Rated R - Running time: 2:00 - Released 5/28/99

Pleasantville. Dark City. The Matrix. The Truman Show. These films all featured characters who thought they were in the real world, but were actually living in an elaborate deception. The Thirteenth Floor, written and directed by Josef Rusnak (from the novel Simulacron 3 by Daniel F. Galouye), presents another take on this subject. An interesting concept, excellent acting, and beautiful art direction make this film a fascinating experience.

A complex new virtual reality program has been designed, hidden away in a high-rise office building. Inventor Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and programmers Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) and his friend Whitney (Vincent D'Onofrio) have created a detailed simulation of Los Angeles in 1937. The major difference between this and any other virtual reality adventure game, though, is that this is a self-teaching program. It doesn't need a "user" to run it, so the hundreds of characters, three of which are patterned after our guys, live their lives in their own little synthetic '30s world. Although it is possible to enter the program, it could be dangerous, so none of them have tried it yet. They think.

But Fuller has tried it. He's been making a habit of entering the program, assuming his bookseller character that's designed into it, and getting lucky with some prostitutes in the Wilshire Grand Hotel. Now, that's quality porn. But one evening after returning to the real world and going out for a drink, he is murdered. What's more, a witness claims he saw Douglas pull the trigger.

Soon after detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) begins questioning Douglas and Whitney, a woman named Jane (Gretchen Mol) appears, claiming to be Fuller's daughter. Douglas and Whitney are sure Fuller never mentioned her, but there she is, and she plans to close down the computer programming operation. Then Douglas discovers a recorded message on his phone machine from Fuller, taken on the night he died. He seemed to have known that his life was in danger, because he left a note in the Grand Hotel for Douglas to find. So in order to find the note, clear his name, and solve the crime, Douglas must take the risky trip down the cyber-optic pipeline. When he does, he meets himself (as a bank teller), Whitney (as Ashton, the ascerbic bartender), and Fuller as the bookseller. And he also meets someone he didn't expect: Jane.

This plot is complex, but not muddled; the actors do a superb job of assuming two (and sometimes three) different characters, depending on which reality they are currently in. The 1937 scenes are impeccable — the Grand Hotel is embellished with everything you'd expect from a posh joint like that, and the costumes are excellently researched, also. Rusnak keeps the action going effectively and, unlike The Matrix, doesn't rely on gunfire to solve all the protagonist's problems. Thank you. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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