Bargain basement

Movie: The Thirteenth Floor

Our Rating: 2.00

The kids, they just can't get enough of this virtual-reality thing. But even an audience presold on cyberpunk sleight-of-hand won't want to get off on "The Thirteenth Floor," where a veritable dollar store of cut-rate sci-fi clichés awaits.

Marked down and ready to take home is second-hand hero Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), an embattled computer technician. A pioneer in the whiz-bang field of VR technology, Hall gradually discovers that his company's pet project has sinister underpinnings. The three-dimensional playground the firm has created has begun to intrude upon our own plane of being, with results that are as fatal as they are predictable.

Soon, Hall himself is wanted for the time-tested Murder He Did Not Commit, though he still has time to find love with a mystery woman (Gretchen Mol) who may or may not be the daughter of his slain boss.

It's a scenario we've bought countless times before, but from far slicker salesmen. The holographic world in question is a pinpoint replica of the America of the 1930s, allowing the film's creative team to rely on existing backlot sets instead of building costly alien landscapes from scratch. Nearly every one of the few characters we meet has an exact double on the Other Side, thus reducing "The Thirteenth Floor's" talent payroll by about half.

For his part, Bierko stammers and stumbles his way through the cheeseball pursuit like a poor man's Jeff Goldblum circa "The Fly." Or "Independence Day." Or -- well, you get the idea.

For a while, it seems as if the obvious lack of ambition may amount to some sort of backhanded virtue. The German-American co-production is mostly (and blessedly) free from special-effects showiness and brain-blasting THX sound. But there's ultimately no confusing the admirably restrained with the merely penny-ante.

Ten years ago, "The Thirteenth Floor" might have ended up as nothing more than a forgettable segment of TV's "Amazing Stories" (which itself was a Brand-X knockoff of "The Twilight Zone"). In 1999, however, low-venture, fantasy-fueled pap gets sent straight to theaters. For a week or two, at least.


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