Esoterica – The Thirteenth Floor

The Thirteenth Floor

Year: 1999

Director: Josef Rusnak

Writer: Daniel F. Galouye, Josef Rusnak & Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez

Starring: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol & Armin Mueller-Stahl

“You can go there even though it doesn’t exist.”

Throughout the 90’s it became almost expected of fans of sci-fi – “geeks”, if you will – to be vocally derisive of certain types of movies.

Most specifically, those movies that sprung from the creative efforts of that decades dynamic duo of Hollywood: Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich.

Without wanting to burn through too much time explaining who they are, allow me to simply illustrate in three easy steps.

One

Two

Three… the bastards.

I don’t know about you, but it was almost a capital offense amongst my peers to express appreciation for these films or the bozos who made them. So when I caught wind of another sci-fi flick making its way to VHS (this was *sigh* a while ago), and read that among the names attached to it was that of the director of these three prior pieces of cinematic… garbage… I vowed to stay well away from it.

And I did… for thirteen years.

I cannot recall how the topic of this particular low-key and obscure film came up, but I can recall on several occasions Al stating that he, in point of fact, thought the film was pretty good. It had been a while since he’d seen it, but he remembered it being one of those surprising gems. I was hard to convince – I had put so much effort into disliking Devlin/Emmerich productions on principle, I didn’t want to give that up easily.

And so the day I loaded it on top of a pile of other sci-fi flicks I’d never seen to expand my geek knowledge, I was a little surprised at myself. But not as surprised as at how good The Thirteenth Floor turned out to be.

Now, don’t mistake me, this is not Star Wars, Blade Runner or Aliens. My enjoyment of the film undoubtedly was assisted by having such low expectations in the first place. But even taking this into account (and realising that Roland Emmerich was only attached as a producer and presumably didn’t impact much on the telling of the story) the movie is a well-paced, solidly acted and deeply though-through mystery, with a great sci-fi angle that was totally not ripped off The Matrix.

Just take a quick guess as to what this might be.

The film explores the concept of reality, and the questions the essence of humanity. Familiar themes for the speculative set, but in this case not caught up with much action or mind-blowing scenes of destruction.

No, this is very much a character focused piece, and it is on the strength of the characters that absolutely everything rises or falls. Much of the running time you may find yourself frustratedly playing the “Where have I seen that actor before?” game, and the lack of any highly recognisable stars kind of leaves you waiting for the real main character, who inexplicably still hasn’t walked onscreen yet.

This in itself, however, becomes a useful device in the plotting of the film, since every character we meet is not entirely who they seem to be at first glance; and not only is everyone hiding secrets, but once those secrets are revealed, we’re still not sure that we really know anything about the players.

Confused yet?

From the opening, in what appears to be Los Angeles in the 40’s, through to the end, nothing is what it seems.

Standing out from the rest, as usual, is a simultaneously engaging and utterly creepy turn from character actor Vincent D’Onofrio

Someone you’ll recognise… kinda.

Interestingly although The Thirteenth Floor treads territory very familiar to the blockbuster sci-fi release of the same year, it actually has more in common with a film that took another 11 years to see release.

Inception may have done the job better, but The Thirteenth Floor beat it to the mark. Consider it an appetiser for Christopher Nolan’s main course… and dessert… and supper.

How to Enjoy it

This is a tougher one, but for fun you might like to invite around people who are massive fans of Inception, and put this on claiming “Christopher Nolan totally ripped this off, man.”

See if you can get away without being punched in the face, repeatedly.

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