Cypher (2002)

First published by Movie Gazette


Director Vincenzo Natali has followed his claustrophobic debut Cube with Cypher, another tale of labyrinthine entrapment set in the not so distant future. Only this time, the much bigger budget has allowed Natali to broaden his ambitions, and the result is an impressively expansive vision of dystopia.

When Digicorp signs up non-entity Morgan Sullivan to become a corporate spy, it seems the perfect opportunity for Morgan to bring some excitement to an otherwise bland life. Travelling from state to state under the alias of Jack Thursby, Sullivan quickly reinvents himself as a cigarette smoking, single malt drinking lover of golf from the South Seas, but his assignments – secretly recording speeches given at hotel conventions put on by rival corporation Sunways – turn out to be drab, uneventful affairs. Then a strange, attractive woman called Rita reveals that Digicorp has been using the conferences to brainwash Morgan into believing that he really is Jack, and Morgan is soon co-opted to do counterintelligence work for Sunways, pretending to think he is Jack and feeding bogus data to Digicorp. Swept along by the unclear motives of both corporations, and by the interventions of a shadowy freelance operative called Sebastian Rooks, Morgan begins to lose his grip on who he is, what he wants and where his allegiances lie.

With its alter egos, double agents and triple crosses, Cypher combines industrial espionage with alternative reality in a satisfyingly mind-bending plot reminiscent of Philip K. Dick at his best. Every time you think you have Cypher pinned down, a new twist forces you to reassess radically all that has proceeded – and then, when the film is over, you will find yourself replaying all the events in your mind, wondering how it all can fit together so neatly, and whether the ending really is as upbeat as it first seems. In short, while it lasts little more than an hour and a half, this devilishly enigmatic film will keep your brain in knots for days.

Dystopian science fiction often borrows the frame of film noir – a tradition traceable from Blade Runner to Brazil, Gattaca and Minority Report. Cypher nods to this convention by being in something like, if not the same as, black and white, with most of its colour artificially subdued – an effect which, as well as being integral, in complicated ways, to the meaning of the story, also makes Cypher very stylish to watch indeed.

Lucy Liu puts in an appropriately inscrutable performance as Rita, and gets to wear a striking array of outfits, but Jeremy Northam is truly extraordinary in his double rôle as both nerdish, confused Morgan Sullivan and the suave agent he gets to play. Cypher is an excellent addition to a long line of films which prove that in cinema, if not in life, dystopia is the place to be.

Anton Bitel