Impostor (2001)


A couple of weeks ago, before Christmas, I caught Gary Sinise hawking Impostor on The Daily Show and then, Leno. Both were uncomfortable appearances, and not just because Sinise is a seriously serious guy who never looks happy in such situations. These were particularly odd because of the timing. The film’s release during Xmas week was moved back (and it had actually been shelved for over a year, before then), so the immediacy of Sinise’s good-sport pitch was somewhat thwarted. And so, Jon Stewart and Jay had him showing clips and answering questions about his mostly distinguished career, and then they vaguely noted that the new film was… “opening soon, right?”

The moment was notably awkward, and only made more so by Sinise’s perpetually snarly face. No matter his circumstances, you believe this guy is in pain. More often than not, he’s turned this into an asset. He’s best known as a stage actor and cofounder of Chicago’s justly Steppenwolf Theatre, as well as the star of respected cable biopics about Harry Truman and George Wallace, and a movie version of Of Mice and Men, which he also directed. Still, Sinise has also contributed to his share of movie schlock, say, Mission to Mars and Reindeer Games. And when he is involved in such projects, you tend to sympathize with him, whether he’s headed to Mars with Jerry O’Connell or throwing darts at Ben Affleck’s chest. Like I said, a serious guy.

So here he comes again — looking very intense, sincere, and appropriately pained in the drecky Impostor. Based on a 1953 Philip K. Dick story, the film rehearses the usual Dickish concerns, namely, a male protagonist’s loss of identity, confidence, and context in a dystopic SF future. Much like other Dick-flicks (Verhoeven’s Total Recall, Spielberg’s upcoming Minority Report), Impostor immerses you in the experience of its abruptly disoriented hero, Sinise’s Spencer Olham. Indeed, Spencer sort of picks up where Deckard leaves off in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, wondering whether or not he’s a replicant.

In order to set up this monumental identity crisis, Impostor barely sketches Spencer’s sense of himself. A revered “brilliant scientist” living in some urban center, circa 2079, he’s working for the insidious Government on a weapon to annihilate aliens, with whom humans have apparently been at war for years. A few brief images show Spencer’s unhappy childhood (his father was killed by those same aliens) and his currently happy marriage to a doctor, Maya (Madeleine Stowe). Meanwhile, in a voice-over, he mourns the planet earth’s many devastations, for instance, the loss of the atmosphere to ozone holes, peace to perpetual war, democracy to global leadership.

Even in this few minutes worth of intro, it’s clear that Spencer himself is rather damaged (owing to that childhood trauma): as he walks through the military-science center where he works, Sinise’s face couldn’t look more anguished. Within moments of his return to work after a getaway weekend in the woods with Maya, Spencer is named an “impostor,” a genetically engineered cyborg with a “bomb in his ribcage” (at least he doesn’t have a hugely symbolic uterus, like the bomb-carrying girl robot in Eve of Destruction).

The plot gauntlet is thus thrown down. According to Agent Hathaway (Vincent D’Onofrio), an imperious government flunky, Spencer is not who he thinks he is, but the Spencer-bot, sent by the aliens to assassinate a vital ambassador (Lindsay Crouse, on screen for about a minute). In an instant, Hathaway captures Spencer and has him strapped into a chair to be executed. There’s no trial, as this is the future, when a military tribunal will look like so much liberal hand-wringing. Though he’s been integral to this military-government fiat previously, now Spencer is understandably upset at this turn of events, and, now lacking a voice-over, scans the assembled audience for a friendly face. And there he is: best friend Nelson (Tony Shaloub, on screen for about four minutes) sadly looks down on Spencer from the observation deck, shaking his head.

It’s hard to believe, but things get worse. Despite the ad campaign’s assertion that Imposter will “keep you guessing,” the truth is, you can figure out where it’s headed pretty easily, especially the character dynamics. Partly this is because Hathaway is a chatty sort who helpfully explains most everything that’s going on, even when you see it on screen. His version of events at this point is that, like most of Dick’s bots, the one who has replaced Spencer has human memories, and so it believes it is Spencer. From Spencer’s (or is it the bot’s?) point of view, which the film more or less takes, Hathaway is an abusive thug, certainly less human (and sympathetic) than the object of his abuse.

This state of affairs creates a potential dilemma for viewers, inclined by habit to identify with the designated star/hero, especially one who is strapped down in a chair and about to be cut open by large men in suits. This moment is one of those that feels perpetually topical: no one likes to think the government can just decide who you are and treat you accordingly. Perhaps if Gary Sinise looked “Middle Eastern,” the film’s topicality would be complete. But then again, a film might be considered “unpatriotic” (by AG John Ashcroft anyway) if it underlined the racial realities of such government detainment and interrogation “methods.” So, best to let the scenario reside in some far-off future, where bomb-carrying cyborgs will look like sincere white guys. You know, “universal.”

At first, it looks as though Impostor has other questions to ask, namely, Dick’s usual questions: How is identity constructed? How do memories determine behavior and belief? Is there a difference between artificial and real identity? Almost as soon as it raises them, however, the film drops these philosophical niceties in favor of SF action and artfully dreary sets. Once he escapes from the government meanies –which he must, because the movie has some 80 minutes more to run — Spencer runs off to that dystopic SF staple, the rebel-populated underground. Here he meets an earnest doctor (Elizabeth Pena, on screen for about two minutes) who obligingly removes his government-identity device (in this particular future’s slang, his simcode), and Cale (Mekhi Phifer), a rebel who instantly takes him at his word.

Cale has reasons for believing this, and his own background in this nasty-ass future, but the film only suggests what that might be (while Spencer has his simcode removed, Cale tends to an anonymous girl who’s obviously sick in bed). In lieu of development, Cale has buddy-duties to perform. He agrees to lead Spencer back into the city (a task that Spencer apparently cannot manage himself, even though he got himself out of the city), so that he can run a DNA test to prove he is who he thinks he is. Here again, a potentially intriguing relationship goes nowhere. Spencer mistakes Cale for a drug addict (perhaps “they all look alike,” even in the future) and Cale, once he sees the pervasive Wanted posters generated electronically all over the city, has to make some choices regarding his allegiance to Spencer. But Impostor can’t think of a thing to do with these characters except have them run through dark tunnels, fight off various anonymous attackers, and evade elaborate surveillance technologies.

Spencer’s situation might have challenged social and political presumptions — that personality is consistent, memory coherent, or community rational. Will Spencer complete that crucial DNA test? Will Maya believe his story? Will Hathaway track him down? Will Cale make the right decision? Eventually, the film sucks the life out of all these concerns. And by the time the bomb is discovered, you’re way past worrying about it.