Thirteenth Floor, The

The same trick which made Open Your Eyes a rather clever movie is also
tried, in a somewhat cruder form, in The Thirteenth Floor, directed by
Josef Rusnak. Unfortunately, in both cases the critic must refrain from
revealing the trick, lest he spoil your enjoyment, though without revealing it
the critic is almost completely unable to give an account of the movie beyond
the barest mise en scène. So far as we can tell, up until the end,
the story concerns a very sophisticated virtual- reality project created by
Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), a young, rich, good- looking software engineer who
is working with the venerable computer genius Hannan Fuller (Armin
Mueller- Stahl). Though he is obviously much older than Hall or Hall’s assistant,
Jason Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio), Fuller is described by Whitney as “the
Einstein of our generation,” and, indeed, his fabricated reality is so virtual
that it is impossible to tell the simulated from the real. Stop me if you’ve
heard this one before.

Ostensibly because he grew up in it, Fuller’s invented world is Los Angeles
in 1937. All three men, Fuller, Hall and Whitney, have alter egos in
1937 — an antiques dealer, a bank clerk and a bartender — whose bodies
they inhabit for two hours at a time when they climb into the MRI-like simulator
but who live independent lives when they are not there. In other words, the
simulation has been made so real by these computer gods that, like the tree in
the quad in the old limerick, it continues to exist even when nobody from the
“real” world is experiencing it. But what, then, are we to make of the fact that
Fuller, like the mortal-fancying Zeus of Greek mythology, is making private
excursions to 1937 in the improbable person of the humble antiques dealer to
visit virtual nightclubs, drink virtual booze and bang virtual chorus girls?

It is a mildly interesting idea, I suppose, if you are a computer nerd. What
is the moral status of a simulation? Could you make a computer shooting game so
real, for instance, that it would be wrong to shoot the simulations? Whitney’s
1937 alter ego, the bartender, finds out he’s only a simulation and turns
violent. “He tried to kill me,” Hall tells Whitney on returning from the past.
“He found out his world wasn’t real.” But Hall has begun to believe that, in
fact, the computer simulations are “as real as you and me.”

“Yeah,” says Whitney sardonically. “We designed ’em that way.”

“You can’t f*** with people’s lives,” says Hall, though of course that begs
the question of whether or not they’re people. Hall wants to dismantle the whole
operation, but is there also some moral status to Whitney’s contention that “You
can’t just pull the plug and go home”?

But if there are any answers to these questions, the film loses interest in
them in order to present us with a metaphysical murder-mystery. Someone kills
Fuller — not the antiques dealer but the computer genius — and his
hitherto unknown daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol), suddenly appears to tidy up his
estate. The future of the company and of the simulation gets tangled up in the
murder investigation by Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert), a disputed will and
a budding romance between Jane and Hall — who also begins to suspect
himself, or possibly his alter ego, of killing her father. “Just because I don’t
remember it doesn’t mean I didn’t do it,” he says. But did he? A hint is
provided in the fact that Jane proves to be a simulation—and she falls in
love with Hall because he reminds her of the decent man she married before he
became a fiend in human form, obsessed with virtual reality. . .

Hm. Can you figure it out? Even if you can, you are unlikely to feel the sort
of satisfaction one usually derives from spotting whodunnit in more
down-to-earth sorts of mysteries. The whole alternative realities business just
makes it too easy for the author to hide things from us which he then reveals
when convenient. We feel that the game is rigged. Even more basically, all these
simulations running around as if they were real appear to me to be too remote
from our ordinary experience to engage the sympathies fully — like so much
of science fiction and fantasy. As Detective McBain says to the virtual Jane
Fuller when another body turns up at her feet, “Do me a favor. Get back to
wherever it is you came from and leave us all the hell alone down here, OK?”

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