The Underrated: Cypher
- something of no value or importance.
- a person of no influence; nonentity.
- a secret method of writing, as by transposition or substitution of letters, specially formed symbols, or the like. Compare cryptography.
Once again on the Underrated series, I’m reviewing a film that nobody has seen, but I think deserves much higher exposure.
Vincenzo Natali has a real talent for this. First he made Cube, which was an excellent little sci-fi thriller that nobody saw, then he followed it with Cypher, another excellent little film that nobody saw. Cypher is much more elaborate and ambitious than Cube; which was effectively a one-set film (regardless of how clever the set was) and is much more sophisticated than its illustrious predecessor.
Jeremy Northam stars as Morgan, a corporate drone who is recruited by Digicorp for industrial espionage. He’s prime spy material, being as he hates his home life, is almost completely estranged from his wife, and basically has no personality of his own. It becomes apparent that Digicorp are brainwashing their “operatives” at these hellish corporate seminars (which have a horrible air of verisimilitude to them) and he gradually gets drawn deeper and deeper into a web of counterintelligence where nobody is what they seem.
This is a labyrinthine plot- I’ve skated over all spoilers in it, but it adds twist upon twist up to the climax. It’s hellishly complicated, but at the same time easy to follow- I never feel that the film-makers are pulling disgusting narrative tricks on me. It’s complicated without being obtuse and the storytelling is one of the real strengths of the film.
As good as the narrative is, the dialogue is an easy match for it. There’s an exchange in particular where Northam cries “I smoke, I drink scotch, I play golf, I was not meant to live in the suburbs” that sums up his distress at his empty life, to be told that “this isn’t your vision of your life, it’s Digicorp’s”. It doesn’t matter that his wife isn’t his wife- he’s got nothing to live for anyway.
The acting is another of the positives. Northam in particular is superb as the nonentity turned spy, and Lucy Liu is absolutely excellent as Rita, a cross between femme fatale and guide. She’s so good that if I didn’t know the shit that she tended to be in, then I’d think she was a great actress from this film.
The film is sumptuously shot. The colour palette is all steel grays and blues and complements the material perfectly. Derek Rogers, the DP, allows more colour to gradually leech into the film, so that the final scene is shot in warm daylight. The transition as the truth becomes more apparent is cleverly handled and the subtlety of the colour is just one of many nice touches in the film.
There are two big themes to the film- the first is, unsurprisingly, identity. Morgan does not exist. He has no friends, no personality, no job (before Digicorp), a loveless marriage, no hobbies and nothing of interest about himself. He is the ultimate blank slate. It’s worth noting that the first thing he does once his new identity is established is to develop character quirks- a predication for Single Malt Scotch, for example. However, he isn’t alone- all the Digicorp operatives are also cyphers. They all think they’ve signed up to a glamorous life of espionage, whereas they’ve actually been sent on mind-numbing sales conferences. You have to wonder about the kind of sad sacks that would sign up for this. Rita is also similarly a blank-and the overarching villain of the film, Rooks, is a man who lives in complete anonymity. Nobody has seen his face, and he intends to keep it that way.
The second theme of the film is dehumanisation- with particular regard to data. The two opposing corporations (Digicorp and Sunways) go to ridiculously elaborate lengths to secure data that they think the other company has- to the cost of the humanity of their employees. They live in sterile environments, are constantly in transit between soulless corporate venues, are referred to as “pawns” and are generally less valuable than the average hard-drive. This is brought home hard at the climax of the film, where the Sunways vault operative reveals that he used to be the best “mole spotter” in the company but has been replaced by computers that are allegedly never wrong.
Overall, Cypher is a superb film. It’s tense and exiting, deals intelligently with adult ideas without patronising its audience and is a thought-provoking sci-fi thriller. It’s nice to see a thriller that isn’t afraid of a big idea- and Cypher has two of them.
After Cube and Cypher, I had Natali pegged as a man to watch. Ironically, he’s been a cypher himself since this. His most recent film, the Dr. Moreau-ish Splice is due for release Summer 2010 and I’m definitely going to see it. I highly recommend this film, it’s a small and surprising little effort that punches far beyond its weight and is almost certain to be a future cult hit.
Until next time,