In terms of originality, Thirteenth Floor is very much so. The story is loosely based on Simulacron-3, a story by Daniel Galouye, which came out years ago.
A brilliant computer engineer, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), recreates 1937 Los Angeles in the form of a startling realistic computer simulation. When he is suddenly murdered in cold blood, his friend and colleague, Douglas Hall (played by Craig Bierko), becomes the prime murder suspect. As more and more clues mount against him, Hall is becoming aware of gaps in time during which he has no recollection of his actions or whereabouts. Doubting his own innocence, Hall decides to "jack in" to the computer simulation and go to where Fuller has already been in the hopes of finding any clues to the murder. His search within the simulation along with the sudden appearance of Jane Fuller (played by Gretchen Mol), a mysterious woman who claims to be Hannon Fuller's daughter, leads Hall to a shocking revelation -- that our own world is about as real as the computer simulation that he helped to create. Hall and others who share this secret unwittingly find themselves the targets of their creators who want to make sure that their secret dies along with those who mistakenly discovered it.
The movie started off somewhat slowly, it took me ages to get into the plot. With the exception of the murder of Hannon Fuller, the intensity of the film didn't kick in until Hall entered the computer simulation for the first time. There is very little action to speak of, compared to the original Matrix (oops there I go again) but this in no way detracts from the sophistication of the movie. "The Thirteenth Floor" is not an action film anyway; it’s essentially a murder/mystery with a science fiction/techno twist. It's more intellectual than the typical summer movie fare, making it a refreshing change of pace amidst a sea of blockbuster effects movies. Many of the sets used for the ‘present day’ are somewhat lacking, but the sets used for 1930s Los Angeles are striking. As Hall looks around in wonder at what is around him, you are doing the same thing.
The premise and the plot of this film were well thought out. The premise is an interesting and original one -- thousands of simulated worlds, including ours, have been created and modeled after a real world by real people. And the plot unfolds in a gradual and suspenseful manner, teasing the viewer with a succession of clues that hint at a grander scheme of things that isn't revealed until near the very end. It is this succession of clues -- from Fuller recognizing his killer, to Hall discovering his bloody shirt, to Fuller's phone call to Hall, to Hall finding out about the revealing letter in the computer simulated world, to the mysterious appearance of Jane Fuller, and to Hall's revelation that our own world is a simulation as he stares at an incomplete virtual landscape -- that keeps the viewer's interest. The acting is exceptional all around. One good test of an actor is their ability to play multiple roles. The challenge here was to play them in the same film. Craig Bierko, Vincent D'Onofrio and Gretchen Mol pulled it off wonderfully. Vincent D'Onofrio’s two roles included a timid and nervous computer programmer and a ruthless and paranoid bartender. These dual roles richly added to the tension of the film as it delved deeper into the story. The transition from one character to the other was a great vehicle for suspense, which occurred in the form of a character "jacking into", or taking over the consciousness of that character's alternate persona in the computer simulation. As the person jacks in, the eyes of the target character were given a cool hypnotic swirling effect to indicate the exact instant of consciousness transfer. The ending made clever use of this transfer, explaining earlier in the film that if a person is jacked in to the computer simulation and their computer character dies, then the consciousness of the computer character stays with the body in the real world. During the elevator ride up to the 13th floor where Hall and the bartender are in the elevator at the same time, Hall's eyes suddenly become a hypnotic swirl, indicating that somebody else has jacked into his consciousness. After the consciousness transfer, a wicked grin forms on his face, effectively heightening the tension of the seemingly harmless elevator ride. Each time that these consciousness transfers occur, as indicated by the eyes, the all-important cool factor of the film is elevated just a little bit more This allowed Douglas Hall to permanently escape the computer simulation and become a part of the real world with Jane Fuller. One of the more clever twists occurred when the bartender in the simulation, Whitney's alternate persona (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), made the accidental discovery that his world is just a computer simulation.
The most memorable moment, due to its immense impact on the plot, was the scene where Douglas Hall drives through the barricade, gets out of his car and sees the incomplete virtual landscape in the distance. This is the defining moment of the film, where Hall confirms his suspicions that our world as we know it is simply a computer simulation of another. His revelation changed the entire tone of the movie. There was also a memorable scene that finely displayed the ruthless nature of Hall's user, Jane Fuller's husband in the real world. It occurs after Hall and the bartender exit the elevator and enter the room full of computer banks that house the simulation of 1937 Los Angeles. The spiritual rush of being in the place of his creation, overwhelms the bartender and cries out, "So this is where I was born." Hall's user coolly raises his gun and fires a single shot through the bartender's chest. "And this is where you die," Hall's user calmly states without a hint of remorse. Classic bad guy.
(Sorry I have to mention The Matrix one more time). It is too bad that the Thirteenth Floor came out after The Matrix. In a summer (1997) filled with stories that seem to feed off each other, The Thirteenth Floor definitely lost out. The Matrix was a lot flashier, with many special effects, more fast paced and action oriented. It was (forgive the pun) ‘inevitable’ that The Matrix came out on top.