Film: Cypher

It didn’t surprise me in the slighest to learn, after the fact, that Cypher (2002) is the follow-up film from the director of the original Cube, Vincenzo Natali. They’re similar projects: modestly budgeted, inventive, dark, and plot-driven, films that love toying with and twisting around their clever premises. While Cypher is cold and perhaps too affected at times, it’s also well acted and produced, a unique and interesting idea movie.

Jeremy Northam delivers a quirky performance as Morgan Sullivan, a daydreaming average joe who lands an exciting new dream job as a corporate spy for Digicorp. His mission is to gather intelligence from middle-American business conferences under the alias Jack Thursby. Sullivan thoroughly enjoys his new jet-setting life, inventing an adventurous new persona for Thursby as he carries out his rather simple missions. But his irresistable attraction to another convention-goer, Rita Foster (Lucy Liu), slowly peels away a hidden truth: his situation is considerably more complicated than it looks. He soon discovers he’s less an agent than a pawn, caught in a dangerous cold war between rival corporations and increasingly confused as to his own agenda.

Cypher is an attractive, low-key, intriguing experiment that I found mostly effective. The script revels in its twists and turns, and even when they’re quite predictable — as some of them are, alas — it’s still fun to watch them play out. Natali’s direction betrays some obvious filmic influences — a Terry Gilliam eyeball kick here, a bizarre David Lynch close-up there — that at times feel derivative, but otherwise make for a visually striking project. Meanwhile the switchbacking spy plot jives nicely with offbeat, futuristic skiffy trappings that should resonate with Philip K. Dick fans. Indeed, Northam’s baffled hero could be right out of a Dick novel, wrestling throughout with identity crises and reality confusion.

It’s no masterpiece, and unfortunately (as is perhaps often the case in this kind of film) the mysterious build-up is more interesting than the revelatory payoff. But it’s worth watching, a neat little genre mashup that goes interesting places.

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