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Director Vincenzo Natali made an impression with his 1997 feature debut, the indie sci-fi sleeper Cube, which has since gained a minor cult following amongst the Internet's more pretentious aesthetic fanboys. A storyboard artist on ambitious films like Beetlejuice and Ginger Snaps, as well as the French TV series "The Adventures of Tin-Tin," it comes as little surprise that Natali would display exquisite gifts as a visualist, creating just the kind of carefully planned and strikingly executed frames that resonate with avid readers of Kafka-inspired comic books. But it appears that Natali is equally as ambitious, if not quite as successful, in picking his narratives. Natali's twisty 2002 thriller Cypher, written by Brian King, is a case-in-point. Jeremy Northam stars as Morgan Sullivan, an undistinguished Wisconsin nebbish who, apparently hoping for a dramatic turn in the drab course of his life, enlists as an industrial spy for a powerful corporation. Sullivan is given a secret identity ("James Thursby") and dispatched on a series of seemingly pointless espionage missions, transmitting the contents of mundane lectures back to headquarters through his blinking camera pen (of course, one must wonder why most of the "secret" transmitting devices in this movie visibly blink). However, true to the recent spate of hyperactive suspense thrillers, Cypher vigorously inhabits one of those impossibly fluid movie-worlds where nothing is as it seems, not even when it seems like the opposite of what you thought it was seeming like the opposite of. Although Natali's approach sometimes verges on the ponderous — and, with the help of King's stilted dialogue and Northam's nasally affected performance, swims in a constant reflecting pool of artifice — the script's mildly clever (and yet often too vague) hyper-twists and meta-turns come quickly enough to anaesthetize deal-breaking reactions of indignant disbelief to its more preposterous elements. As slightly futuristic, independent psychological thrillers go, Cypher is much better than most of its peers, in that it manages to augment its technical skill with a frequently diverting story, and, perhaps by fortune more than by design, unsatisfyingly excuses the more awkward components of its execution with its final zig-zag. Cypher, despite some definite quality and atypical ambition, is overall insubstantial. Truer in substance to its title than for its own good, Natali's movie is a long shot away from delivering a fraction of the memorable detail and magnetism of the much better films it emulates — and frequently evokes — like David Fincher's The Game and Fight Club, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, and Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects. Also with Lucy Liu. Buena Vista's DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. No extras, keep-case.
— Gregory P. Dorr

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