Cypher (2002)

I’ll confess it does sound odd, but this was the first movie by Vincenzo Natali I ever saw.

In fact, it took me some time after I saw this one before I finally caught up with Cube, even though that was the film everyone remembers him for.  As my local video store had a copy of Nothing but not Cube, I’m fairly certain that I saw that strange little fantasy before Cube as well.

There was this moment, back in the Nothings, when it seemed like the future of SF Cinema lay in the hands of bold young directors like Natali, Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi).  Kelly more or less self-destructed, Aronofsky strayed off into dramas and arty horror, and Natali?  He’s made a handful of interesting horror and SF films and has done a lot of work on TV.  Which, as directing movies goes is a pretty solid sort of career.

It seems a shame to me that Cypher never attracted the same kind of attention that his first film did.  This is a cool and subtle slow burn film that somehow turns into a weird mix of corporate espionage and brainwashing before arriving in James Bond territory with a final burst of action movie heroics.

Only, its plot is far too twisty and bizarre to ever find its way into the world of Bond.

For those of you who’ve seen Vincenzo’s other films, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to see one of his favorite actors (who has had some role in every film Vincenzo made), David Hewlett, as a man who used to find double agents, thanks to his a strange knack for telling when people are lying.  I suspect these days most people remember him from his turn on Stargate Atlantis, but he is quite a gifted actor and it’s always a pleasant surprise when he’s allowed to stretch a little.  Here he manages to make his very ordinary-seeming character just a little strange and menacing.

Jeremy Northam stars as a rather dull and ordinary guy who’s sucked into an increasingly bizarre series of events, and Lucy Liu plays the mystery woman who may be helping him.  I’m a little surprised to see that she is reasonably good here:  I always had the impression she was just another one of those overhyped young actresses who come and go, playing routine parts.  But then, maybe that meant she wasn’t given as many opportunities to actually act.

Now, if that sort of thing bothers you, I have to note that the CGI is very, very shiny.  It is used very well, for a stunning ultramodern helicopter, and for something else that is so bizarre that it would spoil the fun even to hint at it.  At the time, it would have been acceptable (or even better than most CGI!):  we knew, when we watched movies like this that the animated machines looked way too shiny, but when used for an high-tech civilian vehicle, it more or less gets a pass.  To be honest, I think I like this hint of heightened reality to the more perfect work being done today:  it still seems very wrong, except now it is wrong in a far more subtle way that is harder to identify.

This has been one of my favorites for a very long time and it is a pleasure to see that it still remains an incredible ride of a movie when revisited.  It has a creepy and unsettling edge we just don’t expect in our thriller films these days, with some truly disturbing imagery during the brainwashing sequences.  And yet, the twisty plot is solid and makes sense once we learn the truth, the story is deftly suspenseful, and the threat to our hero seems real.

It is well worth a watch.

Although it will make you want to see more films by Vincenzo Natali.

Fortunately, he’s got a Stephen King adaptation in the works.  And, you never know, they might release his pilot for the Tremors series that never was…


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