Bad weather has trapped you in the house, and it's getting darker outside every day. You're feeling depressed and crazy. What you need is a dose of dystopian cinema that's all about how the dark world you inhabit is just the product of some AI's fevered imagination. io9 always wants to make you feel worse, so we've put together a triple bill of surreal techno-schizo flicks to serve as your Yule Log of dispair. You've probably seen The Matrix, but have you seen its smarter, more obscure step-sisters?
Dark City appeared one year before The Matrix, in 1998, and The Thirteenth Floor went up against the Keanu Reeves whoa-fest in 1999. The Matrix ultimately won that battle, but is it really the best of the bunch?
Dark City: John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a strange city with no memories, and finds himself being sought by the police for a crime he may or may not have committed. He starts being investigated by a detective (William Hurt), and along the way he comes into contact with a strange Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who offers him help, and eventually he discovers that he's living in a false reality. A group of humanoid alien parasites called The Strangers have been manipulating reality in an attempt to study humans and find out what makes them tick, so to speak. They stop the city, including the humans, every night at midnight at alter their world, injecting new fake memories and changing the landscape around them.
The Thirteenth Floor: This one is a bit of a brainbender, and we'll do our best to whittle it down to the basics. Basically, at some point in the not-so-distant future, mankind has invented the ability to create perfect virtual reality simulations, complete with sentient artificial intelligent inhabitants. The CEO of the company, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) visits Los Angeles in 1937 through the VR and is leaves a note for someone at a bar. When he travels back to the apparent future in the 1990s, he is murdered in cold blood after waking up.
Enter Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) who awakes one morning to find himself covered in blood, and later becomes a suspect for his boss Fuller's murder, chased by a 1990s detective (Dennis Haysbert). Now, here's where it all goes sideways. Hall starts entering the 1937 VR in an attempt to find out why Fuller was murdered, and inside that VR he "inhabits" a man named Douglas Ferguson. So, you have Craig Bierko, later joined by Vincent D'onofrio and Gretchen Mol hopping from the 1990s to 1937, trying to unravel the murder.
But then it gets weirder.
The Matrix: After reading about Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix should sound pretty familiar. Loner hacker Neo begins getting strange messages, and soon finds out that he's living inside of a false reality. His real body exists in a cocoon-like pop while armies of sentient machines harvest the bioelectric energy of his and millions of other bodies in a desolate world bathed in perpetual darkness.
Neo is pulled out of his false existence by the prophecy-spouting Morpheus, and soon discovers that he has the ability to fight both the machines and their VR counterparts who operate inside the simulated "matrix," which is presented as the present-day world we live in. Through a computer interface, Neo is able to have new memories and abilities implanted directly into his brain, which affect what he can do inside the matrix. Through Morpheus' coaxing, he discovers that he has innate abilities that might allow him to give humanity the upper hand.
Throughout the film, Neo is pursued by a black-suited "Agent Smith," who looks like he stepped right out of the FBI/CIA rank and file. He might not be real, but he's represents both a threat to Neo's freedom as Mr. Anderson in the beginning of the film, and a dark end for humankind once we see who he represents.
By the end of the film, he's realized his abilities and turns tables on the machines in an effort to free humanity from being slaves, although he is unable to save them from the two painful sequels that followed.
While The Matrix may have been the big winner at the box office, The Thirteenth Floor really shows off the bizarre possibilities of virtual reality, while Dark City does a great job showing how injected memories could work. A couple of squirts from a syringe and you're a completely new man.
However, they all boil down to a basic gumshoe plot at bottom of the barrel. In Dark City, the hero gets pursued by William Hurt, who has a conscience and eventually helps him out, where The Thirteenth Floor features Dennis Haysbert as the badge with a heart who knows something else is up, and in The Matrix the agents/Feds are initially using Neo/Mr. Anderson as leverage in an attempt to find Morpheus in association with "dangerous crimes" he has committed.
In our opinion,The Matrix is the weakest of the bunch, and these other two films deserve a much closer look, although we'd give our left arm to never see a Darker City or a The Fourteenth Floor.