During the long stretches of "The 13th Floor" -- the times when I wished that movie theaters had mute buttons -- I started coming up with alternate marketing slogans for the film. "Between the 12th floor and the 14th floor, boredom waits!" feels a little talky. "Virtual reality bites!" is better. The kind of phrase we want is pithy, inane and maybe a little out of date: I think I'm sticking with "Don't go there!"
Of all the recent movie variations on the theme of "Dude, the real world is totally an illusion!" this is easily the stupidest. Still, it looks sensational, which is no small thing, especially if you've had to sit through the fuzzy, computer-screen mediocrity of "The Phantom Menace." Half of "The 13th Floor" takes place in a contemporary Los Angeles shot through some kind of ice-blue Zima-bottle filter, while much of the rest is set in a spectacular simulation of 1937 L.A., depicted mostly in golds and antique greens. In both cases, German director Josef Rusnak likes to shoot in low light with fast film, so the dark portions of the frame are buzzing with grain, lending an immanent energy to his formalistic compositions. Even if the tones and colors of the different segments suggest TV commercials -- the chilly '90s setting for some "sexy" designer cologne, the warm, vintage feel for an insurance company -- they'd be excellent TV commercials.
Unfortunately, the screenplay, the actors -- with the noble exception of Armin Mueller-Stahl -- the wardrobes, the props, the hairstyling and everything else about "The 13th Floor" also seems to have escaped from TV commercials. Here's my paranoid theory: No human being is actually dumb enough to write a film in which characters say, "To be perfectly honest, I don't know what the truth is myself anymore," or, "What I saw scared me to the depths of my miserable soul." This movie is actually an evil fungus, an accumulation of meme-spores from the advertising universe that clustered together and forced their Eurotrash human slaves to release them as a feature film. Destroy the invader!
Actually, it's a shame this movie is so lame, because its plot, adapted from Daniel Galouye's novel "Simulacron 3," offers a couple of neat twists toward the end. We begin at a lavishly appointed software company in a downtown high-rise (plausibility factor: 0.4), where aging computer genius Hannon Fuller (Mueller-Stahl) has created a virtual-reality universe whose characters (or "fully-formed interactive cyberunits") live, breed, die and change just like those in the world outside. This artificial realm of course is the 1937 Los Angeles of Fuller's childhood, beautifully captured by Rusnak, production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli and cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff. (Everyone associated with this movie has the name of a minor European aristocrat.) While the '30s interiors are rich with impressive detail, the real stunners are the exterior shots, especially a remarkable vista of Wilshire Boulevard running through open fields, with one newly built grand hotel beside it.
After Fuller visits 1937 and then turns up murdered in the real world, and after his fellow designer Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) realizes he's been having blackouts and finds blood on his clothes, we know we're someplace where "The Matrix" meets "Truman Show" meets "Existenz." Bierko is between George Clooney and Antonio Sabato on the hunk scale, but his wide-eyed, credulous expression and GQ threads make him seem a lot closer to the guy handing you the wine list than a software engineer. Douglas goes into the 1937 simulation to investigate Fuller's death and things go wrong; he and his "character" have overlapped or intermorphed or something. Dennis Haysbert appears in the laconic black cop role customarily assigned to Morgan Freeman, asking, "Do you think one of them units crawled up the extension cord and killed its maker?"
Gretchen Mol (of "Rounders" non-fame) soon shows up as Jane, who claims to be Fuller's daughter, but who may be an emissary from the imaginary world, or the real world, or whatever. In a series of superbly art-directed shots, Jane and Douglas are soon spooning, awkwardly and unconvincingly: There's close to zero chemistry between these fake, beautiful characters. When the truth about who they are is finally revealed, one gets to say to the other, "How can you love me? I'm not even real." Meanwhile, Vincent D'Onofrio, a highly skilled actor who lacks discipline, chews scenery as two different characters, Douglas' stoner-geek colleague in the present and an amphetamized psycho bartender in 1937. ("What did you do to the world, man?" he howls at Douglas at one point. "Bring back the world!")
We learn a number of things at the end of "The 13th Floor." One: Like, ours is only one of thousands of possible universes, OK? Two: Mol is much better playing a convenience-store clerk than a femme fatale. Three: The edge of the world is in Tucson, and it looks like a scene from "Tron." Four: The '30s were green, the '90s are blue and the 2020s will be yellow (spare me!). And Six, the most important lesson of all: Movies about virtual reality have now officially reached their nadir of high-gloss dumbness, and the demon Eurobots who made "The 13th Floor" can go back to their underwear ads.