I stumbled across a pretty nifty little movie on Netflix last night called "The Thirteenth Floor" (1999). I vaguely remember that it came out around the same time as "The Matrix", and was unfortunately compared to it and found lame. This is a shame, because "The Thirteenth Floor" is not an action picture. If anything, it's closer to 1998's Dark City: a neo-noir sci-fi experiment that requires you to use your noodle a bit more than some would like. I fell into it free of expectations and was very pleased indeed.
"The Thirteenth Floor" is above all a mystery, and a pretty original one (admittedly based on a sci-fi novel from 1964). The film opens in 1930's Los Angeles, as Hannon Fuller (Armin Muehller-Stahl) is fretting about having discovered something he wishes he hadn't. He puts his concerns down in a letter for a colleague and leaves it with a shady bartender for safekeeping (starting the film off with possibly the dumbest decision anyone in it ever makes). He then wakes up in the late 1990's, having actually been plugged into a virtual reality simulation of the past that is stunningly realistic. As he attempts to reach his colleague in the real world to share his terrible secret, he is of course shot and killed.
Things get interesting when the intended recipient of the letter, Douglas Hall (strangely bug-eyed actor Craig Berko) realizes that it looks very much as though he murdered Fuller the previous night. This comes as a surprise to him, since the two were co-workers and friends, and murder isn't really in his nature. The two of them had been part of a small team working on the most impressive VR simulation ever created. While the system isn't being used, the NPC's go about their daily business just as if they were real people, with hopes and dreams and ambitions and all that. Nobody is more proud of this than uber-geek Jason Whitney (Vincent D'Onofrio), who bears a suspicious resemblance to the shady bartender we've already met.
Unfortunately, when someone logs into the system, they fall unconscious and their brain is literally swapped with that of an NPC for the duration of their simulation time. As you'd imagine, this isn't a terribly nice thing to do, even to a person who isn't really a person. It's only a matter of time before someone in the VR 1930's gets a bit suspicious of their constant blackouts, especially when the "players" are free to indulge in whatever mischief they want free of long-term consequences.
To reveal more would be a spoiler, so I'll just say that the central murder mystery is pretty original and a definite brain teaser. More importantly, it's intricately tied to the philosophical dilemma of the film. It's reminiscent of Blade Runner, but with a much more timely spin. If anything it's more relevant in the 2010's than when this film came out. 1999 was before we had Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3, and other immersive sandbox games, where we can now interact with increasingly realistic NPCs, and seriously screw with their lives if we have the inclination. As a gamer and philosopher, it's pretty damn though provoking.
On a basic film-making level, The Thirteenth Floor isn't exactly great, but it's solid all-around. The direction isn't flashy, but occasionally quite good: a sequence where the real world and virtual world are cut between as two characters and their analogues have separate conversations is stunningly bizarre. The principal actors all get to play two characters, one real and one virtual, sometimes leading to pretty interesting results. The biggest problem is that leading man Craig Berko is thoroughly upstaged anytime Vincent D'Onofrio is onscreen, making him feel a bit generic.
To be clear, D'Onofrio is one of my favorite actors of all time, and this is some of his best work. He nails the "geek who lives in a lab" down pat, but as the virtual bartender he knocks it out of the park. You don't trust him from the moment you lay eyes on him, and as he gradually discovers the nature of his world the audience alternately loves and fears him. You can't help but sympathize with the poor bastard, but he isn't the nicest guy in the world. Really, the film is worth watching just for him, even if that means that the rest of the cast suffers by comparison.
"The Thirteenth Floor" isn't a masterpiece on the level of "Dark City", but certainly has more of a brain in its head than "The Matrix". The ending is a bit contrived and Hollywood-happy, but it plays by the movie's rules without cheating too much, and I can't say I felt betrayed by it. Of course you can predict how the movie's going to end ten minutes before it actually does, but it's good drama all the same. The romantic subplot was also surprisingly fulfilling, and just as deep as it needed to be. Got two hours to kill? You could do much worse.