Of all the subgenres of cinematic science fiction, virtual reality has held the greatest promise and yielded the poorest results. For the disassociated, displaced audiences of the ’90s — teens and twentysomethings caught in a culture obsessed with in-the-past instead of on-the-verge — the idea of being able to plug in to another world is like a candy-colored disconnect pill that the movies have never been able to prescribe. Instead, Hollywood usually concocts downers like the videogame snoozer Tron; that rare Denzel Washington dud, Virtuosity; or Keanu Reeves’ own misbegotten Johnny Mnemonic.

Then, last March, The Matrix exploded, and the genius of writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski’s deep-thinking actioner is that they took their Big Idea and armored it in a cohesive cyberpunk/comic-book chic that had never been seen outside of Japanimation.

This time, Reeves plays Neo, a hacker who learns from rebel-rousers Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) that the world he thinks is real is actually a computer-generated prison all of humanity is jacked in to. With some downloadable martial artistry and John Woo firepower at the ready, Neo and company rage against the machines.

The Matrix suffers, however, for having too many ideas. It wasn’t enough to twist viewers along the Alice in Wonderland trail, the Wachowskis had to offer a New Agey religious sermon as well. Neo is, of course, The One, the prophesied leader of the oppressed who will lead the people of Zion (an underground city populated by the last free humans) from bondage — but only if he can believe in himself and trust in the power of love. On the big screen, these Judeo-Christian motifs were patently overwhelmed by the engaging techno tableaux, but the smallness of TV brings these elements distractingly to the fore.

If The Matrix is overloaded, then The Thirteenth Floor — released on The Matrix‘s heels, theatrically and on video — takes one concept and runs the wrong way with it. The creator of the first fully realized VR world — one that mirrors 1937 Los Angeles — is murdered, and the culprit may be a virtual character who hatched himself into our existence. Where The Matrix was ambitious, The Thirteenth Floor is hackneyed, opting for a dim, noirish whodunit over the chance to make us look at reality through doubt-colored lenses. The Matrix is, very literally, escapist entertainment. The Thirteenth Floor is entertainment you want to escape from. The Matrix: B+ The Thirteenth Floor: D

The Matrix

  • Movie
  • R
  • 136 minutes
  • The Wachowskis