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Completed in 2002, released in several non-North American countries, and then left to languish on a Miramax shelf (until now) is the surprisingly cracker-jack sci-fi mind-bender known as Cypher. The second feature from Cube director Vincenzo Natali, Cypher is a movie that does borrow from several distinctive predecessors, but it's still more than slick, smart, and engaging enough to work on its own.
Jeremy Northam plays a bland corporate suit named Morgan Sullivan who's enlisted to act as an industrial spy for Digicorp. But it's not long before the corporation's leading competitor, Sunways, manages to recognize Morgan's value -- and they promptly draft him over to the other side. And then there's a third interested party, as represented by the alluring Rita Foster (as played by the appropriately alluring Lucy Liu), who'll stop at nothing to disrupt the high-tech espionage and inter-corporate back-stabbings that are afoot. (Like, everywhere.)
To probe any closer into the specific plot machinations of Cypher would provide an unfair disservice to those of you who've not yet seen the flick, so I'll just leave it at that. Suffice to say that Cypher deals with lots of high-end cyber-security, frequent brainwashings, and plot contortions that just might throw you ... if you're not paying close attention. And while the movie dishes out a few Matrix-y moments here and (Philip K.) Dick-ian concepts there, the movie never stumbles over its obvious inspirations. Screenwriter Brian King is clearly a sci-fi aficionado, and he borrows quite liberally while stealing very little.
Those devoted sci-fi geeks who champion the "little" movies like Dark City and Equilibrium should take note: Cypher is not packing any flashy action scenes among its arsenal. Cypher is a quiet, mellow, and fairly austere little flick -- but it also slides on by at a rapid clip, and (most importantly) it never gets boring. The somewhat labyrinthine plot construction demands your close attention, but it never becomes overly convoluted or distracting to the point of "viewer auto-tune-out." (A malady somewhat prevalent in sci-fi dramas, it seems.)
Between Cube and Cypher, I can now safely call myself a big fan of director Vincezno Natali. His sophomore effort is laden with clever touches, fascinating sights, and oddly beautiful camera moves. There's a pristine sense of futuristic order here; the corporations are gleaming and unsettling entities, and there's very little on display that's not perfectly symmetrical and disturbingly flawless. If Mr. Natali was shooting for an homage that screams "Orwell meets Kubrick," then he's done a pretty fine job of it. (And no, I'm not at all comparing this young filmmaker to Stanley Kubrick, but the kid directs with a lot of cold, cool style.)
I can plainly see why the Miramax gang had no idea what to do with Cypher. It's certainly not flashy or exciting enough to sell to a theatrical release audience, but it's quite a bit better than your run-of-the-mill "direct-to-video" title. Basically, this is just another small, smart, and sci-fi geeky flick that will have its fate determined by the always-hungry movie animals of the world. Those folks will pick up the DVD case with a quizzical glance, flip the thing over for a plot synopsis, and then (probably) cart the disc home for a weekend rental.
And I'm betting that it's those folks who'll soon be popping up with comments "Hey, this was a lot better than I expected!" and "It's a shame that a solid little sci-fi movie like this was remanded to the forgotten video shelf." And obviously, I'll be in agreement with both of those opinions. It might be just another "DTV dump" title for Miramax, but I'd call Cypher (easily) one of the best direct-to-video titles I've seen all year.
Video: The movie is presented in a very slick and quite lovely Widescreen (1.85:1) Anamorphic aspect ratio. Picture quality is quite excellent across the board, actually.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 (English only) audio track is also quite grand. Volume levels are great, which means the score doesn't overwhelm the dialogue -- and you'll really need to hear the conversations if you hope to enjoy what Cypher has to offer. Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French.
Extras: Sadly, nada. Aside from the trailers for Sin City, The Prophecy series, the next two Hellraiser sequels, and Dracula 3: Legacy, that is.
In Cypher I smell a movie that will soon become a grass-roots favorite among the sci-fi community. Give it a couple of years and I bet we'll see a Special Edition of some kind. (But, considering the track record and present state of the Miramax group, I wouldn't exactly hold my breath.)
Regardless, the DVD is entirely recommended by yours truly, as a rental at first, most definitely ... but I bet a lot of you sci-fi fans will gladly drop the 20 bucks to own a copy. It's not the most exciting or overpowering piece of science fiction you'll ever see, but it's a hell of a lot better than most of the sci-fi that makes it to the multiplexes these days. (Stealth, anyone?)