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With a lot of scorn, rightly or wrongly, being heaped on mainstream Hollywood these days, smaller films which develop a cult following are becoming all the rage. Those that don’t tend to go for the mainstream audience from the outset and try to tell an interesting story with some flair and creativity inevitably find themselves reaching fewer audiences but making many friends. The 1997 sci-fi hit Cube was one example, where a single set was the backdrop for one of the most interesting premises in recent times. The film marked the directorial debut of Vincenzo Natali, who was always going to produce more work after the success of his maiden effort. Steering clear of the Cube sequel made later down the track, Natali turned his focus to Cypher, another sci-fi mind-bender that upped the ante in terms of both story, scope and characters. There’s no doubt this guy’s got talent, and if nothing else he’ll keep producing those niche films we’ve all fallen in love with at least once before.

Cypher
Movie
This time Natali has assembled an accomplished cast, even if they’re not the most high-profile actors around. Jeremy Northam plays Morgan Sullivan, a character many of us could relate to in terms of his desire for excitement and adventure. When a large corporation called Digicorp offers him the chance to throw in his boring accounts work for a life as a corporate spy, naturally Morgan can’t contain his excitement. But like any decent sci-fi think-flick, things aren’t exactly how they seem.

Another corporation, named Sunways, enters the fray thanks to the mysterious Rita Foster (Lucy Liu), who tells Morgan that the meetings he is attending as a spy are an attempt by Digicorp to develop a legion of dedicated (read “brainwashed”) followers. Trust becomes the main issue here. Is Rita right in guiding Morgan towards the safety of Sunways, or is Digicorp legitimate and becoming a threat to them in the corporate world? It’s great to be able to follow the action without knowing any more than the characters do, as we become involved with Morgan and his incredibly new life as a corporate spy.

The first thing that should strike you about this film is the production design. While it’s not anything ground-breaking and wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to come up with, the way the look of the film is pulled off is nothing short of outstanding. Everything is washed in your typical cold, corporate blues and greys, with a very metallic feel overall. This simple touch really does heighten the suspense and intrigue for such an interesting story, and sci-fi films are the greatest beneficiaries of a more unique look to the picture.

While the opening two acts probably outstrip the third by a fair margin, the story overall is incredibly compelling. We care enough about the main characters in the story, Morgan in particular, to be able to forget about some of the less creative elements of the film’s finale. Suspense is built with an effortless touch of paranoia and the story elements are brilliantly combined with the oddball appeal that tends to attract a different audience to the mainstream. Natali has a definite gift for telling strange stories in a way which doesn’t have us raising our eyebrows at the major plot points.

Jeremy Northam excels in his role as Morgan Sullivan. Ably supported by Lucy Liu who seems to be enjoying herself immensely, Northam’s transformation into the character is remarkable. His subtle changes throughout the film as Morgan turns into a completely different person are great to watch and don’t ever stray into anything over the top.

Cypher is definitely one film out of many that has slipped through the cracks to become very much an underground cult flick. While it is not out-and-out science fiction nor is it purely an action flick with a little suspense thrown in, the story combines a heap of genres to pull you in and keep you there for the duration. This one is well worth a look and really should be sought out on DVD when you get the chance.

Cypher
Video
Production design was mentioned, so it comes as no surprise that the 1.85:1 widescreen transfer helps make things look so impressive. There’s very little colour to render here, but the greys and blues are vibrant enough to have you concentrating on the action the whole way through. Aliasing can often creep into similarly styled films yet I found little evidence of visual nasties at all in the transfer. Sharpness is good but probably could’ve been lifted up a notch to really make things stand out quite well, but that’s only a minor complaint. In all this is quite impressive, thanks largely to the work already accomplished by the amazing production design.

Audio
With sufficient scope to get a little creative with the audio, the creators of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on this release were able to provide a decent mix that uses the surrounds quite well. For the most part it is artificial effects and the slick little score that dominate the rears, while dialogue and other appropriate sounds shift around the rears throughout. There’s nothing really remarkable about the soundtrack but its subtlety and ability to create an immersive environment when given so little to work with is admirable. The car wash is the perfect example, using a simple scene yet making it very easy on the ears.

Extras
A small bunch of extras has been assembled that look like they may add some value, yet the whole package seems a little sloppily constructed. The only exception would be the commentary track, with director Natali, writer Brian King, actor David Hewlett who plays Virgil in the film (and also appeared in Cube) and Jasna Stefanovic, the production designer. These guys have a great rapport so the track is very interesting to listen to. Heaps of information is given about the making of the film, including the design, characters and the writing of the script.

What isn’t so entertaining, however, is the behind the scenes interview with the commentary track participants. An unseen reporter sits behind camera and fires questions at them from the start but never seems like he knows where he’s going or what types of questions he should be asking. Natali introduces everyone yet the reporter sees fit to ask everyone exactly who they are, which leaves them a little stunned but they continue anyway. The interview runs for a whopping 63 minutes in the one location, with the camera occasionally shifting around for close-ups but never cutting at all. The commentary probably sums things up a little more concisely but devout fans will love this information overdose.

Cypher
In contrast, the interview with Jeremy Northam is brief, running for just over a minute. Either it was my review copy or the interview just seemed to cut in mid-sentence, which was rather strange (and sloppy, once again). There’s very little of interest here, mainly because it’s so short. The same can be said for Lucy Liu’s interview, which runs twice the time but gives only a little bit more. The most interesting comment comes from the start when Liu calls the film Company Man, which was obviously an alternate name or working title. This interview is chopped up from a larger cut, so it would have been good to see the extended version.

Rounding out the small collection is the theatrical trailer, a great little creation that would’ve definitely raised my interest if I ever saw it around. But you can’t help think the trailer is the slickest part of the package, leaving one a little disappointed.

Overall
It’s a shame the film wasn’t exposed to a larger audience because it definitely has some real merit. Thankfully it arrives on our favourite format so that many more can enjoy what is a really good film, currently without enough people to please. The disc itself is backed up by an impressive transfer, some good use of the soundtrack and a few extras that will keep fans entertained after the feature. Check this one out and you won’t be disappointed.


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