© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Several reputable scientists (not to mention celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk) have recently suggested that there is a very real chance we are all actually living inside a giant computer simulation. Futurist Ray Kurzweil (the “director of engineering” for Google), for example, has famously suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe.” And Musk has estimated the odds at a billion-to-one against our world being the “base reality.”[i] All of which, of course, raises profound questions about the nature of life and the meaning of being human—precisely the kind of questions that philosophers have pondered for centuries and that science fiction has pondered for decades.
For example, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) raises similar questions in its investigation of the possible ramifications of the development of artificial humans, or “replicants,” who are essentially indistinguishable from “real” humans. But the most popular recent form of science fictional speculation on simulated versions of humans and of the reality in which we live has focused on computer-generated virtual realities—partly because the technology to generate such realities seems just around the corner and has, in fact, been in existence in rudimentary forms since the emergence of video game technology, especially beginning in the 1980s. Since that time, a number of science fiction films have focused in particular on this kind of virtual reality, culminating in a flurry of such films in the late 1990s. Three important such films appeared in 1999 alone; David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor (1999), and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), all of which in their various ways explore the idea of confusions between reality and simulation. Of these, The Thirteenth Floor is probably the least accomplished as a work of cinematic art, but it is especially interesting in the way it employs the conventions and iconography of film noir to explore the idea of virtual reality, thus linking back to the similar use of motifs borrowed from film noir in Blade Runner, a connection that potentially helps us to understand something important about film noir itself.
The Thirteenth Floor effectively employs its neo-noir plot and visuals to conduct a thought-provoking (if not particularly profound) exploration into some of the implications of virtual reality technology. In particular, it asks the obvious question: if it is possible to produce a computer simulation that is essentially indistinguishable from reality, then how do we really know that what we perceive as “reality” is not, in fact, just such a simulation? Through most of The Thirteenth Floor, the film imagines two different levels of reality: there is “our” reality, posited as the “true” reality, and there is a computer-generated reality that has been developed by genius inventor and entrepreneur Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) as a realistic simulation of 1937 Los Angeles.
That 1937 Los Angeles is also the exact setting of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), the prototypical neo-noir film, may not be coincidental. Indeed, all of the scenes within the simulated 1937 world within The Thirteenth Floor have very much the texture of a neo-noir film, including the essentially black-and-white visuals (though there are hints of muted color) that are the highlight of the film. Meanwhile, the entire plot of the film—which begins when Fuller is murdered, apparently by protagonist Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko)—involves a sequence of mysterious events, all of which are complicated by the appearance in Hall’s life of the beautiful-but-dangerous Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol), who is apparently Hannon’s long-lost daughter but who seemingly operates very much in the mode of the film noir femme fatale, though who actually turns out to be a figure of virtue.
The Thirteenth Floor begins with an on-screen epigraph that consists of Descartes’ famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” It’s a beginning that does not bode well. On the one hand, to quote one of the Western world’s central philosophical statements at the beginning of a science fiction film seems a bit pompous and pretentious, perhaps something along the lines of the shot of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) that can be seen early in The Matrix. On the other hand, the line from Descartes is much better known to the general public than is the work of Baudrillard. In fact, it is so well known to even the worst of freshmen philosophy students that to bother to cite it at all comes off more as a demonstration of ignorance than of knowledge, as if the makers of the film think they have discovered something by unearthing this insight. If thi epigraph thus makes one enter the film with a certain amount of trepidation, then it is also the case that much of what follows unfortunately bears out this initial expectation. The Thirteenth Floor is a deeply flawed film whose numerous plot twists are handled a bit clumsily and in which the dialogue is often so bad that one feels sorry for the actors having to deliver the lines. Most reviews of the film were negative and many were downright brutal. Almost no one had anything positive to say about the film, except for a number of critics who pronounced admiration for the visual texture of its worlds, especially the 1937 one.
This is not a small thing, of course. Film is a visual medium, and to say that a film is bad except for its visuals is a bit like saying Hamlet isn’t all that great a play except for its language. This reference, incidentally, is not just a gratuitous quip: there is more than a bit of Hamlet’s “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space” remark embedded in The Thirteenth Floor: we humans have been pondering the relationship between reality and our perceptions of it for a long, long time. Of course, the film is troubled not by bad dreams, but by a bad script and facile plot that fail to live up to its philosophical pretensions.Still, I would argue that the visual texture of the 1937 segments of The Thirteenth Floor should not be ignored and that it is even more important than is typically the case in film, because of the effective way in which it evokes the world of film noir and all that that entails.
One of the problems with The Thirteenth Floor is that it seems to have a great deal of trouble deciding on an emotional tone. Much of it, like most film noir, is rather cynical and suspicious. But, in the film’s second half, it essentially descends into a sentimental love story that does not mesh well with the remainder of the film. On the other hand, the fact that the film takes place in multiple realities might partly justify the mixture of emotional registers. In addition, that the film’s emotional core rings false might be entirely appropriate, given that this is a film in which it is very difficult to determine what is authentic—if anything is.
The Thirteenth Floor begins with a slow, jazzy theme that would be very much at home in film noir and then moves immediately into an opening scene set in the 1937 world, which would normally suggest that this is the “real” world of the film, as does the fact that the opening credits are displayed very much in the style of a classic film noir. In the opening scene, Fuller is in a hotel room writing a letter to Hall to reveal a shocking truth that he has just discovered, though the scene does not reveal the nature of this truth, nor do we ever find out exactly how Fuller managed to learn this truth. Then the old man leaves some money on the table beside a bed that holds a sleeping prostitute (whose services he has presumably just enjoyed) and goes downstairs to check out of the hotel. He then proceeds to a club where a chanteuse sings the 1934 standard “Easy Come, Easy Go,” further establishing the 1930s ambience. He gives the letter he has written to Ashton (Vincent D’Onofrio), the bartender at the club, where Fuller is obviously a regular. He tells Ashton to hold the letter until Hall comes to ask for it. Fuller, obviously an important man in this world, then leaves in a chauffeur-driven limo, while Ashton immediately opens and reads the letter, introducing a noirish note of betrayal into the film. Fuller then arrives at home, gets into bed beside his wife, and lies back, as if to sleep. Then an odd electrical pattern flashes in his eyes. He starts awake as a computer voice announces, “Download complete. Link to simulation terminated.” He then gets up and walks through a contemporary-looking computer facility, suggesting fairly clearly that the 1937 world we had just seen was some sort of computer simulation that Fuller had been experiencing. Now, we are led to believe he is in the “real” world of the film.
Fuller then goes to a seedy bar and is soon afterward knifed to death in the street outside, apparently by Hall, though we do not actually see his killer clearly, leaving some uncertainty about the identity of the murderer. Most of the plot of the film then involves the attempt by Hall (and the L.A. police) to unravel the mystery of the murder of Fuller, Hall’s former friend and boss, an attempt made all the more urgent for Hall due to the fact that all signs point to him as the killer, even though he has no recollection of the killing. Hall bounces back and forth between the “real” world of present-day Los Angeles and the simulated 1937 world, in which his consciousness is loaded into a simulated replica of himself known in that world as “John Ferguson.” Indeed, one of the key wrinkles in this film involves this consciousness-transfer, in which the mind of a person in the “real” world can be loaded into such a replica, then proceed to function in the simulated world while still maintaining full memory of their “real” identity and full awareness that they are in a simulation, while most of the other characters are fully simulated and think that their world is real.
The real mystery of the film, though, involves the nature of the discovery revealed by Fuller in the letter he wrote to Hall at the beginning of the film. Hall is never able to secure and read the letter, but he does eventually learn the awful truth: that the “real” world in which he and Fuller had been living is itself actually one of thousands of simulations that have been created by the denizens of a still higher level of reality (in the year 2024), though it is the only one of these simulated worlds to have developed the capability to generate its own simulated worlds within itself. Hall, it turns out, is a replica of David, the real killer of Fuller and the husband of Jane, the daughter of the man who was the model for Fuller. David has become psychopathic due to excessive use of the simulations to live out his fantasies, but is ultimately killed and then replaced in the “real” real world by Hall, who can now live happily ever after with Jane (whose father is alive and well in this reality) in what appears to be a futuristic paradise.
There are a number of logical problems related to the basic concept of this film, which must be viewed with a great deal of suspension of disbelief, granting the film its premise in order to allow its philosophical ruminations about the nature of reality to be carried out. However, those these ruminations themselves are a bit underdeveloped. The film ends as the screen blinks out like a television or computer monitor being turned off, which subtly suggests that this reality, too, might be computer-generated from a still higher level (and so on), though the film does not really explore that possibility. Nor does it tell us anything about the numerous simulated worlds that have been generated in parallel with the world we are led to believe is the real one throughout the film—the world we are presumably meant to think of us as representing our own, thus implying that our world might be a computer simulation. Meanwhile, the film suggests that the simulated worlds are, for all intents and purposes, just as real as the worlds that generated them, meaning that all of these different levels of reality essentially collapse into one, in good postmodern fashion, though this aspect of the film is again not fully explored.
Clearly, The Thirteenth Floor is a film more interested in asking questions than in answering them. Indeed, it suggests that the ontological questions it poses might well be unanswerable. One of the ways it does this is by being so overtly fictional and, in a sense, even metafictional. After all, all films contain simulated worlds and we sometimes become immersed in them as if they are real. The central themes of the film thus can be taken as a commentary on film in general. Meanwhile, The Thirteenth Floor is a remake of the 1973 German television miniseries Welt am Draht (“World on a Wire”), directed by famed German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and based on the 1964 American science fiction novel Simulacron-3 (aka Counterfeit World), by Daniel F. Galouye. In short, The Thirteenth Floor is a fiction based on a fiction that was based on still another fiction, essentially mirroring the layered worlds within the film.
In addition, The Thirteenth Floor contains a number of clever allusions to other films that provide reminders of the extent to which it is a representation, not of reality, but of the worlds of other films. In addition to the possible allusion to Chinatown embedded in the fact that the noir world of the film is set in 1937 Los Angeles, Hall’s very unusual and distinctive apartment is based on the interior of the Ennis House, which was built in Los Angeles in 1924, following a Mayan-inspired design by Frank Lloyd Wright. This house looks unusual enough to create a sort of defamiliarization effect: even though it is a real house, it seems more like something from a movie. It has, in fact, been used as a filming location in several movies, most notably in Blade Runner, which features an actual shot of the exterior of the building and in which Rick Deckard’s apartment, though built as a studio set, is modeled on an interior portion of the Ennis House.
The central cinematic allusion in The Thirteenth Floor, of course, is to film noir itself. The overall plot of the film is very noirish, but the 1937 segments are direct noir pastiches clearly meant to evoke the look and feel of film noir. It’s a perfect choice, given that film noir itself is so stylized and excessive as always to appear artificial. Little wonder, then, that film noir has often been used as the object of simulation in popular culture. For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation first-season episode “The Big Goodbye” (first broadcast January 11, 1988), Captain Jean-Luc Picard turns out to be a great fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, visiting the holodeck of the U.S.S. Enterprise to become a simulated “Dixon Hill,” a fictional detective clearly based on the protagonists of the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which were themselves the inspiration for several classic noir films. The film noir–style scenario that plays out in Picard’s adventures as Hill was successful enough that it was used again in two additional episodes of the series and in the feature film Star Trek: First Contact (1996).
Film noir is also thematically consistent with the emphasis of The Thirteenth Floor on the fact that things might not always be what they appear to be. Film noir, in its essence, looks beneath the shiny surface appearance of American reality to reveal the dark, corrupt, and sometimes deadly secrets that lie beneath. By its very nature, it suggests that things are not at all what they seem and that many of the things that we take for truths are actually the most meretricious of fictions. Similarly, film noir characters often pretend to be someone they aren’t; in addition, they tend not to be nearly as in control of their own fates as the American national myth of individual liberty and self-determination would have us believe, instead finding themselves in the grip of dark, shadowy forces they cannot control or understand.
All in all, while The Thirteenth Floor certainly has its flaws, it does serve as a good illustration of the iconic position of film noir within American culture. As a result of this position, not only can references to film noir easily be recognized by film audiences, but those references carry a number of very specific resonances that help to convey a particular atmosphere of danger, decadence, and corruption. That The Thirteenth Floor ends on a seemingly happy note tends to undermine this effect, which is one of the problems with the film. On the other hand, a slight change in emphasis might suggest that it is actually the noir atmosphere that undermines the happy ending, suggesting that it is just as inauthentic as so many other things we have seen in the film.
[i] See, for example, the on-line article from BBC Earth at http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160901-we-might-live-in-a-computer-program-but-it-may-not-matter.