Friday, May 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Murder on the 13th Floor' (2012)

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

These days, Tessa Thompson is a rising star with notable roles in acclaimed movies like Creed, Selma and Dear White People, and upcoming appearances in the next Thor movie and Alex Garland's Annihilation. But just a few short years ago, she was a relatively unknown working actress, stringing together TV guest appearances and low-budget indie movies like Murder on the 13th Floor, a terrible thriller that eventually premiered as a Lifetime original movie. You would never guess from this movie that Thompson had a bright future ahead of her as an actress, but then again no one comes off particularly well in this sloppily conceived time-filler. It's the kind of movie that takes place in empty, cavernous spaces presumably because the budget didn't allow for enough supporting actors or extras, and the story is similarly bare-bones.

Thompson plays Nia Palmer, the nanny to wealthy couple Jordan (Sean Patrick Thomas) and Ariana (Jordan Ladd) and their son Cody (Terrell Ransom Jr.). Jordan and Ariana have developed a high-tech, ultra-modern high-rise apartment building, but inexplicably they and Nia are the only people who live in it. The building is completely finished and functional, but Jordan and Ariana are just now trying to sell the condos to residents, which seems like a poor business plan. Anyway, for some reason Jordan and Ariana live in a nice apartment on the 14th floor, complete with a bunch of goofy futuristic technology (like a toilet that analyzes your urine every time you use it, which becomes an important plot point), while Nia lives on the 13th floor in an apartment with no fancy upgrades. The only other person in the building is a tech guy whose job involves tweaking the various systems when they malfunction.

Since this is a Lifetime movie (or at least a movie that Lifetime picked up), Nia is having an affair with Jordan, and Ariana is about to put her in peril. Contrary to the title, there's no murder on the 13th floor (although there is eventually murder on other floors), and it takes quite a while for Ariana to enact her plan of hiring a pair of hitmen to kill Nia while Ariana and Jordan are out at a promotional gala. This movie has a weird moral universe, in which the interloper in the marriage of two seemingly stable people, who also pretty deliberately usurps the role of a young child's mother, is the sympathetic heroine, the cheating husband is the gallant hero, and the woman whose husband is having an affair and whose child is being turned against her is somehow the villain. Of course, Ladd plays Ariana as a snide, money-hungry bitch, while Nia and Jordan are both warm and caring. There's also a weird racial dynamic going on, since Nia and Jordan are both black, while Ariana is white. You could read the movie as having a stance against interracial relationships; only by restoring racial purity are harmony and balance also restored.

But this movie isn't sophisticated enough to be saying something that complicated. Mostly it's about watching Nia and Cody run around the empty building while being chased by a couple of clueless assassins, who accidentally kill Nia's best friend instead before realizing she's still alive. All of the high-tech gadgetry is depicted without consistency or believability; the bad guys electronically lock down the entire building, but then characters can open doors and use elevators when the plot requires it. The movie is only four years old, but its depiction of computer programs looks like something out of the '90s, when "the internet" was a scary unknown factor to use in thrillers like The Net.

There's virtually no suspense to the story, and the character dynamics are all awkward and forced (it doesn't help that much of the dialogue was poorly post-dubbed). The ending abruptly punishes the villain and sets up Nia and Jordan and Cody as a new family (apparently Cody isn't too concerned that his mom is being carted away in handcuffs), without addressing any of the consequences. It's a rushed ending to a movie that never thinks through any of its plot or character developments. Thanks to Thompson's stardom, however, its ineptitude will probably be showcased on Lifetime for years to come.

No comments: