The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

By Lucy Mainwaring-Parr, Criminology Second Year.

Last year, I attended my first Café Scientifique – a series of science-based seminars hosted by St John’s College. I am, admittedly, not a scientist, so I had avoided the talks so far, but I found the talk to spark much consideration. The discussion was based around the simulation hypothesis. At first glance, I hadn’t considered the topic relevant to my degree in social sciences or my interest in the arts.

However, I began to realise how much of a founding trope the hypothesis was, not only in philosophy, but also in cinema. The hypothesis suggests that the world we are living in and observing may be a simulation: either we also exist in another life, or we are being manipulated by forces beyond our understanding. This concept can be observed in Hollywood hits like the Wachowskis’ Matrix (1999), Nolan’s Inception (2010), or the more recently revived hit HBO series Westworld, which continues on from the 1976 prequel Futureworld through video games. Upon realising how popular this trope was in cinema, I explored further and was encouraged by Miro Cafolla who runs the Café Scientifique to watch Rusnak’s (1999) The Thirteenth Floor.

how do we behave if we believe nothing truly matters in our reality?

The film follows the character of Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) – a business partner for a technological film who have developed a simulation programme which will transport the user’s consciousness to an avatar of themselves in 1937 California. This development is hidden away on the allusive thirteenth floor. One morning, Hall is approached by a detective who explains that his business partner, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), has been found stabbed to death outside a bar in the city. The trail of evidence indicates Hall as the potential murderer.

The film features cult graphics of 90s Hollywood sci-fi, which visually contrasts with the depiction of 1937: illuminated neon geometrical designs are set against the sepia lens of smoky ill-lit rooms. The Thirteenth Floor is clever, if you can forgive the dated portrayal of technology and characters who seem, at times, to not have been fully-developed by the writers. This film can be considered a predecessor to Nolan’s Inception, presenting the moral dilemmas raised by the simulation hypothesis: how do we behave if we believe nothing truly matters in our reality? How do we treat the idealised avatars of ourselves and those we know?

Portrayal and reality are distinct concepts; the simulation hypothesis encourages us to question our interpretation of the two.

Whilst there is no current winning argument amongst physicians as to the origins of our own interpretation of reality, the simulation hypothesis has provided lasting inspiration for artists, authors and film makers, as I’m convinced it will continue to in a world in which the relevance of technological manipulation is significantly increasing. Through technology, we can now control the consciousness of multiple avatars, as well as actually manipulate portrayals of ourselves via our social media presence. Portrayal and reality are distinct concepts; the simulation hypothesis encourages us to question our interpretation of the two. The Thirteenth Floor, among other films, challenges the audience to question the role of the individual’s freewill, if societal constraints and public morality were to be dismissed.

Lucy is a second year Criminologist at St John’s. Alongside writing film reviews for the John’s Chronicle’s Arts & Culture category, she is the Charities Liaison Officer and St John’s College rep for Durham for Dignity in Dying society. Lucy is also a Fairtrade rep for St John’s College, as well as having had a hand in the running of St John’s College Charity Fashion Show this summer as she is an enthusiast for sustainable fashion and living.

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