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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Thirteenth Floor (Blu-ray)
The Thirteenth Floor (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // R // April 14, 2009 // Region Free
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 7, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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through The Thirteenth Floor for the first time since its theatrical run a full ten years ago, I couldn't help but wonder: this multibillion dollar corporation can engineer a bank of mainframes that'll recreate a sprawling metropolis sixty years in the past down to the most intricate, minute detail -- populated by hundreds of thousands of V.R. simulations wholly convinced that they're living, breathing people -- and yet their computers bark out error messages in an electric sqwawk like E.T.'s Speak-and-Spell. Maybe that seems like a ridiculous gripe to make, but it's not as if this borderline-unwatchable virtual reality flick is serving up much of anything else for me to latch onto.

The Thirteenth Floor doesn't bother with much you haven't already seen done better in The Matrix, Dark City, or, if you're adventurous enough, eXistenZ. Whereas those movies were intensely focused on shadowy mystery, twisted imagery, and a hell of a lot of action, The Thirteenth Floor settles for Craig Bierko dramatically taking off his shoes and Vincent D'Onofrio clacking away at a numeric keypad. There's nothing memorable or the least bit engaging about this limp, lifeless adaptation of Daniel Galouye's visionary novel Simulacron-3.

Some nameless but apparently astonishingly well-funded corporation has devoted the past six years to virtually recreating sunny California circa 1937 in its computers. This sprawling bank of mainframes is so powerful that when it drops a user into this virtual world, they're surrounded by living, breathing people. These aren't one-dimensional NPCs nicked straight out of some Xbox game; they have souls. Its thrall continually draws the software company's aging founder and CEO (Armin Mueller-Stahl) into the world of his childhood time and again, and there
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he's an impossibly wealthy man about town who has teenage girls and barely twentysomethings throwing themselves at him at every turn. Shortly after settling back into the real world (where he's still inhumanly wealthy and would presumably have a parade of pretty young golddiggers at his fingertips without having to invest billions in fake ones, but whatever), Hammond Fuller is savagely stabbed to death. Douglas Hall (a tepid, miscast Craig Bierko), Fuller's second-in-command and doggedly loyal best friend, is horrified to find himself as the chief suspect, but he learns that there may be some clue to the murder waiting for him in the simulacron. As a gruff, sneering detective (Dennis Haybert) and a femme fatale-style daughter that Fuller never mentioned (Gretchen Mol) nose around, Hall scours this sepia-toned, virtual reality playground for clues, finding it just to be as inhospitable as the world he'd left behind and in more ways than one...

The Thirteenth Floor has the potential for a compelling story -- exploring digital creations of 1s and 0s as fully-realized people with needs and desires -- but the movie never stumbles upon any sort of dramatic hook. It's littered with thinly-sketched characters, flat and uninspired performances, and a tiny handful of brief action setpieces disinterestedly tossed in to meet some sort of quota. The Thirteenth Floor is a premise in search of a plot, and even though it spans multiple worlds set more than a half century apart, not a whole hell of a lot happens in either realm. It's a Twilight Zone episode, not a feature film, and it strains to pad out its 100 minute runtime. The Thirteenth Floor's recreation of 1937 is reliant on digital compositing that really hasn't aged well over the decade since it lurched into theaters, although the meticulous production design to flesh out a Los Angeles left sixty years in the rear view mirror is the only way in which the movie ever feels truly inspired. Meandering, devoid of suspense, and bogged down by bland, wooden performances, The Thirteenth Floor wouldn't warrant much of a nod in any form, but its substandard release on Blu-ray makes it even easier to ignore. Skip It.

Sony dusted off a decade-old high definition master for this Blu-ray release of The Thirteenth Floor, and this horrifically dated transfer is really showing its age. Virtually every frame of the scope image is unusually soft and muddy; even the text in its opening titles is unstable and poorly defined. The melding of color and black-and-white elements no doubt limits how richly detailed the sepia-toned stretches set against the back drop of 1937 can look, but fine detail is often almost indistinguishable from an upconverted DVD in the here and now as well. For the overwhelming majority of the movie, if I'd walked into the room cold and not known what format I was watching, I doubt a newly-minted Blu-ray disc would even have been my first guess. Clarity and detail are substandard, and the video lacks anything resembling depth or dimensionality. The Thirteenth Floor is saddled with a flat, dated, muddy rehash of an ancient transfer, and even for a catalog title about to ring in its tenth anniversary, this Blu-ray disc fails to live up to the most minimal expectations.

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The Thirteenth Floor does sport lossless audio, but this 16-bit TrueHD track sounds like microwaved leftovers as well. Rather than standing out as tight and focused, the low-end is a dull rumble. When an oversized band is breezing through their set back in the simulated 1930s, the bass sounds overcooked and indistinct. Flurries of toms in the score are also lacking any resonance. The subwoofer frequently lobs out one low-frequency belch after another -- the booming hum of the bank of mainframes and Dennis Haybert's throaty growl stand out in particular -- but bass response isn't nearly as clean or devastating as it ought to be. Surround use isn't especially aggressive, in keeping with The Thirteenth Floor's disinterest in anything resembling action, although there is a consistently strong sense of ambiance throughout to better flesh out these two worlds.

This TrueHD track really just lacks the sort of distinctness and clarity I've come to expect on Blu-ray. When Jerry plows through a barricade in the desert, for instance, most any other lossless track would make it sound as if I could hear the wood shatter and each individual splinter scatter across the dusty road. Here, it's just a flat, lifeless crack. The Thirteenth Floor's audio is a disappointingly lackluster effort from Sony, and hopefully this isn't what we can expect in the years to come as the studio continues to mine their back catalog.

TrueHD tracks are also included in French and Portuguese alongside a traditional Dolby Digital Spanish dub. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and the disc's commentary track features optional subtitles as well.

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Co-writer/director Josef Rusnak sits down with production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli for The Thirteenth Floor's audio commentary. It's a chatty track anchored primarily around shaping the look of the film, particularly the challenges of recreating the 1930s on such a modest budget. Among the other topics the two of them field are a slew of reshoots, the actors' influence on fleshing out their characters, noting some of the differences between the original novel and this adaptation, the editing and score, and why a more optimistic ending replaced what was originally filmed.

The only other extra that has anything to do with the movie itself is a music video for The Cardigans' "Erase/Rewind". Rusnak makes mention of around twenty minutes of deleted scenes along with at least one fully completed alternate ending in his commentary, but nothing like that has clawed its way to this Blu-ray disc. The Thirteenth Floor is BD Live-enabled, not that anyone's realistically expecting Sony to trot out any online content for an instantly forgettable, ten year old catalog title. A handful of high definition trailers and plugs round out the disc.

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The Final Word
The most aggressively bland of the "...but is it real?" glut of virtual reality flicks from the tailend of the '90s, The Thirteenth Floor is a mediocre Twilight Zone episode dragged out to fill a feature-length runtime. It's not a movie that'd really be worth recommending in the first place, but Sony's substandard release on Blu-ray makes The Thirteenth Floor an easy pass. Skip It.
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