Thursday, September 22, 2005

DVD: Cypher (2002)

1997’s CUBE is the working definition of a solid B-movie. The SF thriller about six people who find themselves trapped in a futuristic prison suffers from an obscure ending, but director Vincenzo Natali socks over the action with style. I eagerly awaited his next movie.

And waited. And waited.

Not that Natali wasn’t keeping busy. He got to work on this follow-up in short order, only to see it become caught in the logjam of Miramax releases as the company started its post-Weinstein transformation. A handful of those titles, like PROOF and AN UNFINISHED LIFE, will see the inside of theaters. Others are now surfacing on home video in bare-bones editions. Which is too bad, because CYPHER deserves better.

It’s a sly Philip K. Dick pastiche set in a near-future when everything looks vaguely ... Canadian. The ever-reliable Jeremy Northam plays a Silicon Valley milquetoast who feeds his yen for adventure by signing on as an industrial spy. His target: a software giant with a vast campus in the suburbs east of Seattle. I am sure it is in no way intended to resemble an actual company in this neck of the woods, one for which I have the utmost respect and that I do not fear in any way.

Northam soon discovers that the boring presentations he’s attending in global hot spots like Buffalo and Omaha are not what they appear to be, and that the truth may have something to do with mystery woman Lucy Liu. He lays on the Julius Kelp mannerisms a little thick at first, but it pays off.

Brian King’s script isn’t based on any PKD story, but the author’s influence is obvious. His great themes are now encoded in Hollywood’s DNA, and turn up in movies from THE TRUMAN SHOW to THE MATRIX. CYPHER’s low budget actually works in the movie’s favor. Most adaptations of Dick’s material, including the ones I like, ultimately become man-on-the-run thrillers. Financial constraints force CYPHER to keep the focus on ideas, as Northam’s character comes to question both his identity and his reality. Anyone familiar with Dick’s writing will spot the plot twists coming, but Natali’s smart, low-key approach is effective, and the closing scene packs a satisfying emotional punch.

The ‘No, Really?’ Item of the Day

According to Which John Cusack Are You?, I’m David Shayne from BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. I could have told you that without taking the test.