Rating 2¾

Directed by Vincenzo Natali

Written by Brian King

Jeremy Northam (Morgan Sullivan / Jack Thursby), Lucy Liu (Rita Foster), Nigel Bennett (Finster), Timothy Webber (Callaway), Kari Matchett (Diane Thursby), Kristina Nicoll (Amy Sullivan), David Hewlett (Virgil Dunn) and Peter Mensah (Vault Security)

Morgan Sullivan is an out-of-work accountant with a stifling suburban life and a wife who nags him about taking a job with her father. Instead, he gets involved in corporate espionage for “Digicorps” and is given an assumed name, Jack Thursby. Over time he starts to increasingly assume this identity to the point where the lines between reality and fantasy become more and more blurred. During his first assignment he encounters the mysterious Rita Foster and eventually begins to work as a double agent for “Sunway”, but he is warned that he is a pawn in a dangerous and deadly game being played by Sebastian Rooks, the enigmatic and shadowy boss and lover of Foster.


‘Cypher’ is a 2002 Canadian psychological sci-fi spy thriller. It has been compared to the work of the late cult science fiction writer Philip K Dick and I guess it might be described as “cyberpunk”, although I am a little unclear about some of these terms. It was directed by Vincenzo Natali, whose previous film, his debut full-length feature, was the cult 1997 sci-fi film ‘Cube’, which received a fair amount of critical attention, although the reviews were mixed.

Stylistically, ‘Cypher’ is quite similar to ‘Cube’ and quite clearly the product of a director with a recognisable signature style. Both films are, effectively, about nothing. There is no clearly defined back story or reason for the events that unfold. In ‘Cypher’ we do not know with any certainty what Digicorps or Sunway are. We do not know the nature of the espionage or what it is intended to achieve. We know very little about Morgan Sullivan and while we might assume to know why he wants to assume this new identity, the details are never clear to us. Everything is slightly surreal and off-kilter. Nothing looks quite right, nothing is quite as it should be, as if perhaps it is all a hallucinogenic dream.

The performance of English actor Jeremy Northam is equally eccentric, but also rather engaging. It certainly fits in with the pervading sense that nothing here is as it should be. I am not sure what American viewers would make of his American accent. It reminded me of something that I cannot quite put my finger on, but I was, for some reason, put in mind of Cary Grant in screwball comedies like ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’.

The film is a little bit too stylised for my tastes. I would prefer more human emotion and drama and less technological wizardry and hi-tech hardware. However, that would somewhat negate the point of the film. I did rather enjoy it, although I cannot imagine feeling any great compulsion to watch it again in a hurry.

Jeremy Northam made his breakthrough in ‘Hamlet’ at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1989. His first American film was the ‘The Net’ in 1995. I seem to be one of the few fans of this much-maligned Sandra Bullock film. Lucy Liu is, I guess, best known for her role in the long-running television series ‘Ally McBeal’, a popular show that certainly divides opinion. I personally find it offensive and demeaning to women. Her film roles have included the two ‘Charlie’s Angels’ films and ‘Kill Bill: Vol 1’. Kari Matchett is an excellent Canadian actress, best known for her work in American television series like ‘Invasion’, ’24’ (season six), ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ and ‘ER’ (season fourteen). She starred in ‘Cube 2: Hypercube’, which was not directed by Vincenzo Natali. She was also featured in seven episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Earth: Final Conflict’. Natali directed three episodes of that series, although they did not work together on it. Her role in ‘Cypher’ does not amount to very much.

‘Cypher’ has a 56% rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 16 reviews. It is also known as ‘Company Man’ and ‘Brainstorm’.

Review posted 28 July 2009


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