Now this is a strange little sci-fi flick. ‘Cypher’ is a cyberpunk-flavored story that borrows much of it’s style and substance from films like Brazil (1985) Total Recall (1990), The Game (1997), and Fight Club (1999), with noticeable elements paying tribute to (or ripping off, depending how you look at it) the work of directors like David Fincher, David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam and Christopher Nolan.
The story focus’ on a simple-seeming corporate drone named Marcus Sullivan (Jeremy Northam…looking like he should be Clive Owens brother) who is picked to become an undercover agent for the purpose of collecting information about rival companies and their ‘practices’. As he dives in to the job, he begins to enjoy ‘turning on’ his alter ego, Jack Thursby, a character with more charm and confidence than the meek, near Forrest Gump-like Sullivan carries. On one of his ‘gathering’ missions, he meets a mysterious femme fatale (Lucy Liu), and, through a series of weird circumstances, Sullivan’s carefully structured life and ‘identity’ starts to unravel, bringing with it startling revelations.
Cypher was directed by Canadian director Vincenzo Natali, director of impressive lower-budget flicks like’Cube’ (1997) and ‘Splice’ (2009) and he doesn’t quite hit the mark here like he did with those two films. The performances that he pulls from all the actors in this one carry a hollow, stilted ring to them…like they were deliberately going for a ‘film noir’ vibe, but didn’t know where the line between ‘sincere’ and ‘camp’ lay. I warmed up to the idea, somewhat, as Northam brought about the differences between his Sullivan/Thursby identities effectively, but when everyone around him kept up the robotic charade, it got a lil distracting.
Another element that pulled me out was the uneven mesh of beautifully composed and symmetrical shots, and the addition of some fairly atrocious visual effects (looking at you, Futuristic Stealth Helicopter!).
There was also some details in the props and settings that seemed to just be strange for the sake of being strange…which can also be distracting if the rest of the movies ‘universe’ hasn’t been set up to support those weird elements. If this flick had kept it’s tone a bit more ‘grounded’, I think the story would’ve come off better.
There was also the aspect of having our main character take on 3 different identities over the course of the film, which worked against the flick as it didn’t give the viewer a clear protagonist to root for, especially when his role in the conspiracy around him kept changing and shifting in importance. This may have also been a key contributing factor to the lack of ‘arc’ or crescendo. The ‘narrative’ plodded along at an even (ie slow) pace that never really climbed, even during the climactic 3rd Act.
Despite these ‘short-comings’, ‘Cypher’ was a very pretty film to look at. I have to again suggest that Natali is most certainly a fan of David Fincher, as there was definitely a ‘Fincheresque’ visual flair at work here, with shots being beautifully lined up, and displaying lots of muted earth tones and ‘burnt’ orange lighting. As well crafted as the flick is, it can’t be denied that, while interesting in it’s approach, it’s just a lil too lifeless and unengaging to really live up to the ‘thriller’ elements that the story seems to promise. ‘Cypher’, as far as I’m concerned, is a ‘take it or leave it’ type of sci-fi adventure movie. There’s much worse out there…but there’s also MUCH better.