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 Natalis films draw strong influence from Dicks 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 Mamets The Spanish Prisoner (1997), where Natali gives the impression he has studied and been inspired by Mamets 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 Natalis 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 Northams realization 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. 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 organizations all seeking to undermine the other. (Cyphers 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). Northams 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 Natalis 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 McGs inanely empty-headed Charlies 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.