A couple of months before I wrote this review, I was in a bit of a cyberpunk mood (well, more so than usual) and amongst other things, I ended up buying a second-hand DVD of a film called “The Thirteenth Floor” after seeing it recommended online. I then… left the film in the middle of a pile of DVDs for several weeks.
However, since I seem to be in a “watching films” kind of mood at the moment, I finally got round to watching it and, wow, what a film it is! So, let’s take a long and rambling look at “The Thirteenth Floor”….
But, before I go any further, I should warn you that this review will contain MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS. Sorry, but there’s no way to talk about this complex and intelligent film properly without spoilers.
If you don’t want it spoiled (and it’s really best if you don’t), then all I’ll say is that if you like films like “Blade Runner”, “Ghost In The Shell” (1995) etc.. then this one is worth watching too! Seriously, watch it!
Interestingly, the DVD cover art depicts a moment that is only implied through dialogue in the film. But, the film’s tagline is a massive spoiler though.
“The Thirteenth Floor” is a cyberpunk film noir from 1999 starring Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Dennis Haysbert and Armin Mueller-Stahl.
The film begins in a swanky hotel in Los Angeles, 1937, with a rich old man called Fuller (Mueller-Stahl) writing a letter and handing it to a bartender.
I say! This is quite the evening!
He tells the bartender to give the letter to a man called Douglas Hall, before taking a cab home to his antique shop and falling asleep. As soon as he falls asleep, he wakes up… in 1999. Fuller is, after all, the inventor of a pioneering virtual reality device (that also contains highly advanced artificial intelligence).
Yes, videogames really WERE better in the 90s!
However, something is on Fuller’s mind. He goes to a bar and makes a phone call. But, before he can finish his call, the back door opens and he sees someone outside. He talks briefly with this mysterious man, who then promptly stabs him to death.
The next morning, Douglas Hall (Bierko), a senior member of Fuller’s company receives a call from Detective McBain of the LAPD (Haysbert). McBain has questions about Fuller’s death and considers Hall to be a suspect in the case.
Naturally, their first meeting looks very “Blade Runner” like.
Things become even more complicated when, upon arriving at the company’s offices, Hall and McBain meet Fuller’s daughter Jane (Mol). A daughter that Fuller has never mentioned before.
And, yes, this scene is also fairly “film noir”-like too.
Suspected of murder and puzzled by Jane’s sudden appearance, Hall decides to take a look inside the virtual reality program for some answers…..
One of the first things that I’ll say about this film is… wow! Where do I even begin?
Just like in “Blade Runner”, this film blends cyberpunk and film noir elements in a really interesting way. Not only is the film a really great blend of “classic-style” 1930s noir and gloomier late 1990s film noir, but this is complemented by some great acting, plot twists, set design and hardboiled storytelling. The idea of a man trying to clear his name is a classic staple of the noir genre, and this film puts a really great cyberpunk twist on it.
Fun fact: The computer voice-over in this scene was probably the inspiration for GLADoS from “Portal” (2007). Seriously, their voices sound eerily similar.
Which brings me on to the cyberpunk elements. At it’s core, this is a film about both the ethics of artificial intelligence and the nature of reality. Not only are the AI characters in the virtual 1930s world shown to be just as human as anyone else, but they can also occasionally swap consciousnesses with people in the “real” world too.
The “real world” of 1990s Los Angeles, of course, being another virtual reality simulation run by a couple of people from the 2020s. And, yes, this film came out the same year that “The Matrix” did.
And, despite using less CGI, it still manages to look cooler than “The Matrix”
The idea of swapping consciousnesses is central to this film. Since, when a human isn’t connected to the virtual world, their “character” reverts to their own pre-programmed personality and leads their own (very different) life, often experiencing the change as a disturbing bout of amnesia.
This also allows for some “Jekyll and Hyde”-style storylines later in the film (which is foreshadowed by, for example, how a mild-mannered IT guy’s virtual 1930s character is actually a violent criminal).
Yes, this guy is much better offline than online…
In addition to all of this, the consciousness swapping also allows the film to introduce elements of “the uncanny” too by, for example, having a “good” character suddenly get taken over by an evil personality (without the other characters realising until a little while later).
Like “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell” (1995), this is a film about the nature of humanity. It poses the question of whether a suitably advanced computer program really is that different to human consciousness. But, it even goes further and suggests that it may even occasionally be better than human consciousness. The film’s main villain, of course, being a person from the 2020s who treats the simulation like it’s.. well… a videogame.
Likewise, at one point, another character from the 2020s comments that the film’s version of 1990s LA is the only simulation where the characters have made their own simulation. This taps into the idea that creativity is an essential part of humanity. This theme is later explored through the fact that the film’s main villain has become drunk with the power that this offers him. Likewise, the last line of dialogue from the 1990s is when McBain tells the people from the future to leave the simulation alone – as if the computer program is actually a real, living, place.
Plus, the first text in the film is a famous quote from Descartes.
In addition to all of this, by being a film about a simulation within a simulation, this film taps into the idea of an “unreliable reality“. Whilst this trope is used more often in the horror genre, it is used to great effect in this film too. This includes things like an AI character from the 1930s freaking out slightly when he realises that his world isn’t real (which also foreshadows the film’s main twist too).
Seriously, I cannot praise the plotting in this film well enough! There so many clever little hints towards the main twist (like an old arcade game with a broken part etc…).
Likewise, even the film’s artificial 1930s setting contains some very subtle and intentional “modern” anachronisms too – such as a man from 1937 talking about how he served in “World War One” (even though the second world war hadn’t happened yet). Or the fact that the panel of judges at a lindy hop competition is briefly shown to be more diverse than they probably would be in pre-civil rights America.
Seriously, at the time of writing, I’ve only seen this film once and I’ve probably missed loads more subtle stuff. Seriously, I’d bet that there’s probably some subtle 2020s-style stuff hidden in the film’s 1990s locations.
Hmm… maybe it’s “hiding in plain sight”?
Another interesting thing about this film is that, although it is very much a cyberpunk film, it also subverts the tropes of the genre slightly too. When we eventually glimpse the future world of 2024, it isn’t a grimy, neon-lit futuristic dystopia. Although it is visually implied that climate change has caused sea levels to rise, the future is presented as a bright, happy utopia.
Well, I wasn’t expecting THIS…
In the cyberpunk genre, virtual reality is often presented as an escape from the grim realities of life. It is also something that gives power to the downtrodden (eg: “hacker” protagonists etc..) and it is often something that is shown to be “better than life”. However, in the utopian future of this film, virtual reality just seems to be a way for people to add a bit of thrilling danger and grittiness to their otherwise happy and peaceful lives. It’s a really clever twist on a familiar element of the cyberpunk genre.
In terms of the lighting and set design, this film is brilliant! Whilst the set design is mostly more “film noir” than “cyberpunk”, there are some really cool location designs.
For example, Hall’s apartment is quite literally a homage to Deckard’s apartment from “Blade Runner” – even down to the old photos and the Ennis House-style tiles on the walls (plus, the fact that Hall isn’t a “real” person could also be a reference to the “Deckard is a replicant” theory about Blade Runner too. HOW did I not notice this foreshadowing?!).
As soon as I saw those tiles, I knew that I was going to love this film! I can’t believe it’s not “Blade Runner” 🙂
And the lighting! Seriously, there’s everything from ominous red and blue lighting to more futuristic green lighting. People certainly knew how to use lighting well in the 1990s!
And just take a look at this gorgeously vintage hotel!
Whilst it lacks the complex, neon-drenched futuristic locations of a film like “Blade Runner”, the set design here is still absolutely gorgeous. So is the lighting too. Seriously, this film may not be the artistic masterpiece that “Blade Runner” is, but it certainly comes close at times!
All in all, this is an intelligent, well-made, complex cyberpunk film that manages to cram more into it’s lean 96 minute running time (seriously, I miss the days when films actually had editors) than many films could even dream of.
Like with many great works in the cyberpunk genre, it is filled with philosophical complexity, emotional complexity and narrative complexity. Yes, it isn’t quite as good as “Blade Runner”. But, this is like saying that an amazing piece of art isn’t quite as good as the Mona Lisa.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.