The best part of Vincenzo Natali’s “Cypher” was trying to guess the plot twists of Brian King’s screenplay before they were revealed. I will admit that the script fooled me a number of times, including the final twist, which I thought I had uncovered 30 minutes before the final credits, only to be proven wrong. Nice work. I’m always happily surprised when a movie is able to fool me.
“Cypher” (which actually had a better title in “Company Man”) is the second full-length feature of Canadian director Natali, who rose to fame with the wildly creative “Cube” in 1997. Despite the movie’s limited resources, Natali and company transformed a single set piece into a whole movie. It’s to Natali’s credit that “Cube’s” sequel, “Hypercube” — despite a bigger budget and more resources — failed to measure up to the original.
“Cypher” stars Jeremy Northam (“Enigma”) as Morgan Sullivan, an out-of-work executive who decides he wants to be a corporate spy. As the movie opens, Sullivan is put through a battery of tests conducted by a high-tech company (think Microsoft). Movie Microsoft needs a spy to infiltrate their competitor, an equally high-tech company (think Sun Microsystems). Sullivan is hired and sent on what appears to be mundane missions. (They have him recording lectures on cheese production and the like.) Things get strange when a beautiful woman (Lucy Liu) begins appearing at Sullivan’s “spy missions”; she informs him that something sinister is afoot, and that he’s a guinea pig in a bigger scheme that can get him killed if he’s not careful.
For its first 30 minutes, “Cypher” is a retread of “The Matrix”, with Trinity offering clues to help a weary Neo escape the fake machine world. Here, Rita (Liu) offers aid for Sullivan to help him realize that Movie Microsoft is using him in their neverending battle against Movie Sun. Of course with so many convoluted plots running parallel to one another, it’s a bit hard to figure out who is who and why they’re doing what they’re doing and how. But the viewer needn’t care, because the purpose of various factions’ schemes is irrelevant. Even if you forgot who Sullivan is a spy for at any given moment, it wouldn’t matter a bit.
The fact is, director Natali is more concern about creating a visually stunning environment for his movie than stringing together a feasible storyline. The world of “Cypher” is obviously the “near future”, but because there’s no time frame the only presence of “advance technology” is confined to the inner offices of the dueling high-tech companies. (Curiously enough, the script throws in a super duper helicopter that seems to undermine the movie’s “not so far into the future that cars are flying” vibe that was being attempted.) Visually speaking, “Cypher” is a good looking film.
For the film’s first act, Natali and cinematographer Derek Rogers drowns most of the scenes out in bright lights, so that every lifeless pore on every character’s skin shines through. In the second act color returns, albeit in stages, thus signaling the end of the first act’s surreal state. For much of its first hour, “Cypher” looks and feels like a maze, with Sullivan being the mice caught up in the maze trying to find a way out. The final 30 minutes fall a bit flat, and even the film’s big McGuffin (involving a CD disk, of course) ends up being irrelevant — as, I suppose, was the point of calling it a McGuffin in the first place, natch.
Despite all of the above, “Cypher” is an entertaining film, with a number of clever plot twists that, as previously mentioned, I didn’t see coming. Some viewers may be inclined to point out the movie’s lack of ambiguity by film’s end, pointing to Natali’s ambiguous ending for “Cube”. True, there’s no obvious nihilism present in “Cypher”, and the movie itself ends on a rather bright note, which is definitely a detour for Natali, whose last movie ended with wholesale slaughter that seemed to defy logic, much like the movie itself. But since Natali is only directing “Cypher”, and has no writing credits, perhaps calling this “a Natali movie” is a bit overreaching.
Leading man Jeremy Northam turns in a good performance. His character, when we first meet him, doesn’t seem ready for the spy world at all, and we wonder why Movie Microsoft hired him in the first place. (As it turns out, there’s a reason for his hiring.) Northam plays the nervous and unsure Sullivan with the right combination of neurosis and faux charm. Lucy Liu (“Charlie’s Angels”) provides a decent femme fatale to tempt Northam, even though she had moments where she sounded like an automaton. In any case, this is a role Liu seems to be typecast in lately, from “Payback” to the recent “Ballistic”.
The script by Brian King, while being heavily inspired by Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”, is perhaps just a bit too orderly for its own good. The film could have used some bleak atmosphere and a healthy dose of unanswered questions at the end, as well as a lot more uncontrolled chaos throughout. As a result, “Cypher” sometimes comes across as too…controlled.
Vincenzo Natali (director) / Brian King (screenplay)
CAST: Jeremy Northam …. Morgan Sullivan
Lucy Liu …. Rita
Nigel Bennett …. Finster
Timothy Webber …. Calloway
David Hewlett …. Vergil Dunn
Kari Matchett …. Diane Thursby