Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: The Thirteenth Floor

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Alternately cited as an unheralded precursor to The Matrix (by its fans) or a poor man's version of same (by its critics), 1999's The Thirteenth Floor is a scrappy little sci-fi B-movie that lacks the scope and creativity of The Matrix, but is still mostly entertaining in its modest way. It takes a more limited view, focusing mostly on a noirish mystery until the climax, when it pulls back to reveal the secrets of the universe. The main twist is pretty easy to see coming, but it's set up well, even if it kind of invalidates a lot of what was intriguing about the early part of the movie.

As it first appears, Floor is about a present-day technology company that has developed an elaborate virtual world modeled after Los Angeles in the 1930s. When the company's owner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is murdered, it seems to be tied to the time he was spending in the virtual world, where he was the patron of a fancy hotel and a favorite of the young, attractive call girls. His business associate (Craig Bierko, smirky as ever) enters into the virtual world to try to figure out what happened, while a dedicated detective (Dennis Haysbert) investigates the crime in the real world. The trips to the virtual 1930s give the movie a hard-boiled tone, which carries over into the present, where a mysterious femme fatale (Gretchen Mol) shows up claiming to be the deceased man's daughter. Haysbert also wears a fedora and a trenchcoat and speaks almost entirely in pulp dialogue.

The combination of sci-fi and film noir is clever and fun, and the movie has a cool style, even if the effects look a little dated at this point and the acting is uneven. Mol makes for a great femme fatale, but Bierko is too smarmy and Vincent D'Onofrio, as a techie (in the present) and a shady bartender (in the virtual 1930s), kind of overdoes things. Once the big twist shows up, the noir tone mostly disappears, and Floor becomes more of a dumb thriller. It's too concerned with cheap thrills to be as sophisticated as it appears on the surface, but it's still cheaply thrilling enough to be fun to watch.

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