Cube director Natali returns with a brainwashing sci-fi thriller that's almost a classic.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 09 Sep 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Five years after wowing the sci-fi community with his stark, minimalist yet highly inventive Cube, director Vincenzo Natali finally returns to the big screen with another brain-bending outing in the shape of Cypher; an identity-swapping sci-fi thriller of the kind Philip K. Dick would doubtless revel in were he still alive today. Dumping the scientific pretentiousness of his first movie, Natali works instead from a tight script by Brian King that has very little fat and a whole lot of twisting goin' on.

Jeremy Northam plays Morgan Sullivan, a quiet, hen-pecked everyman who works in sales and leads a very unassuming life. Unassuming, that is, until he approaches corporate monolith Digicorp looking for a job as an industrial spy. Put through a futuristic lithograph test (the kind where pictures of your brain flash randomly on a computer screen - disappointingly lazy), Sullivan is offered the job and given a pen containing a listening device and a transmitter. His super-secret assignment? Go to numerous sales conventions and record the main speaker's performance so that Digicorp can listen in. Hardly James Bond levels of intrigue, but he is assured by Digicorp that his job is of crucial importance. He is also given the new monicker of Jack Thursby, and is told in no uncertain terms that at no point should he refer to himself by his old name.

As his last-minute notice of departures begins to put a strain on his already torrid homelife, Sullivan (or rather Thursby) seeks the company of the mysterious Rita (Lucy Liu), an attractive young woman he spies at the hotel bar during a particularly mundane convention. After spying his wedding ring, Rita leaves Jack's company only to contact him later that evening, warning him that not all is as it seems. She tells him Digicorp are using him as part of a brainwashing experiment to produce the perfect spy, and that the conventions are a front during which the entire audience is being subjected to subliminal conditioning. Ordered to take pills that will suppress Digicorp's drugs, Jack is sent in to another sales lecture and is indeed witness to the zombie-like crowd being made to wear funky metal head arrays that flash all manner of mind-formatting junk into the recipient's eyes. How sinister.

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The experiment is designed to create a spy who can pass the lithograph test used by Digicorp's rival Sunways without detection, simply by convincing the individual that they are in fact someone else. When he is sent to Sunways by Digicorp, the now savvy Thursby (though technically he's back to being Sullivan) is rumbled by Sunways' top man Calloway (Timothy Webber), but instead of taking two in the back of the head is offered a chance to redeem himself by becoming a double agent and working for Sunways against Digicorp. Following this? I hope so. Calloway asks him to replace the disc of information he was supposed to snatch from Sunways with a bogus disc containing a virus that, when activated by Digicorp, will allow Sunways access to their top-secret data facility known as The Vault.

Thursby accepts, but realising he is in way over his head seeks Rita's help. Initially dismissive, Rita, who we now learn is working for a faceless, enigmatic billionaire called Sebastian Rooks (how suitably cryptic), assures him she will aid him at Rook's behest, but for the meantime to continue with his mission to the vault. To mention anything further would be to utterly ruin things for you, so I shall stop there.

To quote one IMDB user, the whole movie plays "[as] if Cronenberg had directed Total Recall", and that's a fairly accurate summation, assuming of course you've seen Total Recall. Certainly Cypher shares many of Phil Dick's favourite themes of identity and the infestation of the corporate world into the life of the everyman. Thankfully though, rather than retread old ground Natali directs with a flair that is quite his own, sidestepping many potential clich?s and pitfalls along the way.

Choosing a stark, washed out visual style (is it just me or is there a special offer on just now for movie producers on matt white paint and halogen lighting down at Homebase?), Natali has Cypher play simultaneously as the best spy thriller you imagined yourself in and the worst nightmare you ever had. Avoiding the temptation to pad things out unnecessarily with extraneous dialogue and exposition, the director keeps things rattling along at a grand old pace; why waste time on tiresome background info when it's sometimes more intriguing to leave one or two areas ambiguous?

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Cube proved Natali was a man with an eye for moments of visual flair, that movie's restrictive sets teaching the young director much about efficiency of camera movement and placement. Here, with more budgetary freedom, our Vincenzo couples the same ruthless planning with some stark and occasionally unsettling imagery. The scene where Thursby is 'awake' to witness the Digicorp brainwash feels ever so slightly uncomfortable, as does his arrival onboard a plane afterwards to find the occupants sedated in a mist-shrouded cabin wearing oxygen masks. It's moments like this that provide a welcome break from the sometimes overbearing complexity of plot and give your brain something less complex but equally disturbing to digest. We're awful ones for rattling on about the lack of atmosphere in supposed horror films here at theOneliner, and this would be my visual equivalent of unsettling sound design. It's nice to see a young director who can conjure up emotion simply from an image rather than a bucket of blood being sloshed at the camera. Anyhow, I digress...

Performance wise I have absolutely no complaints, despite the presence of the oft-enraging Miss Liu. I was initially concerned by Northam's surreal, slightly-detached performance during the period throughout which he is referred to as Sullivan. My fears that this was merely a crap, overshot attempt at atmospheric thesping were fortunately alleviated by the final act in which everything became clear and I realised instead that it was in fact a carefully measured and intentional bit of acting. Bravo sir. Likewise throughout the rest of the film Northam makes for a convincingly trapped everyman, and there really is little I can say that is negative.

My biggest and most pleasant surprise was that Lucy Liu has finally proven to me that she is worth more than her weight in salt when it comes to a serious role. There was presumably a bit in her contract that stated she had to be allowed to do her trademark Charlie's Angels slow-mo hair whipping bit, but this minor niggle aside I was decidedly overwhelmed by the fact she had put her Serious Acting boots on and here turns out a fine performance as Rita, whose connection to Thursby (although he is unaware of this) makes for compelling and complex viewing. Sporting a quality, sexy straggled hairdo and with an equally alluring line in sophisticated rollneck tops, I salute Miss Liu and look forward to her flexing her cute little acting muscles again in future. Just do us all the favour of avoiding a Charlie's Angels 3, Lucy. Fans of Cube and it's rather bab sequel (which Natali had no involvement in) will also have whole moments of fun spotting the players from those movies popping up at various intervals in this. Presumably there are only five actors working in Canada or something...

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There's only one bad point I have to make about Cypher, and unfortunately it's rather a large one. I was enjoying this movie immensely throughout the running time (the odd bit of silliness aside, such as the bizarre entrance to the Vault), and I would have gone so far as to say it's the single best piece of sci-fi I've seen since Minority Report. Unfortunately, the script calls for a denouement that feels as though it's been lifted from the back of an action movie cereal packet, and rather than enforce his directorial discretion, Natali has played along resulting in a hugely unsatisfying climax to what is otherwise an outstanding piece of sci-fi filmmaking.

I'm almost willing to put this indiscretion to one side since, as I say, I enjoyed the rest of the movie so thoroughly. At the same time it's such a jarring and hugely unnecessary change in pace and style that it has to go down as an unforgivable flaw, and something that I may have to punish by death. Perhaps I'll meet Natali half way and we'll leave it for the meantime on the agreement that his next film should not disappoint in such a way. How does that sound? Fair?

If you're the kind of Joe like me who can't be doing with all that Star Trek: Nemesis bollocks, and for whom sci-fi should not necessarily conjure up images of people in lycra flying about space shooting Slow Lasers™ at each other, Cypher will provide a hugely welcoming breath of fresh air. If you like wearing "Seven of Nine" t-shirts, have a beard and/or ponytail and use your PC purely for playing Neverwinter Nights then boldly go and f**k off; this will not interest you, and I may have to punish your presence at the cinema with a swift kick in the klingons. Anyone else who wants a modicum of intelligence and a minor brain workout without being too bamboozled (my quest to resurrect and use this word as much as possible begins here) should check this out immediately.

I'm going to give Natali the benefit of the doubt; maybe the climax is due to studio pressure. Suffice to say any DVD commentary would surely be an interesting prospect. If you can forgive such an indiscretion as the over-baked final?, Cypher represents something of a treat, and this reviewer certainly feels it's nearly been worth the five year wait. Intriguing, dangerous, thrilling, intelligent and surrounded by a dream-like haze, Cypher has all the right elements for a Disko classic, if only Natali had seen his vision through to the end.

From my base on Isla Apathetica I award this movie 4 out of 5 Disko Units.

Vincenzo Natali
Cast list:
Jeremy Northam (Morgan Sullivan/Jack Thursby/?)
Lucy Liu (Rita)
Nigel Bennett (Finster)
Timothy Webber (Calloway)