Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: The Thirteenth Floor

If you've ever played The Sims, you should probably see The Thirteenth Floor, if only to make Sims jokes throughout. Whether you actually enjoy the film at all is highly dependent on your aesthetic preferences and your patience. It's competent enough, but The Thirteenth Floor suffers from a few major flaws and some of the minor flaws that can nevertheless prove to be persistent irritants in a high-concept sci-fi film.

We start off meeting an old guy named Fuller who's a user in a fully-immersive VR world with a 1937 L.A. setting. He delivers a letter to a Sim bartender (the always-welcome Vincent D'Onofrio, with terrible hair) and returns to the real world, only to get killed. Douglas, his friend and employee, is our protagonist (played by Craig Bierko, who's a vat-grown fusion of George Clooney and Brendan Fraser, but drained of charisma); he immediately begins investigating the mysterious murder, which unsurprisingly involves delving into the unsurprisingly dangerous and experimental VR machine. (They call this process "jacking in," a phrase already dated by 1999.) Douglas soon runs afoul of an unsurprisingly no-nonsense LAPD detective (Dennis Haysbert of Allstate ad fame, and get this, his character's name is McBain). A beautiful woman with a secret (Gretchen Mol) unsurprisingly appears, the plot unsurprisingly thickens, and our hero unsurprisingly discovers that all this time he's been living In a World Where Nothing Is What It Seems. Unsurprisingly.

The major reveal is telegraphed pretty clearly about thirty minutes in, but The Thirteenth Floor has enough style and momentum (and D'Onofrio being D'Onofrio) to nevertheless maintain a tiny thread of tension and a fair amount of interest. I must particularly praise it for having characters that aren't completely rock-stupid.

However, we are expected to swallow such notions as

  • That the developers of a full VR system would be astonished to learn that its very first user was using it to score with hot younger Sims.
    I'm pretty sure future-tech-oriented types were already thinking about this a hundred years ago.

  • That you can only "swap consciousness" with VR characters who physically resemble you.
    Okay, yes, there's a real theory that the mind and the body are so closely connected that digitizing the brain will never actually work, fine. But consider the marketing. Who's gonna shell out the big bucks just to be Themselves-with-a-Mustache? For a full holodeck-style VR system to come into existence in the first place, even as a prototype, the demands of the market would mandate the ability to inhabit a wide range of characters. I get why the writers implemented this restriction, but it's tough to justify.

  • That if you die while inhabiting a character, you actually die, and the character's consciousness goes back into your real body and wanders around in your world.

That last one is kind of key. See, in The Thirteenth Floor's setup, they explain that the VR system is kind of like Vic's place on Deep Space Nine in that the computer-generated characters continue living their lives when no real-world users are even present—they have jobs, homes, free will, all that stuff. In other words, by Thirteenth Floor rules, when I have to save and quit my Skyrim game, all of a sudden my Redguard Dark Brotherhood assassin "wakes up," wonders how he got into this person's house, and realizes with alarm that a total stranger is lying headless and coinless at his feet.

Now, it's not as if that's a bad setup for a sci-fi thriller; you can easily see where it might lead to interesting plot developments. But, for one thing, you've probably already guessed just from reading this far that Douglas was the one who killed the old man—while being inhabited, because Douglas is a Sim too. Worse yet, the notion that your death vaporizes your consciousness and kicks your Sim's consciousness out into your body is terribly implausible if you extrapolate it backwards.

We will develop consumer-use fully-immersive VR for two main purposes: fucking and killing. What happens when, not if, you die in the simulation is gonna have to be among the first things decided by the designer of such a system, and even if we accept that computer-generated characters can have consciousness (or souls, and yes, they do say that in the movie), no way is such a system going to reach the testability phase with that giant loophole still extant. The movie doesn't even try to explain it away with "oh it's a bug" or anything.

In short: the script needed work. The dialogue's often clunky too, but for this to be a truly thought-provoking movie about simulated realities, filling in the holes was more critical; in what way is it dangerous to stay jacked in too long? And why can't Long-Haired D'Onofrio use it (despite the fact that he eventually does)? Instead, I suspect they structured the film's internal reality around being able to have a happy ending.

I may be overthinking things here a bit. The film's subject matter is something I read about for fun (and have even written about on this blog, in one of my sporadic non-review posts), so I'm sort of the "stacking simulated realities" equivalent of the Tolkien nerd with encyclopedic knowledge who ruins a Peter Jackson movie for you by complaining the whole time. You just want that guy to relax and enjoy the movie.

And I was nearly able to do so with The Thirteenth Floor, owing to its noir feel and its at least intriguing concept. The last nail in the coffin, though, was the bland protagonist. From the first shot of Douglas, you realize that Bierko got the role because of his ability to pull off an expertly-maintained five-o'clock shadow, which is almost offensive when you also consider what kind of role this is supposed to be. Having never seen him in anything or even heard of him, I looked up Bierko on Wikipedia and was unsurprised to learn that he played one of the disposable man-candy characters on Sex & the City. Throughout The Thirteenth Floor his reactions to big plot points range from bug-eyed staring to regular staring. He's often as laughably unreactive as the weakest heroes of MST3K-level B-movies.

I have to guess that, in its day, The Thirteenth Floor was eclipsed by the much more mindfucky and action-packed Matrix. The films are indeed similar enough to naturally invite the comparison, and if you ever joked about Keanu being completely replaceable as the lead in a sci-fi film of the curtain-pullback subgenre…well, see this movie, and realize that they could've done worse than Keanu.

Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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