Published May 1, 1999
The same trick which made Open Your Eyes a rather clever movie is also tried, in a somewhat cruder form, in The Thirteenth Floor, directed by Josef Rusnak. Unfortunately, in both cases the critic must refrain from revealing the trick, lest he spoil your enjoyment, though without revealing it the critic is almost completely unable to give an account of the movie beyond the barest mise en scène. So far as we can tell, up until the end, the story concerns a very sophisticated virtual- reality project created by Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), a young, rich, good- looking software engineer who is working with the venerable computer genius Hannan Fuller (Armin Mueller- Stahl). Though he is obviously much older than Hall or Hall’s assistant, Jason Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio), Fuller is described by Whitney as “the Einstein of our generation,” and, indeed, his fabricated reality is so virtual that it is impossible to tell the simulated from the real. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Ostensibly because he grew up in it, Fuller’s invented world is Los Angeles in 1937. All three men, Fuller, Hall and Whitney, have alter egos in 1937 — an antiques dealer, a bank clerk and a bartender — whose bodies they inhabit for two hours at a time when they climb into the MRI-like simulator but who live independent lives when they are not there. In other words, the simulation has been made so real by these computer gods that, like the tree in the quad in the old limerick, it continues to exist even when nobody from the “real” world is experiencing it. But what, then, are we to make of the fact that Fuller, like the mortal-fancying Zeus of Greek mythology, is making private excursions to 1937 in the improbable person of the humble antiques dealer to visit virtual nightclubs, drink virtual booze and bang virtual chorus girls?
It is a mildly interesting idea, I suppose, if you are a computer nerd. What is the moral status of a simulation? Could you make a computer shooting game so real, for instance, that it would be wrong to shoot the simulations? Whitney’s 1937 alter ego, the bartender, finds out he’s only a simulation and turns violent. “He tried to kill me,” Hall tells Whitney on returning from the past. “He found out his world wasn’t real.” But Hall has begun to believe that, in fact, the computer simulations are “as real as you and me.”
“Yeah,” says Whitney sardonically. “We designed ’em that way.”
“You can’t f*** with people’s lives,” says Hall, though of course that begs the question of whether or not they’re people. Hall wants to dismantle the whole operation, but is there also some moral status to Whitney’s contention that “You can’t just pull the plug and go home”?
But if there are any answers to these questions, the film loses interest in them in order to present us with a metaphysical murder-mystery. Someone kills Fuller — not the antiques dealer but the computer genius — and his hitherto unknown daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol), suddenly appears to tidy up his estate. The future of the company and of the simulation gets tangled up in the murder investigation by Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert), a disputed will and a budding romance between Jane and Hall — who also begins to suspect himself, or possibly his alter ego, of killing her father. “Just because I don’t remember it doesn’t mean I didn’t do it,” he says. But did he? A hint is provided in the fact that Jane proves to be a simulation—and she falls in love with Hall because he reminds her of the decent man she married before he became a fiend in human form, obsessed with virtual reality. . .
Hm. Can you figure it out? Even if you can, you are unlikely to feel the sort of satisfaction one usually derives from spotting whodunnit in more down-to-earth sorts of mysteries. The whole alternative realities business just makes it too easy for the author to hide things from us which he then reveals when convenient. We feel that the game is rigged. Even more basically, all these simulations running around as if they were real appear to me to be too remote from our ordinary experience to engage the sympathies fully — like so much of science fiction and fantasy. As Detective McBain says to the virtual Jane Fuller when another body turns up at her feet, “Do me a favor. Get back to wherever it is you came from and leave us all the hell alone down here, OK?”