Director Vincenzo Natali’s earlier “Cube” (1997) was a fascinating film, and that was reason enough to give “Cypher” (2002) a look.
“Cypher” makes a very intriguing start; a man named Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) is being interviewed by Digicorp’s head of security and is being put through some neurological tests. He is being hired for corporate espionage and will soon be sent on missions to various conventions to secretly transmit corporate presentations for the benefit of Digicorp. He is given a new identity; that of Jack Thursby and his first assignment begins. It all seems fine in the beginning and Digicorp seems to be pleased with Sullivan’s job. A chance encounter at the convention with a mysterious but beautiful stranger Rita (Lucy Liu) brings forth startling revelations and Sullivan finds that he could be caught in a deadly web of deceit amidst an ongoing cutthroat corporate war!
Revealing more would take out whatever fun there is in watching “Cypher” for it is entirely a plot-driven film and it is the turns in the plot that keep it going.
A terrific beginning doesn’t always guarantee picture perfect masterpieces and “Cypher” proves just that. Further down, beneath the highly enticing exterior of brilliantly sleek cinematography, surreal camerawork and a background score that creates a sense of dread, there is great ambition that unfortunately succumbs under its own weight and finds itself settling into the comfort zone of a ‘been there-done that’ thriller which incorporates the essential ingredients of a typical edge-of-the-seat action/thriller.
After a promising start, the film picks up a decent amount of momentum and does build tension to a considerable extent, enough to keep you hooked throughout, in its maze of twists and turns, that sometimes catch you unawares and sometimes come across as predictable. Certain twists are just too convenient for their own good, but you find yourself excusing them as you become increasingly curious to learn where it’s all going to lead. There are hi-tech contraptions and otherworldly gadgets, a glass-eyed evil looking man who has to be an antagonist by design, odd shaped choppers and underground vaults in isolated locations, to access which, you have to use some fast capsule-shaped elevators that go some several hundred feet beneath the ground! The filmmakers play with your mind. An ‘alien’ angle, perhaps; or just a futuristic vision of corporate security measures!? It is a very interesting representation, although an exaggerated one; maybe the intention was to make a statement about the future of the contest in the corporate world!
Brian King’s screenplay and the director’s vision of it, definitely draws a whole lot of inspiration from past masters. Some of the set design and the overall mood of the film quickly bring to mind, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982). Some of the thematic elements also remind you of John Frankenheimer ‘s masterpiece, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). Only those were ground-breaking films for their times and “Cypher” doesn’t particularly create anything strikingly innovative. The oft-used gimmick of too many twists in the final act raise entirely new questions in an already befuddling narrative, making us rewind and think of the numerous holes that the film may have managed to riddle itself with. Employment of fast cut editing for showing some visions in the protagonists mind that may be distant memories or just random nightmares tends to strain the eyes. “Mission Impossible”-like athletic stunts and nick of time narrow escapes put a dent in the film’s grave atmosphere and transport the viewer to the world of popcorn cinema for those brief moments!
Nonetheless, a very sincere and convincing lead performance by the underrated Jeremy Northam and a steady pace that doesn’t let up, make for an engaging and entertaining sci-fi noir thriller. Do not expect anything earth-shattering; then perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to check “Cypher” out when you have nothing better to do.