The Underrated: Cypher

Cypher, Noun:

  1. zero.
  2. something of no value or importance.
  3. a person of no influence; nonentity.
  4. 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,



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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

20 responses to “The Underrated: Cypher”

  1. just pillow talk says :

    I’ve never seen this, and I have quickly added it to my queue. This sounds like something I would enjoy.

  2. Droid says :

    I love this flick. Good review, Jarv.

    PS. 3rd paragraph “He’s prime spy spy material”

  3. Droid says :

    I was going to put this in my “Almost best of the 2000’s” . Not sure why I didn’t.

  4. koutchboom says :

    Yeah I’m moving it up my list RIGHT NOW! Hopefully it’ll wash the bad taste the Box is sure to leave in my mouth.

  5. koutchboom says :

    Strangely, he’s done fuck all since this

    Funny that you took the mean spirited route with this. Just because it would have been ironic had you just said Nothing. Since Nothing was the movie he did after this. It was an interesting little movie, sort of his attempt at existential comedy. Doesn’t completely work and the two leads are kind of fucking annoying (they were both in Cube the retard and umm the other guy). But interesting.

    • Jarv says :

      That wasn’t meant to be mean spirited. The original line was “strangely he’s been a cypher since this”.

      But it didn’t scan well, and I always write conversationally, so it changed it to something I’d say.

  6. Jarv says :

    Honesty time.

    Because I’m bored and still at work, I corrected the typo that droid was kind enough to point out, and also put in the line that I should have used in the last para.

    So not a lot of the above makes sense now.

    At some point I’ll get over this Lucas-ian tinkering tendency. Round about the same time as Droid gets over his Jacksonian little boy buggering tendency.


    I dont know about any of that, but I did wake up with an astonishingly painful boner this morning.

    Must engage hole soon.

    • Jarv says :

      Hmm, well-

      Having seen a few of “one night with dickblood” and made the howling mistake of opening a Danny supplied link on Mrs. Jarv’s work blackberry, I can’t say I’m surprised.

  8. lordbronco says :

    O.o You fellows and ladies should read Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”.

    This movie review made me think of that book-it is kick ass.

    That is all.

    Please do not reply to this message.

  9. herr milflover says :

    I have indeed never heard of it. Sounds like a very interesting movie, I’ll definitely be looking for this one!

    Did this guy also make the Cube sequel HyperCube, which I’ve heard is absolute crap?

  10. Bartleby says :

    This is a great little movie. Also, a great review Jarv. I like the analysis on it. I’m really enjoying this Underrated column.

    I rented Nothing a few years back, hoping it would hit the same strong notes that his first films did, but was disappointed. It was a neat concept, but it became stupifyingly annoying, due to the fact it was just two irritating guys wandering around a blank stage for an hour or so.

    By the end, when they have the ‘battle of the heads’ (insert Danny comment in here somewhere) it reached a new level of stupid. I can appreciate what he was going for, but it just didn’t work.

    Splice, on the other hand, looks awesome.


    This may be of interest to most of you….


    Developers Plan to Erect Assisted Living Site Next to Nude Gay Resort

    Updated 1:00 PM PDT, Tue, Mar 23, 2010

    Palm Springs could be on pace to build an assisted living facility next door to a clothing-optional gay resort.

    On Monday, the Palm Springs Architectural Advisory Committee recommended approval for an assisted living facility and retail project to be built next door to the Canyon Club Hotel, the Desert Sun reported:

    Developers with Tappan Enterprises LLC said Monday they hope to break ground toward the end of the year on a 190-bed assisted living facility of suites, along with a beauty parlor and day spa open to the public, at 1000 N. Palm Canyon Drive.

    The Canyon Club is “the only gay resort in downtown Palm Springs,” according to its website. Its owners told the Desert Sun that they have “no complaints” about the proposal.

    Developers of the assisted living facility plan to use palm trees to block views into the hotel’s pool area, the newspaper reported.

  12. Bartleby says :

    Danny, are you sure thats a real news article or the press release for Fox’s latest sitcom ‘A Gay Old Time’

  13. ThereWolf says :

    I thought Cube was a very good movie. Cypher I used to see in HMV, the DVD had really cool box packaging. I’d pick it up, put it down, exit shop. Then another day, I’d repeat the same action, etc. Eventually, I stopped seeing it and forgot all about it. Until now.

    Good one. I’ll make sure I track this down.

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