For full enjoyment of this, you may wish to watch The Thirteenth Floor first.
In other words: “Spoilers, sweetie…”
A late-middle-aged man wearing evening clothes, in a plush hotel room in Los Angeles, 1937, writes an urgent letter. “They say ignorance is bliss. For the first time in my life, I agree… I wish I had never uncovered the awful truth. I know now once they find out, they will try to silence me…”
He finishes and seals the letter, pauses to admire – and leave money for – the sleeping pretty girl in the bed. He makes his way to the ballroom – the band plays ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.’ He leaves the letter with the bartender, instructs him to only give the letter to one man. He makes his way home – the bartender opens and reads the letter as soon as he is gone.
The older man talks to his wife in their bed, a tinge of regret between them. He lies down…
…and wakes up in 1999, in a laser-lit high-tech laboratory. A computer voice: “ Download Complete. Link To Simulation Terminated.”
Within the hour, he is murdered.
Unlike The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor was not a success, either financially or critically. It came and went pretty much without notice. I only found out about it when it showed up in the bargain bin of a local video shop. It’s a shame, really – not only is it a nicely-constructed and performed little thriller, but it actually goes far deeper into the ramifications of the Your Reality Isn’t Real sub-genre than its better-known counterpart.
It also has a history that stretches back to the year I was born – one that along the way takes in one of Europe’s most well-regarded cinematic auteurs, Ranier Werner Fassbinder.
The Thirteenth Floor is based on a little-known French SF novel, Simulacron-3 (aka Counterfeit World) by Daniel F. Galouye, published in 1964. The book’s nearly impossible to find these days – the only copy I could track down is a DRMed ebook – and it’s not aged well. Like a lot of supposedly near-future SF of the time (it bears a resemblance to the early work of Larry Niven) there’s a bunch of now-strange tropes – things like auto-bartenders where you dial your drink of choice, moving pedestrian walkways, ray-guns that dial from stun to kill to brainwash, some truly awful unexamined sexism. Most notably, the all-important computer systems run on good-old-fashioned magnetic tape.
The book all-but-vanished from notice until 1973, when it was adapted for German TV by Fassbinder – his sole science fiction work – under the title Welt am Draht (World On A Wire). It was not heard of much outside Germany, and remained pretty much lost until its DVD reissue last year… and it’s a curious thing to watch. Though set in then-modern times (the only SF element being the world-simulating project Simulacron-1), there’s a jarring element to the supposed modernity. Though it suffers from the imposition of Fassbinder’s tastes in seedy grotesqeries and bourgeois glamour, it’s worth a look – for both the strong lead performance from Klaus Löwitsch and the innovative use of the television tech of the time. Also, it stays a lot closer to the original plot of Simulacron-3 than The Thirteenth Floor does.
All three versions of the story, however, share the same premise. A company has built a virtual world within a computer system, one that users from our world can enter by direct neural hook-up, taking over the bodies of a similarly-shaped Simulacron inhabitant, a ‘Program-Link’, based on their physical and neural template. The creator of the system leaves a vital message within that system for his protege, and is then killed (or vanished, depending on the version). The message reveals, eventually, that the protege’s world is also a simulation – and that users from the higher level of reality can jump into their bodies as easily as they jump into those of the Program-Links within their Simulacron. It’s exactly that Matrix-within-a-Matrix dilemma which so many expected to see Neo face – with the added fear that your consciousness could be over-ridden by an all-powerful top-level user at any time.
Though it drops a lot of the the book’s plot, including the wider social and political impact of such a technology (which made its way into the Fassbinder version with middling results), The Thirteenth Floor develops this theme into a cleverly-observed noir pastiche, expanding the mystery and romantic elements in a satisfying manner. The murder of the Inventor after hiding his message in the simulation leads to his Protege being the prime suspect – and since The Protege woke that morning with a bloodstained shirt in his bathroom that he has no memory of, he half-suspects himself too. After interrogation by a suspicious Cop, he then has to deal with the appearance of a mysterious classy Dame, the alleged daughter of the Inventor.
Then it gets complicated.
The Inventor, Hannon Fuller, is played with genial charm by Armin Mueller-Stahl, not long off his breakout performance in Shine. The Protege, Douglas Hall, is Craig Bierko – generally known for playing heavies in films like The Last Kiss Goodnight, he brings a surprising vulnerability to the role. The Cop, Detective McBain, is the ever-reliable Dennis Haysbert, not long before his tenure as US President in 24. And the Dame, Jane Fuller, is Gretchen Mol: then considered a candidate for the Next Big Thing, her career took a dip for years until her bravura performance as The Notorious Bettie Page… a shame, as she’s both lovely and charming here. The Joker in the Deck is Jerry Ashton, the bartender Fuller left his message with in-world… a part Vincent D’Onofrio essays with the same vigour and commitment he brought to another odd alternate-reality tale a year later, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell.
And all but Haysbert in the above list play at least one other character – their alternate self on one of the other levels of simulation.
The Thirteenth Floor is a film that manages a nice balance between charm and near-melodrama, which carries it along past some of the wonkier plot points. Douglas Hall’s trips into the 1930’s simulacron – dropping randomly into the life of hapless bank teller John Ferguson, whether he be at work or in the middle of a Lindy-Hop competition – provide much of the humour. But it also must be said that it takes a talent of D’Onofrio’s scale to convincingly deliver Jerry Ashton’s lines as he recounts to Douglas-in-Ferguson the tale of seeing the proof that Ashton’s world is nothing but an illusion:
“I did exactly what the letter said. I chose a place that I’d never go to. I tried to drive to Tucson. I figured, what the hell – I’ve never been to the countryside. And I took that car out on the highway. I was going over 50 through that desert. After a while, I was the only car on the road. It was just me and the heat and the dust. And I did exactly what that letter said: “Don’t follow any roadsigns and don’t stop for anything – even barricades”. But just when I should’ve been getting closer to the city… something wasn’t right. There was no movement, no life. Everything was still and quiet. And then I got out of the car – and what I saw… scared me to the depths of my miserable soul.
It was true, it’s all a sham. It ain’t real.“
The problem for Douglas is that the letter was intended for him… which means he’s the one who was meant to drive to “the ends of the Earth”, leading him to see exactly what Ashton had seen in his world – the wire-framed edge of the sim as shown in the poster. When he does, it confirms what he’d suspected for a while – he’s already worked out that Jane Fuller is downloading herself from the higher-level reality (into a cute-but-ordinary supermarket worker named Natasha Molinaro) in order to try and have their sim project shut down. But it also seems that some trace of the downloaded consciousness lingers within the receiver – there’s constant references to déjà vu throughout, as in when Douglas talks to Natasha outside her supermarket:
Douglas: Sorry about staring at you in there… you must get that a lot.
Natasha: Yeah, yeah – but mostly from the wrong kind of guys… You’re not from around here, are you?
Douglas: What makes you ask?
Natasha: Well it’s just… I dunno, it’s just that I had this funny feeling that we met before.
Douglas: Maybe in another life.
Jane has fallen in love with Douglas – something he finds difficult to comprehend under the circumstances, despite sharing the attraction. His top-level user is Jane’s husband David – who has been using the sim which Douglas thought was reality as his personal sadistic playground (much as Hannon Fuller was using his sim to fuck young showgirls, to the great confusion of Fuller’s Program-Link), and was Fuller’s killer while riding in Douglas’ body. Jane’s love, in part, springs from her memory of the man her husband used to be before he entered the sim and fell into corruption and brutality. The horror of being the killer of his mentor shakes Douglas to the core – especially as he’s aware that, as David’s Program-Link, his mind is fundamentally based on David’s:
Douglas: I stabbed him…
Jane: But it wasn’t you.It was your User. He downloaded into you, manipulated you…
Douglas: Like a puppet.
Jane: A puppet doesn’t have a soul!
Douglas: I can’t have a soul, any more than Fuller.
Jane: But you do! Fuller did. That’s what I never expected… We programmed this world so that no-one in it could ever know the truth… and you and Fuller did. Don’t you see what that means?
Douglas: Yeah… but there’s one little flaw in your thesis. None of this is real. You pull the plug… I disappear. And nothing I ever say, nothing I ever do, will ever matter.
There’s a strong thread of tragedy throughout the film, as people from each level interact and swap places. Ashton, now in ‘our’ world as a result of an accident while his user (geek Jason Whitney – also, of course, D’Onofrio) was plugged into 1937, tries to comprehend his place in his world and ours. (If you’re in-world and are killed there, the consciousness of your avatar pops back into your now-empty body – something of a design flaw.) Ashton is not a good person – he’s a brute and a pimp – but he’s far from stupid, even in the face of this awful knowledge, and he’s always looking for an edge. So when he sees the wonders of the 1999 world, he’s entranced. Shame, really…
Ashton: Wow, look at this! You are really a god!
Douglas: No Ashton, I’m not really a god. I’m just like you. Just a bunch of electricity.
Ashton: What are you talking about?
Douglas: It’s all smoke and mirrors. Just like your world, Ashton. We’re nothing but a simulation on some computer.
Douglas: It’s like a machine… like this arcade game over here. You’ve got your players, and you put your nickel in. This one pitches, this one runs around the bases… You got a bat, you got a ball… They play, they score. All following pre-programmed movements, generated by electricity. Of course, we’ve improved on this model since then… Now the players can beat the shit out of, and try to drown, one another, which is always fun.
Ashton: But the letter… It said…
Douglas: …that everything was fake, yes? Yeah, but the letter was meant for me. Fuller was talking about my world.
Ashton: So what are you saying? You’re saying that there’s another world on top of this one?
Douglas: That’s right.
Ashton: I don’t understand
Douglas: Fuller found out – and they killed him
Ashton: Then why didn’t they kill you?
Douglas: Maybe they will. Maybe that’s why you’re pointing a gun at me right now. I’m sorry Ashton – we’re stuck here… you and me – and the rest of us.
Not long after, Ashton is killed by David-in-Douglas, who then tries to rape and kill Jane because 1) it’s fun and 2) he’s the jealous type. Jane runs, David pursues, McBain kills him… and Douglas wakes up in Jane’s world, an idyllic 2024, with their version of Hannon Fuller smiling from the shoreline near Jane’s beach-house. Jane and Douglas gaze upon the Wonderful Future, arm in arm.
…and, in the last second, the screen cuts off like a computer being shut down. Just another sim?
I’m tremendously fond of this film. It’s beautifully and energetically made, taken seriously by all involved, uses the minimum of SFX for the tale (the majority of them are used to turn modern LA into the 1937 version) and the whole cast sell every minute to the best of their considerable ability. Pretty much the only thing I dislike about it is the banal-but-annoyingly-catchy Cardigans song used over the closing credits. Most of the time, I’d much rather rewatch this than The Matrix.
But what does it have to say to the Blank Badge contingent? What other levels do we get, beyond the extra layering of Your Reality Isn’t Real?
A main point, I think, is how the high-level users drop into the bodies of their sim versions. It’s not very far away from Voudon concepts of worshippers being ‘ridden’ by the Loa. And even closer, it’s a lot like Walk-ins.
Walk-ins have been a part of New Age and UFO mythology for some years now – they were, for example, a major factor in the X-Files mythos and an explanation for many of the supposedly divinely-inspired mystical texts of the latter 20th Century. Among believers in walk-ins, especially those that believe they have been ridden in this way, there’s an odd kind of passive acceptance – that their flesh is sometimes a receptacle for the consciousness of some other being is accepted because said beings are so much more spiritually advanced, better than us mere mortals. Now, I can sort of buy that in the context of Voudon, as a temporary and consensual opening-up to the forces of the Divine… but the particular version accepted among so many Newage folk frankly creeps me the fuck out. Forced possession, whether by a ‘demon’ or a ‘higher being’, is still mind-rape. Leaving the victim feeling obliged to gratitude for it as a manifestation of the Glorious Power and Wisdom of their Elders-and-Betters is an exceptionally nasty twist, hardly the work of a spiritually advanced entity. And if the possessor is a God, who not only controls you but has the Off Switch for all of reality… what could be more horrible?
That existential terror – not only of having the sovereignty of your flesh violated at another’s will, but that your existence, your entire world, can be wiped out at the whims of a ‘higher’ being – is captured nicely at the end of the film by McBain (who’s also figured out the way things really are):
McBain: So, is somebody gonna unplug me now?
Jane: (Shakes her head)
McBain: Well, do me a favor, will you? When you get back to wherever it is that you come from, just leave us all the hell alone down here, okay?
(I sometimes wonder just how McBain copes after the end. The sheer weight of that knowledge; the realisation that every murder he’s investigated, every death he’s beheld, was just a simulation of a real life he can never, ever know… that could easily break a man. Or, perhaps, free him.)
On the upside, The Thirteenth Floor is also a tale of the transcendent power of love – a theme which comes up over and over again in this series of films. Here, it’s almost literally a tale of love between a goddess and a mortal, creator and created – Pygmalion and Galatea, with computers. Douglas’s horror and sadness, illustrated so well by the poignancy of his line…
“How can you love me? I’m not even real. You can’t fall in love with a dream.”
…is balanced by Jane – she can and has fallen in love with a dream, made it real – and this unbreakable bond eventually transports him to what might as well be Heaven. (Interestingly, many of these films share an image of the place of transformation or apotheosis being the seashore – look for it also in The Truman Show and especially Dark City.)
At the heart of it all, is that age-old question – are we the dreamer, or the dream? The User or the Program-Link?
And – can a simulation have a soul? Can we?
The Thirteenth Floor is good enough to raise the question in a clever and entertaining way, and smart enough not to answer it. Like the Hebrew word used at the end of prayer goes… Selah. Pause, and consider.
Next time on Mason Lang’s Film Club:
We pause and consider the most directly physical manifestation of the Your Reality Isn’t Real genre – and at the same time, one of the most mystical. Join me when we tune in to… The Truman Show.