Virtual Reality Bites

Maybe ours is the best of all possible worlds after all.

Deja vu is usually a sign of love at first sight. Says who? Says the heroine of The Thirteenth Floor to the hero that she's on the verge of kissing. Though they've just met a scene or two earlier, they both feel they've seen each other before.

That maxim about deja vu was a new one to me. But here's a bit of wisdom I'm fairly confident about, and that The Thirteenth Floor does nothing to refute: In the movies, love at first sight is usually a sign of writers who don't know how to build a convincing romance between two human beings through dialogue and action.

This cyberthriller, directed by Josef Rusnak from a script he wrote with Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, is another in the recent spate of films and TV shows that hinges on the fear that what we perceive around us isn't the real world at all; that our environment has been engineered to mollify us so that we might be exploited or observed. Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) is a big-shot computer programmer in L.A. who's working on a virtual-reality matrix of total fidelity to life. It's a recreation of '30s-era L.A., faithful to the last detail and complete with people who are actually interactive "programs," capable of independent thought and action.

Doug's boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is murdered one night after returning from a tour of this program, which he designed. Doug is suspected--even by himself--of committing the crime: He has no memory of the night it occurred, and he found bloody clothes in his apartment the following morning. He decides that the only place to look for clues about the killing is in the virtual city, so he plugs himself in, emerges in the '30s with a cowlick and a Clark Gable mustache, and makes like a gumshoe.

Between these visits to Depression-era Hollywoodland, Doug meets a woman of mystery (Gretchen Mol) in contemporary L.A. She claims to be the boss's long-estranged daughter, but as she also tells him that deja vu is well-known as a sign of love at first sight, we know we should take what she says with a grain of salt. Meanwhile, back in the '30s, one of the "programs," a shady bartender (Vincent D'Onofrio), has learned the truth about his reality when he reaches the edge of the matrix by trying to drive somewhere he'd "never think of going"--Tucson.

The success of The Matrix has shown that this sort of material can strike a mainstream nerve; so, in a different way, does that of The Truman Show. Better if less commercially successful treatments of similar concepts include Dark City and John Carpenter's flawed but funny satire They Live. The use of computer consciousness as an allegory for human existential mysteries goes back at least as far as Disney's Tron.

Most of these films spring from fairly narcissistic mindsets. The hero of The Matrix, for instance, learned, in some unexplained way, that he was a messianic figure meant to liberate humankind from bondage to their illusory world. Truman Burbank learned that the boomer-era childhood suspicion that your life was secretly a TV show and that you were the star was really true in his case.

Without this sort of egocentric thrill at its core, it's unlikely that people will be lining up around the block to see The Thirteenth Floor. It also doesn't help that the special effects aren't spectacular, the pace is numbing, and Bierko isn't as mesmerizing a presence as Keanu Reeves.

Both Bierko and Mol are attractive, but when they gaze longingly into each other's eyes, there's nothing happening onscreen. In fairness to them, it's tough to generate much romantic feeling when the dialogue you've been given has the dreary earnestness of a '70s TV movie. D'Onofrio shows some intriguing sense of danger early on as the barkeep, but his character never comes all the way into focus--he remains one of those maddening actors who clearly has enormous talent, but who only intermittently is able to connect with us in the audience. He comes closer to doing so, however, than anyone else in The Thirteenth Floor.

In the end, the film's twists and turns really do more or less add up, probably to a more coherent whole than The Matrix offered. But just because it's possible to "get it" doesn't mean you'll care.

There are some compensations. Wedigo von Schultzendorff's cinematography and Kirk M. Petruccelli's production design give the film a handsome, well-appointed look. The period scenes are especially flavorful, with the opulence of the Wilshire Grand bordering a vast, derrick-studded desert, and the sense of a community wavering between showbiz mecca and rough-and-tumble frontier boomtown. The filmmakers would have done better to spend more time in this world; anything to give the movie a bit more rowdiness and spirit.

Yet even this part of The Thirteenth Floor suffers from what may be an inherent weakness in the illusion-and-reality sci-fi genre. When we go to the movies, we've already accepted that we're going to see an illusion, so it's tough to commit to further involvement when we're told that what we're seeing is an illusion within that illusion. The cautionary moral that seems to underlie the virtual-reality genre--that reality is better than even the most seamlessly wrought fantasy world--is one that most of us feel instinctively.

The Thirteenth Floor.
Directed by Josef Rusnak. Starring Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Steven Schub.