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(February 2002)

Knock knock.
The Thirteenth Floor - The End of The WorldKnock on your desk, or knock on your table, or knock on wherever your monitor is sitting. Is it solid? Is it real? Does it really exist? In 1999 the nature of existence was in question – at least in the movies. Probably, in good part, because of the upcoming millennium, metaphysical or more precisely metamechanical analysis of ‘all that there is’ was in vogue. Not one, not two, but three different science fiction movies were released all dealing with the question of the nature of reality. In alphabetical order they were: eXistenZ, The Matrix, and The Thirteenth Floor. Coincidentally, this is the same order that we at The Toast view them for quality, depth of meaning, and enduring interest.

Carrie-Anne MossThe Matrix was the first out of the gate and wowed us with spectacular special effects and non-stop action. Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry) and starring the unique Keanu Reeves, gorgeous newcomer Carrie-Anne Moss, and the always-reliable Laurence Fishburne, this was one fun, kick-ass movie! So, we are all batteries in some cyber-intelligent, AI machine. Wouldn’t cows make better batteries? The “real” world illusions generated to keep the batteries occupied would be much simpler for bovines – just some green grass and sunshine - than for humans; the matrix of reality that we believe is our existence – that massive computer power could be used for other things and the need for sunglass-wearing, black-coated ‘Agents’ would be eliminated. Would you need kung-fu fighting to keep an errant cow in line? Of course we would miss the great running-up-the wall fighting by the cool Carrie-Anne.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a daring actor. Rarely does she take simple or easy roles. From the school girl looking for someone to deflower her in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), to the dissolute, self-destructive Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), to the brilliant, biting and lonely Dorothy Parker in Jude Law & Jennifer Jason Leigh Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle (1994), and to writer/producer/director and star of last year’s terrific The Anniversary Party, J.J. Leigh is a “fearless adventurer in extreme roles” (as Roger Ebert calls her). EXistenZ arrived in the theatres a few weeks after The Matrix. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a top game designer of, what else, virtual reality games. Along with Jude Law as her would-be rescuer and in-game companion, she enters her own new game called eXistenZ. Directed by David Cronenberg, that wild Canadian maker of decadent, odd-ball horror films, this is our favorite is-it-real-or-are-we-inside movie. It’s squishy mixture of the organic and the mechanical (a favorite Cronenberg theme) has us squirming in our seats.

The Thirteenth Floor (not to be confused with the Australian horror film The 13th Floor made a decade earlier) was, in our view, the weakest of the lot. That it was the last of the three to be released may haveGretchen Mol been part of the problem. Alternative universes and parallel worlds had been dealt with - first in The Matrix, then in eXistenZ. By the time this movie rolled around we were satiated with the ‘real-world-is-an-illusion’ theme. That said The Thirteenth Floor does have some things going for it. Unlike The Matrix, which was made for the action crowd and eXistenZ, aimed at the horror crowd, this movie was almost devoid of special effects. Instead, it was a thoughtful examination of the dangers of virtual reality that proved very satisfying to true science fiction lovers. There were also some fine performances including a nice turn by Gretchen Moll in the dual role of a gum-chewing, trailer-trash-like supermarket clerk, and the beautiful, elegant mystery woman who may be the key to the whole thing. Vincent d’Onofrio gives his usual excellent work as a very nasty villain.

Postscript 2013 - As the years have past this movie, The Thirteenth Floor, has grown on us. So much so that it's now one of The Toast's favorite "Comfort Movie"

This whole genre of ‘what-is-real-what-isn’t’ rips off the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick without giving him much credit (read his novel Time Out of Joint), and in 1998 the movie Dark City covered the same things a lot better than these three. However, 1999 was almost the turn of the decade/ century/ millennium and the very human need to take out our soul and ask what it all means (as well as ‘what is real’) was taken care of in some small way by these movies. Knock knock.

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