You probably know Vincenzo Natali because of Cube. The 1997 cult film about seven strangers trapped in a giant futuristic metal cube made up of several identical cube-like chambers, some of which have horrifying cube booby traps, was an economical indie revelation; a textbook example of how to make a really good movie on the cheap. Or maybe you know him because of Splice, his 2010 flick involving Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as scientists trying to become parents to an animal-human hybrid that they’ve created. Nevertheless, he has arguably become the most intriguing cinematic voice in Canadian sci-fi post-Cronenberg, off the basis of essentially just two films. Yet he made one more foray into sci-fi between these two career landmarks that went virtually unnoticed, even though it explores ideas just as interesting. I think it’s time to take another look at Cypher.
Cypher was Natali’s follow-up to Cube, allowing him to take advantage of a much bigger budget and canvas earned from the goodwill off of his first film. The story, from a script by Brian King, takes place in a cold and robotic near-future but is as much an old-school spy flick as it is a science fiction fable. Jeremy Northam (no stranger to the tech thriller genre after terrorizing Sandra Bullock in The Net) plays Morgan Sullivan, a dorky computer guy who takes a job at the generically named DigiCorp and is immediately thrust into the world of corporate espionage. Under the alias of Jack Thursby, he is sent all over the US to attend boring conventions for products like shaving cream, so that he can spy on the competition for his new bosses. The reasons why are, naturally, kept from him. He is just told to do his job and record the conventions with his trusty pen microphone. But for Morgan, trapped in a miserable suburban life and marriage, the trips become a chance for him to reinvent himself as Jack Thursby, taking off his glasses while he sips scotch and smokes cigarettes in an attempt to become a pseudo-James Bond. It’s the stereotypical male fantasy and it liberates him. When he becomes involved with a mysterious femme fatale, played by Lucy Liu at her sultriest, things start to get real and Morgan gradually learns that he’s being used as a pawn in a major corporate war involving brainwashing, priceless data discs, and all sorts of other high tech shenanigans.
Utilizing numerous locations as Morgan hops all over the country (in reality, the film was shot in Toronto and the surrounding area), Natali clearly set out to prove he could make a film that wasn’t just confined to a single room. And he largely succeeds. Cypher is a cool sci-fi mind game indebted to Philip K. Dick or William Gibson, with an impressively oppressive mood and stylish visuals to match. Cube cinematographer Derek Rogers pulls off some really stunning images and frames a lot of the locations as if the characters were living inside a computer. Likewise, the production design evokes the mildly dystopian future setting and the special effects, particularly during an unsettling brainwashing scene at one of the conventions, still look pretty neat. Composer Michael Andrews, fresh off of creating the haunting score for Donnie Darko, contributes some of his magic here as well. All the elements were in place for another cult hit to add to Natali’s resume. So what happened?
Well, Miramax happened. The Weinstein brothers bought the film upon completion, in what I can only assume was excitement over being involved with the director of Cube, the kind of truly independent sensation that they had built their initial reputation on. And then, like so many other indie films they bought over the years, it was shelved. Even after it premiered at the Sitges Film Festival in 2002 and won an award for Jeremy Northam’s performance, it still wasn’t deemed worthy of release. Test screening scores, which the Weinsteins live and die by, no doubt killed it, since the film is on the cerebral end of the spectrum and Miramax had also just released Impostor and Equilibrium, a couple of more intellectual sci-fi flicks that had bombed. Yet Cypher went on to screen at several more festivals the following year, including Fantasporto, where it picked up a couple more awards, and the Midnight Madness program at TIFF. It was also released throughout the rest of the world, from the UK to Japan, garnering decent business and acclaim. But since Miramax held on to the North American rights, film fans on this side of the pond waited.
Indeed, I was one of those fans. Cube was a movie I saw at an early age and was hugely influential to me, shaping my ideas of what a film could be. So I was busting to see Natali’s follow-up, especially since it sounded so damn cool. In the summer of 2004, as Cypher still went unreleased, I went to see Natali’s third film Nothing, a surreal comedy about two slacker roommates who literally wish the world away. It was screening at the Royal Cinema and before the movie I checked out a tiny video store nearby called Ammo Video (which sadly was going out of business last time I checked). As I browsed the stacks and stacks of titles, I unbelievably stumbled across a copy of the UK DVD release of Cypher. It was a glorious two-disc set with beautiful artwork and packaging. It was calling out to me. I didn’t end up grabbing it though, since I knew no one at the time that had access to a region-free DVD player, so the wait continued. Eventually, Miramax released it straight to DVD (with no extras at all) in 2005, over three years after it was originally completed.
Cypher is not a film without its flaws and it’s different than Natali’s other work. It’s not as fresh and razor-sharp as Cube and it’s far more low-key than the antics on display in Splice (of which I admittedly am not a huge fan). But it is a worthy addition to the canon of higher-minded science fiction, as well as paying homage to ‘60s and ‘70s conspiracy thrillers. Basically, it deserved a better fate. Just like the Morgan Sullivan character in the film, corporate powers tried to bury it, but Cypher will hopefully live on.