*I assume here, kind reader, that you've at least seen The Matrix, so if you have not...then there may be a spoiler here. I won't spoil any important details for The 13th Floor though as few people have seen it...
So I recently watched The 13th Floor again, since first seeing it probably 10 years ago (I'd heard it mentioned in a brilliant podcast that I listen to). And though I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen The Matrix, the most recent time was probably a few months ago when it was on tv. Both films were released in 1999, by competing film houses, and both explore the concept of virtual worlds. It's interesting to compare how each film has fared now that over a decade has passed.
Surprisingly, even though The Matrix had a budget of 63 million, as opposed to 16 million for The 13th Floor, it's the latter film that has stood the test of time visually. The CGI in The Matrix- which was very ambitious at the time- looks really obvious now, whereas the more subtle effects used in The 13th Floor haven't really dated at all.
Most of the acting in The 13th Floor is better than The Matrix too. Both of the protagonists are computer programmers, though these days the rich, successful Douglas Hall from The 13th Floor seems more realistic than the genius-level-programmer-working-at-mundane-cubicle described by Thomas Anderson in The Matrix. Craig Bierko's classical/musical training shows when you contrast it with Keanu Reeves' monotone. As for supporting roles both films are a mixed bag- Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, The Game, Eastern Promises) is wonderful as the brilliant A.I researcher Hannon Fuller, but Dennis Haysbert (the grill chef from Heat) wasn't able to convince in his role as detective McBain.
The thing about the two films though is that The Matrix is really just an awesome action movie with a backdrop that happens to be kind of philosophically interesting. The 13th Floor is more a pure sci-fi film which uses a murder-mystery plot device to keep the story going. As a result, on a scene-by-scene basis The 13th Floor doesn't have anything as memorable as the excellently choreographed fight-scenes and shoot-outs of The Matrix. What The 13th Floor does have though is a series of very interesting question throughout the film- can consciousness emerge digitally? Would we have ethical obligations to digital forms of consciousness? If we talk about levels of reality, then is one more real than the other? How would you know whether you were living in a simulation?
Whereas The Matrix asks the question "could your world be an illusion?" and then proceeds to answer by judo-chopping you in the throat. I like both films plenty, but after revisiting them both I have to say that The 13th Floor is my preferred film when it comes to making me think, and I suspect it'd be the best coffee-shop, hand-waving material as well.
Funnily enough, the closest analogy for the differences between these films that I can think of occured just a year before they were released- I'm talking about when Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line came out in 1998.
Both are war films, but whereas Spielberg's film was more about the visual horror of war, Terry Malick's masterpiece delved deeper into the nature of man.
By the way, whilst I suspect that we might be able to produce photo-realistic graphics that are rendered in real-time within the next 10-20 years, actually having an interface that interacts with your brain in such a way as to convince you that you're in that environment is something I can't see happening for a real long time, as it's more in the real of neuroscience than computer science. And neuroscientists don't seem to enjoy the same speed of progress as computer scientists.