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The Thirteenth Floor

Year: 1999
Production Co: Centropolis
Studio: Columbia
Director: Joseph Rusnack
Writer: Joseph Rusnack
Cast: Craig Bierko, Grethen Mol, Vincent D'Onofrio, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dennis Haysbert
In the late 60s, when Columbia were releasing Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, there was another film with a very similar premise of an errant bomber, Fail Safe. Kubrick got wind of it, threatened to sue, and the studio subsequently released Strangelove with a flourish and dumped Fail Safe in a handful of theatres to bomb quietly.

A similar thing could have happened in 1999. Conscious that there was another sci-fi thriller about people living in a simulated world, a little film from Warner Bros and Village Pictures called The Matrix, Columbia might have all-but pulled the plug on The Thirteenth Floor a story of... people living in a simulated world.

With absolutely none of The Matrix's sci-fi and martial arts appendages that made it an action film for geeks, The Thirteenth Floor is a much more stripped-back film about the idea.

Based in part on one of the books from the Simulacra series – the Wachowski brothers' inspirations along with all that anime – it deals with the idea in a much less action-packed, much more thoughtful way.

For most of the running time it's an easy-to-digest thriller. The bombshell twist near the climax both confounds us and prompts us to think about the very thing the movie is trying to say. I'm itching to give away the reveal, but if you haven't seen the movie and really want to you'll hunt me down.

Douglas Hall (a fairly wooden Bierko who does nothing to make you feel for him) is a software programmer at a powerful and secretive computer science lab where he's created a virtual world and populated it with living avatars, along with geeky sidekick Whitney (D'Onofrio) and his mentor Fuller (Mueller-Stahl).

When Fuller is murdered the night he calls Douglas to say he's stumbled on a big discovery, the only place to go to solve the crime is into the simulation, fashioned after Fuller's favourite period, 1930s San Francisco.

Douglas assumes the identity of a bank manager named John and goes on the trail of a letter left for him in the simulation by Fuller, tracking it down to the creepy and slightly evil bartender Jerry, an AI fashioned after Whitney.

Back in the real world, a beautiful woman (Mol) claiming to be Fuller's daughter shows up with the keys to the company thanks to Fuller's will. Despite working closely with his old friend for years, Douglas didn't know she existed and is sceptical.

A suspect to Fuller's murder himself, Douglas is in a very cinematic race against time to find out who killed his friend and what important news he had to impart before his death, and it'll take him literally to the edge (there, that's the only clue you're getting).

The technicalities of simulations and 'jacking in' are flashy and throw-away, not as nuanced as in The Matrix, and the performances and dialogue don't do anything to keep you interested, but it's a much purer portrayal of the idea and has a bigger impact, managing to elbow in a nicely tied up Hollywood happy ending for everyone as well.

If you love the thrills with your science and philosophy stick to Neo, Trinity and the Nebuchadnezzar. If you can do without bullet time and Yuen Woo Ping's acrobatics, this is one of the most quintessential movies about an intriguing philosophical idea ever.

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