novellas to a variety of magazines. He never broke through to the mainstream, but he has a pretty good reputation amongst sci-fi fans (Richard Dawkins once named him one of his favorite fiction authors, and in 2007, he was awarded the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, as an author highly deserving of rediscovery), and that is a group of fans that typically lionizes those unsung in their day. Simulacron-3 is the only work from Galouye to be adapted into another medium, although it had been adapted once before, in 1973, as a miniseries for German television. That earlier version was titled World on a Wire, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and was, not so coincidentally, one of many influences, both stylistically and thematically, on The Matrix (we’ll call those Exhibits B through D).

A German filmmaker also directed The Thirteenth Floor, albeit one not nearly the auteur that Fassbinder was: Josef Rusnak. Rusnak acted as second unit director on Roland Emmerich’s ill-conceived Godzilla remake, and in turn Emmerich acted as producer on The Thirteenth Floor, along with one other big name: acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Exhibit E). I’m mostly assuming that Ballhaus’ connection to this film might be more of a contractual credit than an actual working credit. He did work extensively with Fassbinder (including on the original film version of this story), so I’m ready to believe that he was offered a producer credit just because the people making this film wanted to pick his brain about the project. No matter the actual level of his involvement, these are the types of connections that cinephiles normally go crazy for, and it boggles my mind that no one is championing this as an overlooked film.

What are your thoughts, Rik? You mentioned above that you are surprised no one had put this film on your radar before now. Care to expand on that?

Rik: Certainly. It is apparent to me that The Thirteenth Floor seems to be of a certain type quality-wise, and it is doubtful to me that there is a huge contingent of people out there that think this film is bad. The film looks nice, is shot well, has a decent enough and slightly out of the norm plot, has no outrageously bad performances, and played pretty consistently to me over the course of three viewings in three straight days. So, the film must be good, yes? Not necessarily. I liked it, and I would call it at least a “good” film, but the qualities I mentioned might just have other people who have seen it convinced that what they saw were merely a generic product, and nothing special. Nothing unique. Because there is not a big, meaty performance in it, and there is nothing in the way of astounding special effects that make your jaw drop incredulously. What we have in this film could be an example of a film replicating Swiss craftsmanship and precision timing; a lovely object that is nice to look at every now and then, but soon enough you will take it for granted and forget about it to a large extent.

Perhaps this is what happened to The Thirteenth Floor. At the time of its release, I relied partially on my friends to tell me if there was an interesting movie in town. No one ever said a thing to me about The Thirteenth Floor. I don’t even know if anyone in my circle saw the film in the theatre. And I certainly don’t know if any saw it on video. This might be a by-product of two things. One, either everyone that saw it just thought it was an OK film and forgot to ever mention it. Two, everyone saw this film after they had already seen The Matrix, and so only thought it was merely another average film when compared against the bigger, louder, flashier, and far more violent film with much bigger stars in it. Either way, whether because of its own – I hate to say mediocrity, because The Thirteenth Floor is nowhere near mediocre – let’s say, comfort as merely just being OK. I don’t know if any of this has played a hand in the real reason, but no one has ever busted down my door trying to convince me that I need to see this film.

Aaron, on the way to your talking about Galouye’s original novel from 1963, we both invoked the name of Philip K. Dick. In watching this film (and The Matrix originally, for that matter), I was reminded of a favorite Dick novel from my younger days called Time Out of Joint. Like The Thirteenth Floor, Time Out of Joint, published initially in 1959, also deals with a character that seems to be thriving in a level of reality that discovers there is at least another level out there that is being hidden from him for specific, to be discovered reasons. There are not a lot of outright similarities between the stories (and I am comparing this film to the Dick novel only, having never read Galouye’s novel), and I am unaware of the extent to which Dick may have influenced Galouye, if at all. But the basic idea at the heart of both entertainments is at least metaphorically similar. Have you had much experience with Dick’s writings?

Aaron: Sadly, I have not. I’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner), but I’m more aware of him through his reputation and the films based on his work. I know I shouldn’t judge an author by the way he’s interpreted by other artists, but when taken together the films based on Dick’s writings do paint a pretty specific portrait. Philip K. Dick is an author I have been meaning to dig further into for my entire adult life, but as we both have had occasion to realize lately, there is simply too much great stuff out there to experience all of it.

You make a good point about the film’s very quality leading people to consider the film as generic. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it generic, but I do feel that the film doesn’t quite make a big impression. It is, as you say, a pretty good film, but one that never calls attention to itself. Considering the involvement of Michael Ballhaus, I was ready for a film that, at the very least, looked amazing. The film does look good, courtesy of the amazingly named cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff, but the most striking imagery in it comes from the early CGI used to recreate the 1937 Los Angeles skyline. I thought that CGI held up pretty well, especially when set against some of the other films from around the same time, but it’s more the product of programmers and technicians than that of the cinematographer. That said, there are a few great shots in the film, including one where one character is raising a gun at another. The gunman is obscured behind smoke, but when he raises his arm the gun has breached the mist and is crystal clear. It’s a quick throwaway moment of the kind I often take note of, but can easily be overlooked. Schultzendorff has had a pretty steady career, mostly in Germany. He’s done a few films that I’ve seen and enjoyed, but none of them were particularly memorable for their visual excellence. Perhaps that’s his super-power and his weakness; he’s a perfectly talented artist who can create an image that keeps the viewer engaged, but never insists they notice how good it all looks.

[To read Part II of this discussion of The Thirteenth Floor, click here.]