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The Matrix vs. The Thirteenth Floor

Updated: Jun 15

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, I’m about to simulate a battle between two great 1999 movies. On one corner (offering you a red pill) is the movie that brought the Matrix theory to the forefront. On the other (blue pill) is the film that presented the simulation inside a simulation theory. Ready? Fight!

This is the Science of Fiction.

There will be SPOILERS. (Although it’s been 25 years. I think we’re safe.)

OK, let’s be honest: if this were a popularity contest, there would be no doubt who the winner was. The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix premiered in the U.S. within a week of each other, and the latter dominated the box office. The real question is: why? After all, they both have simulations; both were inspired by acclaimed sci-fi novels; both were nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film that year…

So why?

The Thirteenth Floor, directed by Josef Rusnak and inspired by the 1964 novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, takes a neo-noir approach to present the simulation trope. A billionaire creates a virtual reality setting to escape reality once in a while. This virtual reality has characters that are unaware they are inside a simulation. When the billionaire is murdered, his son-in-law (and heir to the deceased’s company) becomes the prime suspect, and the evidence against him is overwhelming. And somehow, the clues to this mystery are inside the simulation.

Meanwhile, The Matrix, directed by the Wachowskis sisters and inspired by the 1984 novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, has a cyberpunk vibe. It is set in a dystopic future when humans are trapped inside a simulation by machines who harvest energy from the people. A group of humans get free from the Matrix to form a rebellion against the machines.

Posters of the movies The Matrix and The 13th Floor

Simulation theory: which did better?

Even though both two movies involve simulation, they deal with it differently. 

If we can simulate the whole universe, then we are likely to be a simulation ourselves. 

In The 13th Floor, we explore this idea of infinite simulation regression with a twist. The simulated reality has conscious simulated humans. The characters outside can join the virtual reality by adopting the lives of playable characters, overriding their consciousness. What happens to the playable character’s consciousness when the player enters virtual reality? Well, I’m glad you asked. 

In the movie, the player and the characters change minds, with the player living inside the simulation and the character assuming the player’s lives in the “real world.” By now, you should guess why real world is in between quotes in the previous sentence. Yes, the real world is also a simulation that, in the end, the player managed to escape to another reality in which his own is a mere simulation!

Exciting, right? This is one version of the multiverse theory, in which each iteration of the simulation is a different universe, and the player navigates through them in the story.

If we are in a simulation, we can hack its rules.

This is the idea explored in The Matrix. Any simulation has a predetermined set of rules that are either incomplete or paradoxical, according to Mr. Kurt Gödel. And thus, it has holes that can be exploited to our advantage. We can, for example, hack reality to learn Kung Fu or how to fly a helicopter.

This is also a super thrilling idea! To explore the limits of reality by hacking the simulation is the sci-fi version of a magic system or supernatural abilities.


I have to concede a tie for this category. The simulation trope was done right in both.

Worldbuilding: which did better?

Neo-noir crime thriller or dystopic cyberpunk action thriller?

When it comes to style, the sci-fi community loves dystopia and cyberpunk more. These are established sub-genres of science fiction, while neo-noir is merely a stylistic choice. Crime thrillers have a genre of their own and are not always speculative in nature. Their fanbase only sometimes coincides with sci-fi lovers. 

However, I think the distinction between The Matrix and The 13th Floor goes beyond style. The Matrix took the opportunity the theme provided to add several commentaries on topics that afflict society today, drawing inspiration from philosophy and religion to tackle the issues of alienation and freedom. 

The Thirteenth Floor, on the other hand, did not delve much into philosophical and social themes (despite the opportunity being right there with the death of the billionaire, lol). It focused solely on the crime-solving plot points when it could have explored themes such as the meaning of consciousness, dealing with guilt, or whether exchanging consciousness would imply stealing identities, etc. It is by no means a bad movie. It just could have been much better. 

The overall production is also an advantage for The Matrix. The Thirteenth Floor special effects are no match for the blockbuster’s revolutionary action-packed scenes and CGI effects.

Point to The Matrix.


That’s it for today, folks. 

In this simulated battle, The Matrix took the lead.

If we are a simulation, would you try to access the other simulated realities that spawned ours, or would you try to hack the matrix? Let me know in the comments.

Scene from The Matrix: red pill vs. blue pill.
Red pill or blue pill?

See you next post,



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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Jerry Davis
Jerry Davis

I'd hack the matrix. A few times in my life I think I actually succeeded. 😎

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