In the near future, suburban Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam), with an overbearing wife, applies for a job at Digicorp, where he is put to work as Jack Thursby, a company spy, sent to conventions around the country, secretly taping speeches for his intimidating boss Ed Finster (Nigel Bennett). In a bar one night, he meets the striking Rita (Lucy Liu), who reveals that he is being brainwashed, and gives him drugs to counteract it. She convinces him to trust her and turn double agent, working for Frank Calloway (Timothy Webber) at rival Sunways. Now his survival depends on maintaining a grip on his mind and his actions, but reality and his visions are starting to merge. In danger of losing it (and his life) Morgan/Jack realises he has to get to Sebastian Rooks, Rita’s boss, and to do that he must complete a critical and deadly final assignment.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A person of no influence, a nonentity, is one description of cypher, and one depiction of the word is a zero. This is a rather subtle clue to the film’s ultimate twist, but the fun is getting there. Brian King’s screenplay is a cleverly constructed sci-fi spy thriller, his first feature length work, which requires more attention than most mainstream films, a labyrinth of industrial espionage, brainwashing and double agents, double crossing and surprising double identities. But it is director Vincenzo Natali (who gave us the hard edged Cube) who has turned the screenplay into a unique film, a visual voyage as well as a story to engage us.
The pale, colour-drained look of the first half, with its geometrical designs, sparse, clinical atmospheres give the film a sense of the future somehow intermingled with the 50s. This sense is enhanced by Jeremy Northam’s Cary Grant-esque look (hair and wardrobe), which is probably intentional since Hitchock’s North by Northwest (1959) is apparently one of King’s favourite films. He has obviously learnt from the master, because his playing with identity is not unlike that classic. But it’s the visual style of Natali that is the film’s most compelling element, his bold, unpredictable shots, his use of close ups, and the cohesiveness of production design, wardrobe, make up and music, together with the camerawork.
The spying takes place between two technology giants, but they are also merely ‘cyphers’, simply competing forces, fighting for a supremacy that is never clear. Industrial espionage is a misleading tag, but it’s the only one that comes close to explaining the setting. Northam is excellent in a role that takes him well outside his comfort zone and requires him to be on screen in almost every scene. Lucy Liu is riveting as Rita, the mystery girl, and the entire supporting cast is top notch. There’s plenty to look at, lots to think about and enough tension to satisfy even a jaded cinema palate, including the final, unexpected revelation. Natali is a director to watch.
Special Features reviewed by Louise Keller:
The cast and crew interview is unusual in that it is an hour-long featurette, in which director Vincento Natali, writer Brian King, production designer Jasna Stefanovic and
David Hewlett, who plays Vergil Dunn respond to questions from an (offscreen) interviewer. They talk about their relationships with each other, how they came to work together, how they raised the money, and about some of their experiences in making the movie. They also partake in the audio commentary. There are brief interviews with Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu, who says that despite the film being an espionage story, she considers it to be a love story.
Published March 11, 2004
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CYPHER: DVD (M15+)
CAST: Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu, Nigel Bennett, Tomothy Webber
DIRECTOR: Vincenzo Natali
SCRIPT: Brian King
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
PRESENTATION: 1.78:1 16:9 Transfer, Dual Layer format ; Languages: English 5.1 Dolby Surround & English 2.0 Dolby Stereo
SPECIAL FEATURES: Trailer; cast and crew featurette; interviews with Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu; audio commentary by director and writer
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video
DVD RELEASE: March 3, 2004