The Matrix turned ten years old on March 31st. It's been often imitated but rarely surpassed, including by its own sequels. But what many people don't realize is that it was one of many science fiction films released nearly simultaneously that explored the nature of reality. The Matrix's popularity overshadowed several other entries in that category, including Dark City (Feb 27, 1998), ExistenZ (Apr 23, 1999), and The Thirteenth Floor (May 28, 1999).
Having seen the other films in that trifecta, I recently watched The Thirteenth Floor. In this movie, the main character heads a software company that has spent the last six years developing a virtual world and interface. When the company's founder is murdered, the only clues to his attacker's identity are to be found in their own product.
The method of insertion into this cyberscape can be described as a cross between TRON and Quantum Leap. The Thirteenth Floor's Matrix is a persistent world whose inhabitants go about their business, unaware of their unreal nature. Each of this world's programmers has a virtual avatar into whom they can insert their personas, temporarily supplanting its virtual host. While there, the programmers experience a world as real as their own, but though they still look like themselves, their behavior may attract attention from those who find their friend's, co-worker's, or spouse's personality suddenly replaced.
The lead in this film is played by Craig Bierko, who looks like a cross between Brendan Fraser and Jake Gyllenhaal. He hasn't done many significant roles since then, which is almost too bad, as his rugged features and piercing eyes lend his roles a memorable intensity. His cohort is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who starred in the time travel film Happy Accidents. D'Onofrio has perhaps the most demanding role in the show, as we see more of his avatar than anyone else's. The actor's ability to create two characters of different appearance and mannerisms in the same film and switch between them is impressive.
I'd be remiss in not mentioning Gretchen Mol, who later went on to play The Notorious Bettie Page. Though her role here as the mysterious love interest is minor compared to the lead, she nonetheless keeps the plot moving with her machinations.
Though The Thirteenth Floor's movie lacks punch, getting there is most of the fun. Unlike in ExistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor's plot actually makes sense. Viewers will never be lost by the plot: it has enough clues that one can figure out what's happening, but some clever touches along the way keep it from being too predictable. I found it somewhat unbelievable that their first use of the virtual world proved flawless — if only every beta test could be so bug-free! There also appears to be no hardware interface between man and machine, which raises all sorts of technological questions. But only a programmer would let himself be bothered by such cinematic license. The Thirteenth Floor will likely be neither celebrated nor remembered upon its tenth anniversary next month, but it doesn't have to be — even without The Matrix's impact, it's still a fun way to spend ninety minutes of any year.