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.
Review by Louise Keller:
A futuristic thriller that explores different realities, Cypher stuns by its bewitching concept and dazzling execution. Here is a film where all the elements come together beautifully, leaving us entertained, intrigued and more than ready to relive every moment again in our minds. Brian King’s screenplay plays with our minds and as director Vincenzo Natali weaves his web masterfully, the strands of reality and fantasy are blurred. Of course the look of the film is distinctive with its striking, minimalist production design and its de-saturated look. There’s also effective use of piano in the score. But it’s Jeremy Northam’s nerdy Morgan Sullivan that makes the trip real for us, as we journey with him, never having any notion where it might lead. When Sullivan asks his employers what his alias Jack Thursby is like, the fact that he is ‘whoever you want him to be’ pleases him. We watch him develop a whole new personality, that allows him to fantasise about the man he would like to be – someone who drinks single malt scotch on the rocks, smokes branded cigarettes, plays golf and lives in the South Seas. But as headaches, nightmares and neck pains become an every day occurrence as he zig zags through different states in his new guise as a spy, his reality becomes confused as he questions what is real. Then there’s the attractive mystery woman (Lucy Liu, well cast) to whom he is strangely drawn. Natali paces the story beautifully, and the growing air of uncertainty has a cumulative effect, keeping us on the edge of our seats. My heart nearly stopped during one of the conferences, when Sullivan as Thursby sees first-hand for the first time, what is really going on. Who can Sullivan/Thursby trust and who is lying? Who is using whom? As Sullivan is recruited to become a double agent, things escalate and it is clear that the stakes are becoming higher and higher. When things begin to unravel, nothing can prepare you for the startling climax, which takes us to another level of thought. A film for those who like to give their brain a workout, Cypher is thoroughly recommended. Perhaps reality and fantasy are not as far apart as we think.
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CAST: Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu, Nigel Bennett, Tomothy Webber
PRODUCER: Paul Federbish, Wendy Grean, Casey LaScala, Hunt Lowry
DIRECTOR: Vincenzo Natali
SCRIPT: Brian King
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Derek Rogers
EDITOR: Bert Kish
MUSIC: Michael Andrews
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jasna Stefanovich
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 14, 2003