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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'13th Floor' Rises Above Low Budget

If you're hankering for a sci-fi flick, but don't fancy nipping down to a Kurskaya kiosk to pick up the latest low-quality bootleg of "The Phantom Menace" or "The Matrix," then "The Thirteenth Floor," now showing at the American House of Cinema (on actual celluloid) might be your cup of tea.

To be sure, "Thirteenth" is a lesser, lower-budget cousin of those two box-office behemoths now holding sway in Western cinemas. But you might find its lack of ultra-advanced gimmickry has a kind of homely virtue in these menacing days of digital dazzle. For although "Thirteenth" boasts its share of wizardry, there are a few scenes in the movie that weren't shot in front of a blue screen, with actors mouthing or laser-jousting at the empty air.

Actually, "The Thirteenth Floor," directed by Josef Rusnak, bears a passing resemblance to "The Matrix" (and the David Cronenberg cyber-chiller "eXistenZ"), at least in the broad outlines of its plot. It concerns the creation of a virtual reality world wired into the actual reality world with murderous results. In "Thirteenth," however, the confusion of realms has an added dimension: time. For the virtual world devised by computer tycoon Hannon Fuller (Armin M?ller-Stahl) is a simulacrum of vintage 1937 Los Angeles - elegantly decadent, sexy "Chinatown" L.A. Thus the world-jumping characters have to negotiate a tricky change of historical eras as well.

Hannon's virtual L.A. has become his playground. He goes there to "interact" with comely "units" and gets it on with the cybervixens.

Unfortunately, he is murdered in the real world one day, and his right-hand man, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) wakes up with blood on his clothes, unable to remember how it got there. He suspects the answer to Hannon's murder lies somewhere in the virtual past, and begins making risky forays there to discover the truth.

A bewildering array of complications ensue. For one thing, most of the "real world" characters have been used by the computer designers to help form the "units" of the virtual city; thus the "real" people have counterparts in the computer world - doubles who often have different personalities and agendas from their progenitors. To make matters worse, Douglas is being investigated by real world detectives. And a woman claiming to be Hannon's long-lost daughter, Jane (Gretchen Mol), shows up, threatening to shut down the company while fluttering our hero's loincloth, as it were.

As if that's not enough, the personalities of the doubles begin mixing and emerging in unexpected ways as identities and certainties begin to crumble.

Which is the real "me"? Which is the real world? In which of these constructed realities of ours can authentic existence be found?

"The Thirteenth Floor" raises several such fascinating speculations. It's not really interested in pursuing them, and it seems scattered in its focus - is it a murder mystery? Cyber sci-fi? Time travel adventure? Love story?

Despite this, it goes about its modest business with a sense of style. The cast is a good one, too. In addition to M?ller-Stahl, who has given tremendous performances in "Shine," "The Music Box," and "Avalon," among many others, the film gets nice work from Mol and Vincent D'Onoforio.

You might find that "Thirteenth" tends to buckle under the weight of its complications. It's got so much plot to fit in that it doesn't have time to fully explore some of the intriguing characters and situations it introduces. Still, it should hold your interest well enough, until the big bad blockbusters hit town.

- Chris Floyd