Third virtual reality thriller in as many months, 'Floor' is the last and the least
If you couldn't wrap your head around "eXistenZ" or "The Matrix," this year's other two virtual reality thrillers, "The Thirteenth Floor" may be more your speed.
Similar in theme -- with simulated worlds layered upon one another and actuality strongly in question -- but aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator, this high-gloss, high-concept string of shallow surprises and gaping holes start well but quickly becomes so absurd that the audience at the sneak preview I attended was laughing out loud at some of the movie's most somber moments.
The biggest chortle came when one of the characters tearfully declares her love for a guy who, it has been revealed, is merely a computer simulation. I mean, human-hologram love stories were silly when "Star Trek" did them 10 years ago.
In the early going, "The Thirteenth Floor" is a passable and seemingly complex puzzle in which a leading-edge computer engineer (Craig Bierko, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") sleuths around in a fully-realized, independently functional simulation of 1937 Los Angeles -- which he helped create -- trying to solve the murder of his programming partner, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl ("The X-Files," "Shine").
Mueller-Stahl had made a startling discovery regarding similarities between reality and their virtual world, which is so advanced that it is populated by sentient, self-aware characters capable of emotion and independent thought. Before he died, he had left a letter about his findings with a smarmy bartender inside the simulation (Vincent D'Onofrio), who in turn reads the letter, realizes he isn't real and begins to test the perimeters between the two worlds.
Computer-generated visual effects have never been put to better use than in creating the landscape of the simulated old L.A. for this film. It is so seamless, vivid and authentic that I wondered at first if German writer-director Josef Rusnak hadn't colorized stock footage from the '30s for the street scenes (the color is slightly off on purpose -- it's a bug in the simulation). This is the movie's one really strong element.
By contrast, back in present day, Bierko's lab is a typically steely sci-fi set with lots of green laser beams flashing through misty rooms for effect and computers running the Moron 1.0 operating system that fills monitors with useless red-lettered alerts in 200-point type and announces repeatedly in a tinny voice things like "Warning! Timer not engaged!"
Such warnings are frequent, as Bierko spends a lot of time coming in and out of the simulation looking for clues to clear his name after becoming the prime suspect in the murder when he can't account for lapses in his memory (just like the character whose skin he jumps into when he enters the simulation...hmm, what could it mean?).
Most of the cast has dual roles, playing both a present day character and that character's computer-generated doppelganger inside the system. The versatile and under-appreciated D'Onofrio ("The Newton Boys," "Men In Black") gets the most out of this duality, doing a mousy John Malkovich as a pasty, reclusive simulation programmer who whose alter-ego is the warped and evil (for no explored reason) bartender that eventually finds his way out of the simulation. Gorgeous Gretchen Mol ("Rounders") plays Mueller-Stahl's evasive daughter, who leads a different kind of amnesia-induced double life.
But for all its complexities, "The Thirteenth Floor" is little more than flimsy made-for-cable fare catapulted into theaters on the boffo box office merits of its producer, Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day," "Godzilla").
The story goes into a ludicrous downward spiral in the last act with that aforementioned real girl-digital guy romance and one more plot twist that's the kind of thing soap opera writers come up with when they try to add a sci-fi storylines to daytime dramas.
The movie is riddled with blatant continuity errors and shopworn genre staples (passing between reality and simulation takes us through one of those ubiquitous wormhole effects). What's more, the characters often have to avoid obvious solutions to their dilemmas because if they acted logically, the movie would be over in a hurry.
With two similar and vastly superior movies already playing in theaters right now, there's really no reason to bother with this sub-par late-comer.