Ignorance is bliss. For the first time in my life, I agree.
Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl)
1999 saw the science fiction genre be redefined by the likes of The Matrix. But there was another (frankly far more superior) science fiction film which was released during that year which also dealt with the similar concept of The Matrix. And this film is The Thirteenth Floor. Like The Matrix, the film’s narrative centres around the idea of simulated worlds create by computers, where our protagonist begins to question their reality, but The Thirteenth Floor isn’t as flashy or stylized, the plot is complicated, and confusing especially on the first watch. But it offers more than The Matrix and is far more interesting to analyze, because it asks us to question what makes us human, and what do we mean by the concept of free will. Can simulated beings have souls, and do they love?
The issue with The Matrix is that it has become parodied and spoofed so often that it no longer feels fresh, and the film’s impact has been lost due it’s lackluster sequels which did little to expand on the simulated reality concept. Despite The Thirteenth Floor confusing narrative and frustrating plot twists, the film always offers something new upon a rewatch and you begin to appreciate the effort that went into creating both the 1999 version of LA and the simulated world of 1937 LA. When comparing The Thirteenth Floor to The Matrix, visually The Thirteenth Floor is far more superior with it’s warmth, attention to detail and homage to 30s-40s Hollywood cinema. The Matrix seems to lack any visual depth, relying solely on action scenes and flashy slow-motion to keep the audience entertained, and as a result it appears less simulating as a simulated world (excuse the pun).
In terms of art direction and cinematography, the film succeeds on a level. The world of the Los Angeles of 1937 appears like studio backlot, with a very obvious artificial feel to it, again giving the viewer an indication of the kind of world a simulator would create. Of course you would try and mimic the world you have seen in films from this ear, copying a copy. Aside from the two film’s distinct differences in terms of visuals and mise-en-scene, The Thirteenth Floor goes into far more depth regarding the simulation theory and opens up more philosophical discussions, whereas I believe The Matrix glosses over the theory of simulated worlds to simply get on with the action
To all those who may be unfamiliar with The Thirteenth Floor, it is a science-fiction crime thriller film directed by Josef Rusnak, loosely based upon Simulacron-3 (1964), a novel by Daniel F. Galouye. Set in late 90s Los Angeles, the story follows Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who owns a multibillion-dollar computer enterprise and is the inventor of a newly completed virtual reality (VR) simulation of 1937 Los Angeles, filled with simulated humans unaware they are computer programs.
When Fuller is murdered just as he begins premature testing of the VR system, his friend and protégé, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), who is also the heir to the company, becomes the primary suspect. The evidence against him is so strong that Hall begins to doubt his own innocence. Fuller’s daughter Jane makes an appearance, played by Gretchen Mol, who is trying to fight for the ownership of the company, and Hall becomes romantically involved with her, he even tells her that he feels that they have met before in which Jane answers back with “perhaps in a previous life.”
With the assistance of his associate Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio), Hall attempts to find a message that Fuller left for him inside the simulation. Entering the virtual reality, Hall becomes a bank clerk named John Ferguson taking over the computer simulated being. Fuller left the message with a bartender named Jerry Ashton who has been modeled on Whitney (although Ashton has much better hair as Hall explains to Whitney). However, Ashton has discovered the truth about his world, and it has pushed him over the edge. But, Hall realises that the note left by Fuller was meant for him and was about his world back in 1999, it is Hall who is actually living in a simulation. But if that’s the case then who has created that world, and who is downloading into him and taking control of his body?
This idea asks us to question our own sense of free will, and unlike The Matrix whose characters are actually just living in a simulated world with control over their bodies, the people inhabiting the world of The Thirteenth Floor show us that they have no control, outsiders can download into them and take over their consciousness. And, perhaps that’s the real explanation for why we experience Deja Vu, it’s not a glitch in the matrix, it’s someone taking over your consciousness.
The performances are quite strong especially from Mol who seems conflicted and torn between her love for her husband and Douglas Hall. Craig Bierko is a little off in places, but seems far more passionate and animated in his performance compared to Keanu Reeves. Most importantly, Hall seems a far more complex character battling with some very strong inner turmoil, when compared to the character of Neo from The Matrix, we see how real and developed Hall appears. Neo is “the one” but Hall is simply human (if that) and is vulnerable, he has no way to bend the rules of the simulated world, and his life is essentially in the hands of another.
It is also the blending of the science fiction and film noir drama which make this film so interesting, the film starts of fairly simply with a “whodunnit” storyline, but there are layers to this film’s narrative and as result you begin to notice elements upon repeat viewings, something which I personally don’t experience whilst watching The Matrix. As a result I find The Thirteenth Floor a far more rewarding experience.
What makes The Thirteenth Floor so compelling is that it discusses at great length the actual simulated world theory proposed by Nick Bostrom (which Elon Musk is a firm believer in). The idea that our world is an actual simulation, isn’t a far fetched idea considering how technology has developed at a rapid pace.
“The more likely our descendants are to be rich, long−lasting, and interested in simulating us, the more simulations of people like us we should expect there to be on average, relative to real people like us. And so the more we expect our descendants to be rich like this, the more we should expect that we are in fact living in a simulation.”
The twist of the film is that Hall’s world is also a simulation, and that Jane is from 2024, who has fallen in love with Douglas after downloading into the consciousness of a woman called Natasha Molinaro. In the end Hall’s consciousness in brought into the body of Jane’s real husband, so they can live in what appears to be a technological advance utopia, but the screen fades out like a old television set and we are left wondering whether 2024 is also a simulated world. And the film proposes the question that does reality simply exist because we perceive it is real?
The character of Ashton in The Thirteenth Floor shows us how many of us would react if we were discover the world which we inhabit is fake, and the horror of what he saw at the end of the world, is far more sinister than anything seen in The Matrix. Bostrom sums this up quite nicely in his paper, “the world we see is in some sense “real”, it is not located at the fundamental level of reality.”
The opening words uttered by Fuller, “Ignorance is bliss.” indicates that it is best not knowing about the truth of our existence, and that given the choice we would be happier just getting on with our lives, as Detective McBain (Dennis Haysbert) states at the end of the film “Do me a favor, will you? When you get back to wherever it is that you come from, just leave us all the hell alone down here, okay?” But we don’t know whether McBain will be able to function now after learning the truth, his future is unclear but there’s the possibility he may end up like Ashton, if he survives that long…
The Thirteenth Floor also offers us another disturbing thought, what happens if our creators decide to stop running the simulation. As Hall discusses with Whitney about shutting down the 1937 simulation (“They’re real.”Whitney exclaims in horror, “They have feelings, lives.”) as Bostrom discusses in his theory, if we are living a simulated world then this could happen to us at any second,
“Another possible convergence point is that almost all individual posthumans in virtually all posthuman civilizations develop in a direction where they lose their desires to run ancestor‐simulations.”
There most disturbing concept of this theory is that our descendants have become “Gods” just like Fuller and Hall have become Gods of their own simulated world of 1937 LA, (“posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation” [Bostrom, 2003]), and use the simulation to follow through on their inner desires (for example Fuller inhabits the body of Grierson in 1937 to have sex with beautiful young women), and if an individual becomes mentally unsound they may use the simulated world as their playground (this happens with the ‘real’ Hall who is actually David from 2024, who downloads into Hall’s consciousness to kill people in 1999 for fun).
Unlike the villains of The Matrix being the “machines” the actual villains of The Thirteenth Floor are human beings. We may like to pretend we are God but in actual fact we are devils. Perhaps it’s best we never discover the “truth” about our reality, remember ignorance is bliss.