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.]

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