We gave it a D
Remember when virtual reality meant good, eye-twirling fun? In movies like Strange Days and The Lawnmower Man, you sat back, you strapped on your futuristic psychedelic headset, and voila! — you were transported to tantalizing landscapes of fantasy and pleasure, as if entering the movie of your dreams. It all seems rather quaint now. As an entertainment concept, virtual reality has yet to match those fanciful, joyride visions, but as a cinematic metaphor, it has already been turned inside out. In the new technological head-trip thrillers, like The Matrix, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor, virtual reality isn’t the world you escape to; it’s the world you’re already living in. You still strap on that headset (or plug into that nasty-looking bioport), only now it’s to brainwash yourself out of your illusions. Leave it to the cyberobsessive late ’90s to take all the fun out of getting away.
In The Thirteenth Floor, the hero (Craig Bierko), a fearless mind-leap jockey, enters the world of 1937 Los Angeles, a silvery panorama of classic cars and smoky posh nightclubs. As he wanders through this mirage, he gawks at the extraordinary, tactile reality of it all. Those of us actually watching the film may find it hard to identify, since what we see appears to be little more than a cliche period movie set. Still The Thirteenth Floor is out to wow you with its multilevel gamesmanship. The film’s vintage L.A. isn’t real, and neither, it turns out, is the computer bunker where this virtual metropolis was cooked up. So what is real? Only the head-scratching boredom of the audience as the film collapses from one meaningless false-bottom environment to the next.
The surest sign that The Matrix was on to something — at least, before it turned into an anti-gravity kung fu blowout — is that its vision of society blinded by a corporation-controlled image culture could be so narrowly misinterpreted, even by its fans, as a sci-fi projection of the Internet. Like The Truman Show, the movie was about the real virtual reality: the spiritual mall we’ve all tacitly agreed to live in. The Thirteenth Floor, on the other hand, is a series of Chinese boxes enclosing a void. The characters keep popping up in dual-reality roles, and the different wardrobes just make them seem like ciphers in search of a screen test. Armin Mueller-Stahl, as the brilliant innovator of all this techno-facade nonsense, wrings such familiar weary melancholy out of his continental presence that he’s starting to look like a highly evolved hologram. He’s the perfect actor for a movie like The Thirteenth Floor — a virtual, one-man Old Europe. D