ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 3, 1999
Craig Bierko must have seen a few too many Mel Gibson movies, because with every squint and facial tic, the star of The Thirteenth Floor seems to shout “I’m the next Mel!” Fortunately for the makers of this adaptation of Daniel Galouye’s sci-fi novel Simulacron-3, Bierko’s impersonation of the Aussie hunk is just one of two main drawbacks—the other being Harald Kloser’s overbearing score, which presumptuously sweeps in whenever anything remotely touching occurs. Without those distractions, The Thirteenth Floor would be a totally successful entry in the virtual-reality subgenre; as it is, it’s still an effective noir thriller that keeps you, if not on the edge of your seat, at least curious about what might happen next.
Bierko stars as Douglas Hall, the Porsche-driving partner of visionary virtual-reality guru Hannon Fuller (the distinguished Armin Mueller-Stahl from Shine). On the 13th floor of a downtown L.A. office building, the two men—along with longhaired, cosmic programmer Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio)—experiment with the ultimate simulation. Whenever one of them slips off his shoes and lies down in a row of green lasers, he shoots along the psychedelic tunnels from Hideaway and is “downloaded” into the body of an artificial doppelgänger inhabiting a parallel world modelled after 1937 L.A.
After one such sepia-toned mind trip to the swing-happy days of the Hindenburg, a frightened Fuller returns with some startling revelations about the virtual-reality process, but is stabbed to death before he can relay the big news to Hall. When Hall wakes up the next morning and discovers blood on his clothes, the wheels start turning in a captivating mystery of multilayered worlds, in which the idea that there’s only one reality gets dragged out in the alley and thumped.
Spotlight-stealing D’Onofrio shines in his dual role, which includes a wonderfully creepy portrayal of sleazy ’30s bartender Ashton. Nasty as he is, however, you still feel sorry for Ashton when he escapes his simulated universe, winds up in modern-day L.A., and then learns, along with Hall, the bitter truth about that world. His yearning to be real brings to mind the sad state of Rutger Hauer’s android at the climax of Blade Runner, and while The Thirteenth Floor doesn’t rank alongside that sci-fi classic, it gets Brownie points for trying.