Just how many genres can you carry off, without letting the plot become a hodgepodge of ideas? If Josef Runsak’s most successful film to date is anything to go by, then the answer is plenty. It starts off as a noir, careers off the track to science fiction and period drama, but eventually finds itself leading to a successful film, managing to hold one’s attention throughout.
The plot begins with a killing; the suspense is heightened when it is made know that the murdered character had a daughter that nobody knew of. Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko, in a role as effective as the one he played in Cinderella Man), the man who is known to be closest to the murdered person, becomes the suspect. But as any regular watcher of thrillers would know — unless the director is pulling off a double bluff, the person who seems suspicious usually turns out to be innocent. But there are greater conundrums than that here: by introducing the element of virtual reality, Runsak ends up making us think about things other than the average whodunit.
The film has its amusing moments as well. In a particularly well acted scene, Hall enters the virtual reality simulation and talks to the murdered man (who, in the simulation, is very much alive, and is a librarian). Unable to quickly to “transfer” his mindset back into the thirties—where he is now, as a bank employee—he asks the librarian about a body of work that covers “microchips” and “semi-conductors”, things that only enthusiastic futurists could have predicted back then. With a confused look on his face, and trying hard to hide his embarrassment on not knowing about something that Hall is so well acquainted with, the librarian asks: “What year?”. To this question, Hall replies: “written in the seventies”, and finally the librarian proclaims that he can’t think of a book on microchips that was written around 1870. Watching the film now (it was released in 1999), it is interesting to see the stereotypes of computer programs and how computers in general looked and “felt”. The transition in the look of computers in the last fifteen years has happened at an astonishing rate, and from computers that took a few minutes to get started, we now have phones that could outdo the old computers. Hall’s fellow programmer has long hair and is casually dressed; the director banks on the stereotype of the “casually dressed, but formally committed to the writing codes” programmer—a common depiction of programmers in the nineties.
There is a tangential point about how not all science fiction films can change their ocular style with change in time. For example, a film about astronauts can have only so much changing in terms of the visual appeal—the leaps made in space technology have not been as huge as the ones made in information technology. As an example, some scenes 2001: A Space Odyssey could very well be shown to someone who hasn’t seen the film before, and he could easily be tricked into believing that the film is fairly recent. On the other hand, computers have been changing so rapidly that even restored, Blu Ray versions of older films cannot escape the eye, and the resulting comment: “That is so nineties”.
The film proceeds to tie some of its (not very) loose ends, and by the end of it all, it has done what is subtly suggested it would: make the watcher think. (The movie started with the Descartes quote: I think, therefore, I am). This is, by no means, an easy film to follow. It could require multiple viewings, several rewinds and perhaps even pauses for a while to actually think what is happening. That, to some, is part of the experience, and is to be savoured. But to those who write off movies as escapist, they would rather expend their thoughts on “important things”. That might be one reason why the films remains underappreciated, despite being brilliantly thought of. Its comparisons with the plot/theme of The Matrix are fair—or are they? For all its philosophical smugness and existential mysticism, most people watched Matrix for the action scenes. Rarely have I come across fandom of Matrix that is trained towards the subtler points of the film. Compared to The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor is less self-indulgent and plot wise quite far superior. It lost out to The Matrix in contention for the Saturn Award for the Best Science Fiction Film. But that says more about the award, than about the film because the judges in the past have chosen Star Wars 3 over The Jacket—grandeur over thought. The awards reflect the public opinion: which is why The Thirteenth Floor is an unknown entity, and The Matrix is hailed as the film that changed the way science fiction films were perceived.