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Cypher (Vincenzo Natali, 2002)


    I didn't know anything about Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher going into it, and because of that, it wasn't much of a disappointment. Since it's one of those all-too-common sci-fi-mindfuck-neo-noirs, it's probably best to go into it blind, but I'm not sure that that even helps much in this case. A rather humorless affair from the director of the brilliantly high-concept, but ultimately half-baked Cube, the film features Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu in a tangled plot in which, predictably, Nothing Is What It Seems. Owing more than a small debt to The Matrix ("If you want answers, take the shot," the hypodermic-brandishing Morpheus-cum-Charlie's Angel Liu commands at one point), it fails to live up to even that middling film by neither providing its genuinely entertaining action pyrotechnics nor improving on its mishmash of supposedly mind-blowing ideas. Though there are some small pleasures to be had in watching Norton transform from geek to suave mystery man as he becomes increasingly involved in the plots of monolithic corporations, the actor’s relatively bland demeanor makes it feel like a less than total conversion.


    Like most of these corporate espionage flicks, everyone quickly begins double crossing everyone else, and like most of them, it stops making sense from time to time. Still, since Cypher is so slow paced, there is plenty of time for even the slowest audience members to play catch-up. Visually, it starts out as somewhat inspired, replacing the shadows and rain of old noir films with silhouettes created by excessive backlighting and storms created by a car wash. Utilizing a reduced color palate, the film has intriguing moments, such as when an overhead shot from a great distance reduces suburbia into a grid that resembles a computer motherboard. As the lead character descends further into his madness, though, director Natali whips out clichés like Vaseline-smeared and fisheye lenses to demonstrate his slipping grip on sanity. Before long, you’re likely to find yourself pining for old-fashioned film noir instead of this “improvement”. With the exception of Strange Days and Abre los Ojos, this techno-thriller genre isn’t one that I've been able to embrace. Cypher gives me no real reason to change that stance. I liked it during the scenes when something “cool” was being revealed on screen, but the moment that “cool” ended, my interest waned. For all of the flaws that they contain, it’s tough not to agree that The Matrix movies are much cooler than this.




Jeremy Heilman