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The Thirteenth Floor

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Thirteenth Floor

Starring: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol
Director: Josef Rusnak
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: May 1999
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Thriller

*Also starring: Vincent D'Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, Steve Schub

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Like others of my generation, I was born too early. Sure, we had games just like everyone since the Flintstones. We played stick ball in the street, bounced spaldeens for punch ball in the back yard, and pushed and shoved those pinball machines, avoiding "tilt" as much as we could. Nowadays we're not too old to fool around with a joystick, virtually wiping out terrorists or solving the intricate mysteries of Myst. But darn it, I don't think we'll be around long enough to create whole new worlds of people who look and talk like us and stab and shoot one another in much the same way we do now. But at least we can enjoy those pleasures vicariously on the big screen for under ten bucks a pop. One such diversion that's come our way is "The Thirteenth Floor," which will keep everyone over the age of 30 guessing while bringing patronizing grins to the faces of the more youthful constituency. I think that even H.G. Wells would have a difficult time guessing just what the heck is going on as the strikingly handsome Douglas Hall transports himself from present-day Los Angeles back to 1937 to discover that he's just as cute then, albeit with a mustache, but that during the Depression, the only color that city planners could afford for the streets was sepia.

Don't forget to wear some extra padding in your briefs. By the time the story ends and we get the big aha(!) of the concise epilogue, you'll kick yourself hard for not perceiving the game plan all along--if you're over 30, that is.

This is quite an intriguing movie, surely more layered and convincing than David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" and for my money more absorbing than "Matrix." Inspired by (rather than adapted from) Daniel Galouye's sci-fi book "Simulacron 3," "The Thirteenth Floor"--scripted by its director, Josef Rusnak, and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez--opens with the Cartesian quote, "I think, therefore I am," which considering what follows is somewhat pretentious but at least is not written in Latin. We're thrust into the L.A. of Depression times quicker than you can say "Eddie Murphy," as an elderly gentleman whom you'd call dignified had he not shown his proclivity toward young women thrusts a letter into the hands of a night-club bartender. You wonder why a fellow who is allegedly the head of an envelope-pushing corporation would trust a bleached-blond barkeep with this portentous epistle, but that's just one of the story's jostles against our credibility. We learn that Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) has big plans for the man he has chosen to succeed him as corporate honcho, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), but the mail- robbing mixologist Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio) has other schemes in mind. Fuller then makes his second mistake: he propels himself into the L.A. of 1999 where, predictably enough, he is stabbed to death, arousing the interest of LAPD Detective Larry Mc Bain (Dennis Haysbert). The noir- like cop suspects Hall, who is heir to the corporate fortune, but before he can arrest the legatee, Hall falls instantly in love (as anyone would) with Fuller's daughter Jane (Gretchen Mol). With the police suspicious of Hall, the comely hero begins to think that he did indeed commit the murder but wiped the memory from his mind. To get to the bottom of this, he zaps back to '37 with the assistance of computer geek Whitney (Vincent D'Onofrio again). Hall becomes more deeply enmeshed in the whole affair, involving himself in violence with bartender Ashton and a liaison (which he prefers) with the lovely Jane.

Sci-fi fans in the audience cannot be faulted if they compare and contrast "The Thirteenth Floor" with others of the genre having similar plots. Roland Emmerich's "Stargate" comes first to my mind, the tale of a scholar of ancient languages and hieroglyphics recruited to decipher the mystery of a stone gateway, which actually leads to another universe. Like "Stargate," "The Thirteenth Floor" is an involving odyssey with a few fascinating cyber effects, especially the involved pattern of interconnecting bars that our time traveler runs into out in the Arizona desert. And like "Stargate," this one sometimes loses its dramatic projection amid a plethora of visuals. Craig Bierko--who, according to the buzz of women around me stands to become the next cover guy on the celeb magazines--is a more interesting performer than Kurt Russell, more the guy with the dimensions of "Stargate"'s James Spader. His expressions are riveting as he turns from obsessively curious computer scientist to vulnerable do- gooder to bemused object of a gorgeous woman's affection. Though he is not yet a household name, movie buffs may remember his role with Geena Davis in Renny Harlin's "The Long Kiss Goodbye" and in the underrated Larry David comedy "Sour Grapes." Vincent D'Onofrio, one of my favorites, can do no wrong, not even here where he's given makeup that might have been inspired by Bruce Willis's artist in "The Jackal." Armin Mueller-Stahl, one of the world's greats, is above criticism. The 69-year-old leading man of German stage and screen who turned in a memorable performance in Costa-Gavras's "Music Box" ten years ago and as the domineering father of David Helfgott in "Shine" comes across this time as a plausible scientist eager as a puppy to have fun with his invention during his later years. Gretchen Mol is given little opportunity, however, to strut her stuff, here playing a vapid temptress with stilted romantic dialogue, as she discusses her experience with love at first sight and in an alternate life transforming herself into the even more insipid gum-chewing supermarket checker.

See if you can guess the secret, but don't leave the theater when you think the movie's over, as some did in a preview screening. Those who bolted to beat the crowd either knew something the rest of us didn't or will have to wait for the movie buzz to discover the concealed message of this film-- which for all its lack of humor and engaging dialogue is a memorable experience in visual imagery, crisp acting, and resonant imagination.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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