Cypher, directed by Canadian Vincenzo Natali (Cube), has been sitting on Miramax’s shelves for over two years. While more earnest than similarly themed entries from the Brothers Weinstein (including Equilibrium), Cypher is still rather perplexing. In an unspecified future, two major software companies battle for world dominance. Digicorp hires Morgan (Jeremy Northam) as a spy, whereupon he’s given a new identity (“Jack Thursby”) and then sent on several practice missions to hone his skills.
During one of these jobs (actually trips to different corporate conventions) he runs into Rita (Lucy Liu) and the two seem to hit it off. When he sees her again during another mission, he gets suspicious. Sure enough, Rita knows more than he does, and lets slip this awful truth: Morgan is being brainwashed by Digicorp to become a kind of disposal mole. Once he’s achieved his goals, he will be “eliminated.”
That’s just in the first 30 minutes. Cypher has much more subterfuge and double-crossing left in its sack of sci-fi clichés. With the tone and look of Gattica, and occasional nods to North by Northwest and No Way Out, Cypher wants to be a somber exercise in human angst set against the cutthroat world of corporate intrigue. But it’s so languid and referential that it almost stalls out. Call it homage or outright stealing, the film is full of celluloid shout-outs. By the time the first surprise has been sprung, you’ve seen bows to Brazil, Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange and numerous other Big Brother-haunted movies.
Yet, Cypher almost overcomes this burden, owing to Natali’s exciting stylistic specificity. The first act’s highlight comes when Morgan discovers the brainwashing process. In a nicely realized sequence, a group of sinister technicians place helmets on the drugged-out and hypnotized conference participants, and we witness the procedure in exquisite detail. When Morgan finally makes his way to rival company Sunways’ secret vault, the complex has a new-world feel to it (all metal and gargantuan). But some elements, like the nerdy chief programmer with a hidden evil streak or the badly realized CG helicopters, fail to keep us locked into this unusual future with its obtuse rules.
Truth is, Cypher is not smart enough to create its own intricate universe. Instead, it is riddled with action movie truisms. The grand scheme as envisioned by the unseen over-boss Sebastian Rooks has to rely on so much coincidences and good guesses that we occasionally find ourselves floored by Morgan and Rita’s ability to circumvent inevitable disaster. The basic illogic is also staggering: if an all-powerful software company wanted to keep tabs on its spies, wouldn’t they be bugged, or at least have their cell phones scanned? And why is communication so easy and out in the open, when everything happening is supposed to be so hush-hush? And if both Digicorp and Sunways have people following Morgan, how is he able to have covert meetings with his omnipresent guardian angel, or sneak off for a tryst with Rita?
Such deficiencies apply to the characterizations as well. There are no memorable players in Cypher, just cogs in a motion picture machine each waiting to fulfill their purpose and push the plot forward. Northam does a nice job of hinting that Morgan would like to be something more than a dork. Yet he’s not a convincing action hero. Liu is also undermined by her role as pawn. Required to do nothing more than look fetching and deliver reams of ridiculous techno-speak, she is the film’s expositional anchor, pushing the plot along to its inevitable twist ending.
We never learn who these characters are. True, the notion of individual identity, who and what we are inside, and the manipulation of same by entities outside our control, all go directly to the foundation of science fiction. Part of the movie understands this, playing with the way Morgan slips into the role of spy, complete with a newly acquired taste for scotch and cigarettes. But the plotty machinations keep getting in the way, leaving little time to explore more complex ideas.
Cypher is occasionally stunning to look at (the Vault’s “golden cavern,” with its asymmetrical tunnels, is derived from German Expressionism at its most outstanding), but never decides what to do with its innovative designs. Just like the spies’ mission as they hunt for secrets and significance inside massive corporate databanks, this film’s point is unclear.