Aug 17, 2021
Movie Duel: The Thirteenth Floor vs. eXistenZ
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
It’s said that during the 1903 premiere of The Great Train Robbery, the spellbound audience ducked when the train chugged directly at the camera, seemingly about to run them over, and screamed when Justus Barnes pointed his gun at them and fired. This may or may not have happened, but the illustrative value of this story remains: the medium of film literally constitutes a means of simulating reality. We don’t often think about it this way, but the language we use to talk about movies betrays us. We often discuss an actor’s performance in terms of drawing us in, making us forget they’re pretending; about whether or not they’re “believable”. We talk about production design looking “authentic”. Cinematography looking “natural”. Dialogue sounding “true-to-life”. Special effects looking “realistic”.
One of the reasons we don’t talk about movies as a means of reality simulation is that we have much better ways to do it these days. About 90 years after The Great Train Robbery, some of those methods have become hot commodities as movie themes.
Virtual reality was of particular interest—not necessarily because the contemporary breakthroughs in VR technology were so promising…
…but because of a parallel development: the internet. This was subtler and much more radical. Where VR promised a perfectly artificial sensory experience, it was the internet that encouraged us to actually transfer aspects of our real lives into the virtual realm. I remember one of the first TV commercials for America Online, in which a harried working mother laments having to go shopping, take Junior to the library to research dinosaurs for his school project, and send Grandma a birthday card… only for her helpful friend to tell her that she can complete all these errands at home using her boxy, noisy ’90s PC. Twenty-some years later, we can use the internet to attend classes, court a mate, and sabotage a foreign country’s election. What a time to be alive.
1999 saw the release of two virtual reality-inspired movies (well, besides that other one). The Thirteenth Floor features nondescript computer employee Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) who works at a nameless company run by his elderly mentor Harmon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who’s secretly beta-testing a virtual reality game based on 1930s Los Angeles. Fuller is murdered, Hall has no recollection of the night in question, and Fuller’s previously unheard-of daughter Jane (Gretchen Mol) arrives to take control of her father’s company. A bartender who claims to have seen Hall murder Fuller and later come to Hall for blackmail purposes also turns up dead. To clear his name, Hall must locate a letter Fuller left for him in the 1930s simulation, which contains the bombshell revelation that the 1990s Los Angeles he lives in is itself a simulation.
Jane admits to Hall that Fuller has no daughter, and that she really comes from 2024 (the “real” world). Her father, upon which Fuller’s character is modeled, created thousands of virtual worlds, but Hall’s world is the only one to have created a virtual world within itself. She posed as Fuller’s daughter to keep the 1990s simulation from realizing its nature as a simulation, but matters were complicated by the fact that the 1930s bartender Fuller entrusted with the letter (a criminally underused Vincent D’Onofrio) read the letter and figured out everything. Meanwhile, Jane’s real-world husband, who’s been jumping into Hall’s body to commit the murders he’s been accused of, wants to kill him and Jane over their virtual affair.
The plot sounds convoluted, but it all plays out relatively straightforward, and it’s a damn shame. The strongest mark in The Thirteenth Floor’s favor—its gorgeously realized, seamy 1930s underworld—becomes an albatross around its neck, saddling it with all sorts of noir conceits that it doesn’t know what to do with. It wants to have an involving mystery based on a circuitous conspiracy and propelled ahead by the various desires, depravities, and self-interests of its characters, but it fails because a) all the elements of mystery are resolved almost as soon as they’re introduced, and b) the characters are too flat and their motivations too half-formed to figure convincingly into the prebuilt structure the movie lays out for them. Vincent D’Onofrio’s bartender (and his 1990s counterpart, a nerdy computer programmer) is the “double-crossing rat” character, but we’re not given the barest inkling of a motivation for him to do so. Jane is clearly supposed to be the femme fatale, but she lacks the compelling duplicity that these kinds of characters usually have, and she and Hall have all the sexual chemistry of two wrestling mudskippers.
On another level altogether is eXistenZ, written and directed by body-horror king David Cronenberg. Its protagonist Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a designer of virtual reality games for Antenna Research, and in the literal crosshairs of both rival company Cortical Systems and a group of anti-VR terrorists called Realists. While focus-grouping her new game eXistenZ, Allegra survives an attempt on her life by Realists and has to go on the run with nerdy marketing intern Ted Pikul (Jude Law, making a heroic attempt at a Canadian accent). Her biomechanical game pod, which contains the only copy of the game, is damaged. She and Ted seek the help of various underworld figures before finally figuring out a way to access the pod with the help of Ted, who’s a total VR noob.
The VR technology of The Thirteenth Floor is cool and sterile; a room of smooth computer stacks and gleaming green lasers which scan your brain and transport your mental essence to the simulation. eXistenZ pulses with biological energy: The combination game console/controller looks like a gigantic human embryo. We learn each pod is actually made from the nerves and organs of genetically-engineered amphibians, which sometimes escape and infest the environment. The user connects to the pod via an artificial umbilical cord that jacks into a decidedly anus-like port at the base of the spine. Unlike The Thirteenth Floor, in the world of eXistenZ reality and unreality are not separate realms, but organisms that act in symbiosis, each giving to, taking from, and at times infecting the other.
This isn’t the only way the two movies approach their main theme from opposite directions. The simulated characters in The Thirteenth Floor have independent mental existences. The user enters the simulation by taking control of an existing character within it, and both the hijacked character and the “NPCs” notice when this happens. The character experiences memory blanks during the time they’re being played (barring a bit of déjà vu and the occasional flashback), and the other simulated people are quite capable of detecting their out-of-character behavior. (All of which seems like a gigantic oversight for a simulation that’s designed for people to use it in exactly this way, but whatever.)
By comparison, the NPCs in eXistenZ are total dum-dums. They mainly just tool around their assigned areas; they have limited conversational abilities, and repeat the same behavior and dialogue loops until the PC says the magic phrase that moves the storyline forward. Even the players themselves have a limited scope of independent action while inside the game: Ted periodically experiences urges to do or say something he would never normally do, but which his character would. Allegra, the seasoned gamer, advises him not to fight these urges, as they move the game along. “Free will is obviously not a big factor in this world of ours,” remarks Ted. “It’s like real life,” Allegra answers, “there’s just enough to make it interesting.” The two even joylessly sleep together at one point, remarking as they do so that it’s a pretty hackneyed way to heighten the emotional stakes.
The middle act of eXistenZ is the kind of violent, confusing mystery—with double agents, secret identities, and long hallucinatory passages of dubious provenance—that honestly would have served the noir-y aspirations of The Thirteenth Floor a lot better than the plot it got. I don’t honestly think I could recap all the twists and turns in a succinct and faithful manner, but as it turns out, I don’t really need to, because the main plot also takes place in another level of simulation. Ted, Allegra, and everyone they’ve met so far are regular people play-testing a VR game called tranCendenZ. The game’s designer (Don McKellar) talks with his assistant about the game’s disturbing anti-VR subtext, which he hypothesizes might be a subconscious introduction from one of the participants. His hunch is borne out when Allegra and Ted (or whatever they’re called in this world) kill them both, revealing themselves as secret Realist agents. Another potential victim pleads for his life before thinking to ask whether this is merely another level of the game, ending the movie on an ambiguous note.
This twist illustrates yet another difference between the two movie’s approaches. As much as it fails as a noir movie, The Thirteenth Floor fails even harder as a sci-fi feature, because it doesn’t try to engage with any of the questions you would at least want a movie like this to take a crack at. What is the essential nature of reality? Beats me. What are the consequences of spending time in a fake world? Who knows? What are the ethical considerations inherent in keeping thinking, self-aware beings in thrall for your amusement? Does anyone care? There’s nothing for the viewer to grapple with, nothing to excite the brain, and nothing to apply to the viewer’s own life. What a waste.
Not so in eXistenZ. The medium of film being, as I mentioned earlier, a simulated reality itself, many of the best movies about simulated reality have heavy metafictional elements to them. Viewed through this lens, eXistenZ becomes a way for David Cronenberg to meditate upon his own body of work. Much as the players of tranCendenZ bring something of their own deepest essences to the game, the criticisms Cronenberg has internalized over his career—due to his inaccessible characters, inchoate story pacing, and indulgent reliance on disgusting bio-horrors—are all brought to the surface and exorcised. By this process, the flaws of eXistenZ become its features. The movie is weird, confusing, and austerely fatalistic by design, because it wants to show us those qualities which occur at the intersection of reality and unreality, life and machine, person and person.