The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 4/22/12
Cast: Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dennis Haysbert

A superb science fiction thriller whose unfortunate timing left it largely overshadowed by the success of "The Matrix" (1999). Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a brilliant computer scientist who has developed a virtual reality simulation that recreates the world of Los Angeles in 1937. But he's discovered a terrible secret in the real world that puts his life in danger, so he hides a note inside the simulation for his colleague, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), to find. Desperate to solve the mystery and clear his own name, Hall ventures into the largely untested simulation as a stranger in a strange land, fumbling around trying to make sense of things. Meanwhile in the real world, a mysterious woman claiming to be Fuller's daughter (stunning Gretchen Mol) shows up to take over Fuller's business and shut it down, only to find out that Hall inherited ownership of the company instead of her. An odd connection develops between her and Hall, and romance blooms as time is running out for both of them.

The film looks spectacular and 1930's Hollywood is rendered in gorgeous detail. As was popular at the time, heavy smoke is used to create deep, dreamlike lighting in this fantasy realm, and the sets and costumes are absolutely fabulous. A handful of static matte paintings betray the film's modest budget, but they're easy to dismiss. Excellent performances by the entire cast, but the real stand-out is Gretchen Mol, whose intoxicating presence dominates every scene she's in. Most impressive. While the pacing can be a bit sluggish, the narrative is constantly engaging and unfolds in a thoughtful and intelligent manner. The music score is wonderful and although it sounds a bit dated by today's standards, it fits the film well. Overall, an outstanding film that deserves wider recognition.