Cypher (2002) poster

Cypher (2002)


Canada. 2002.


Director – Vincenzo Natali, Screenplay – Brent King, Producers – Paul Federbush, Wendy Grean, Casey La Scala & Hunt Lowry, Photography – Derek Rogers, Music – Michael Andrews, Visual Effects Supervisor – Bob Munroe, Visual Effects – C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures (Supervisor – Bret Culp), Special Effects Supervisor – Brock Jolliffe, Production Design – Jasna Stefanovic. Production Company – Gaylord Films.


Jeremy Northam (Morgan Sullivan/Jack Thursby), Lucy Liu (Rita Foster), Nigel Bennett (Finster), Timothy Webber (Frank Calloway), David Hewlett (Virgil Dunn), Kari Matchett (Diane Thursby), Anne-Marie Scheffler (Amy Sullivan)


Morgan Sullivan applies and is accepted for a job as an industrial espionage operative for Digicorp Technologies. He is given a new identity as Jack Thursby and sent to attend various conferences around the country where he has orders to activate a device in his pen and record the seminars. At one conference, he meets the mysterious Rita Foster who explains to him that his mission by Digicorp is a ruse. She breaks Digicorp’s narcotic conditioning and helps him see that the conventions are sham events where the attendees are in fact being brainwashed and given new identities of Digicorp’s choosing. She tells him that he must maintain the pretence of having been brainwashed to be Thursby, whose life he is to now inherit, otherwise he will be killed by Digicorp. As Thursby, Sullivan is sent as a spy to obtain a job with Digicorp’s rival Sunway Systems. However, Sunway see through the deception and realize that Digicorp’s conditioning has been broken and recruit him as a double agent to feed false information back to Digicorp. Caught between Digicorp, Sunway and Rita and her enigmatic controller, the never-seen Sebastian Rooks, Sullivan is no longer sure who he is and which side is telling him the truth about anything.

Canadian director Vincenzo Natali took the arthouse world by storm with the conceptually dazzling Cube (1997). Cube was a rare science-fiction film of ideas and one that Natali conducted with a remarkable economy, shooting only on a single set. Cube developed a considerable reputation and screened at numerous international film festivals. Cypher was Natali’s follow-up to Cube. Indeed, Cypher placed Vincenzo Natali on the way to becoming one of the most promising genre directors of the 00’s.

Subsequent to Cypher, Natali made Nothing (2003), a fascinating film about two slackers who suddenly find that the entire world outside of their home has vanished and become a white void of nothing, the genetically-engineered creature film Splice (2010); the ghost story Haunter (2013); the U is for Utopia segment of ABCs of Death 2 (2014); and the Stephen King adaptation In the Tall Grass (2019). Natali ws long signed up for the adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise (2015) and a reported adaptation of William Gibson classic novel Neuromancer (1984). Natali also executive produced the Found Footage surveillance stalker film 388 Arletta Avenue (2011), the dream horror Come True (2020) and the William Gibson adapted tv series The Peripheral (2022) and the dream horror Come True (2020).

In many of his films, Natali demonstrates a fascination with the conceptual challenge of setting a story in a contained environment using minimalist sets, as well as a clear preference for conceptual science-fiction. Outside of his feature films, Natali also made the earlier 20 minute short film Elevated (1997), which takes place in the single set of an elevator where three people are hunted by monsters that may or may not exist.

Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu in Cypher (2002)
Jeremy Northam and his controller Lucy Liu

Vincenzo Natali is one of a group of modern (late 1990s onwards) filmmakers whose films draw themselves not from the influence of modern cinematic blockbusters but from the work of science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. The Dick influence holds clear sway over recent works like Open Your Eyes (1997), Dark City (1998), The Truman Show (1998), The Matrix (1999), Final (2001), and to some extent M. Night Shyamalan in films like The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and The Village (2004).

These are films that move away from outward spectacle and turn inwards, constantly questioning the nature of reality and personal identity, often taking the view that what is perceived is an elaborate illusion that has been created for the purpose of fooling the protagonist. Vincenzo Natali’s films draw strong influence from Dick’s games of illusion and identity and the good old conceptual New Wave science-fiction “what if” exercises regarding what might happen if the world were changed in some fundamental way.

Cypher is also a fallback of sorts to a body of films that came out in the 1960s/early 1970s concerning themselves with brainwashing and identity – efforts like The Mind Benders (1962), The Face of Another (1966), The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), The Mind Snatchers (1972), Who? (1974) and, most famously, the cult classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Cypher could almost be The Manchurian Candidate reworked as a deeply paranoid Philip K. Dickian puzzle box science-fiction film. Maybe The Manchurian Candidate by way of Dick and David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997), where Natali gives the impression he has studied and been inspired by Mamet’s coolly subdued sense of disquiet and labyrinthine Chinese box of unfolding corporate conspiracy puzzles.

Cypher shows that Cube was not a mere one-off chance upon Vincenzo Natali’s part. Indeed, Natali has polished his visual style considerably in the interim. In its unfolding twists – the sudden revelation where Lucy Liu turns out to be a spy who knows everything that is going on, Jeremy Northam’s realisation that the pen transmissions are meaningless and especially the eerie scenes where the attendees at a dull-as-dishwater conference are brainwashed with Virtual Reality helmets or the superbly suspenseful scene where David Hewlett opines that he can spot a double agent – Cypher settles in with a compulsive grip.

Jeremy Northam undergoes brainwashing in Cypher (2002)
Jeremy Northam undergoes brainwashing

Eventually some of the twists and turns become decidedly improbable – like about the time that Jeremy Northam finds that he is becoming a double agent being reprogrammed by at least three different organisations all seeking to undermine the other. (Cypher‘s grip works less when one considers its plausibilities backwards than when one looks at it in terms of forward momentum – ie. in terms of a narrative of unveiling surprises).

Vincenzo Natali adopts a superbly cool, mannered and disquieting look – one where the colour is muted out of the frame and the sets often stripped to a bare black-and-white minimalism. In the early scenes, Natali focuses on the patterned banality surrounding Jeremy Northam – the block-like structure of a high-rise tower of mirrored glass, the patterns made by the streets of a housing tract as seen from above and the almost comical dullness of the topics being lectured about at the conferences – such that the hero of the film seems to almost to be drowning amid his ordered existence.

Jeremy Northam gives a performance – in glasses, plaid jacket – that is so milquetoast that he could almost be mistaken for auditioning for the role of Clark Kent in Superman Returns (2006). Northam’s performance is one of subtle gradations – he is required to pass all the way between suited anonymity, barroom sophisticate and eventually assured handsomeness – where he impresses both by his and Vincenzo Natali’s observation of quiet nuance, rather than any large acting flourishes.

Lucy Liu is an actress whose star has been overly acclaimed in recent years as a result of two main hits – her recurring role on Ally McBeal (1997-2002) and as one of the stars of McG’s inanely empty-headed Charlie’s Angels films – something that has yet to be supported either by a body of work or any standout acting. Cypher at least gives her a decent role, although it is one where she crafts a cool, mysteriously aloof presence but still leaves one uncertain about whether she has any lasting stature. Something that certainly could not be said of the talent that Vincenzo Natali has on display. Cypher has immediately pushed Natali to the forefront of genre filmmakers with a rare intelligence and something to say that is worth listening to.

(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2002 list. Winner for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2002 Awards).

Trailer here

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