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.

No comments:

Post a Comment