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Cypher: Movie Review

Cypher (also known as Brainstorm in some countries) was released in 2002. It stars Jeremy Northam as Morgan Sullivan/Jack Thursby and Lucy Liu as Rita Foster. It was directed by Vincenzo Natali from a screenplay by Brian King.

Note: Spoilers are blacked out like like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To reveal a spoiler, just highlight it.

Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu in the spy thriller movie Cypher

Cypher: Logline

When a mild-mannered company man gets embroiled in futuristic mega-corporations’ cyber-espionage wars, he must decide whether to trust his instincts about the only woman who might be able to save him

Cypher: Plot Summary

In a near future, clinical but vaguely cyberpunk, USA, Morgan Sullivan gets a job working in corporate espionage for a mega-corporation called Digicorp, but is sent only to dull conventions under a new identity ‘Jack Thursby’.  This boring existence is interrupted by recurring headaches and nightmares.

Sullivan meets Rita at one of the conventions and is attracted to her, although she seems indifferent to him. However, Rita does give Sullivan some pills that she claims will cure the headaches, which Sullivan takes. Next time they meet, Rita tells Sullivan Digicorp is deceiving him. She also warns him that he must not react when weird stuff happens at the next ‘conference’.

And weird, even stomach churning, stuff does happen. All the convention attendees are drugged spies working for Digicorp and being brainwashed into total compliance with their new identities, the new identity being ‘Jack Thursby’ in Sullivan’s case. Sullivan has to fake compliance with the brainwashing, as Rita’s drugs have counteracted it.

Digicorp set Sullivan up with a fake life to match his new cover identity as Thursby and send him to Sunway, a rival mega-corporation, but because he isn’t brainwashed, Sunway’s security can tell his identity as Thursby is fake. Sunway had asked Rita’s boss, freelance super-spy Sebastian Rooks, to interfere with Digicorp’s brainwashing programme and send them a potential double agent. Sullivan is Rooks’ man.

Sunway use Sullivan to feed corrupted data to Digicorp. Sunway are delighted with Sullivan and send him to deliver a secret data disk to their super-secure underground ‘vault’. Sullivan calls Rita, who warns him that Sunway are just as ruthless as Digicorp and his life is in danger once he inputs the data. Instead he should swap the disk for one that will extract data for Rooks. In return Rooks will protect Sullivan from the mega-corporations. Rita also reveals that the mega-corporations know her identity and are searching for her with lethal intent. They must work together to save their lives…

Sullivan [blackout]manages to steal the required information from Sunway’s vault, only just escaping after Rita intervenes to save him.[/blackout]

Rita [blackout]takes Sullivan to meet Rooks, but he is suspicious and calls Digicorp. With Digicorp and Sunway’s security on the way, Sullivan enters a room full of objects he recognises. One is a photograph of him with Rita. He realises that in fact he is Rooks and must have brainwashed himself to take on the identity of Sullivan to infiltrate Digicorp. However, although he believes this is true, he still has none of Rooks’ memories.[/blackout]

The [blackout]apartment is invaded by Digicorp and Sunway’s security teams. Rita and Sullivan escape to the roof where Rooks has a helicopter. Rita and Sullivan can’t fly it, but Rooks can. Rita encourages Sullivan to recover his Rooks memories be concentrating on his love for her. He suddenly remembers everything. They take off and trigger a bomb that kills the pursuing mega-corporations’ men.[/blackout]

In the epilogue, [blackout]Rita and Sullivan/Rooks are on a yacht out at sea. Rooks reveals the data he stole was the only copy of Rita’s identity. He throws the disc into the sea. Now they are free from the mega-corporations clutches.  He did it all for love.[/blackout]


Lucy Liu in the Spy Thriller Movie Cypher


Cypher is an almost entirely plot driven movie, although with an excellent performance from Jeremy Northam, who slowly morphs from the dork Sullivan[blackout] into the Bond-like Rooks[/blackout]. However, I never really believed in Lucy Liu as a femme-fatale. David Hewlett who plays Virgil C. Dunn, the man whose skill at detecting liars was made redundant by computers, totally steals his scene as supervisor of the vault.

I watched Cypher twice. The first time I thought it was superb. The cinematography and art design are excellent, if somewhat derivative of The Matrix, the CGI helicopter though is not up to current standards, even seeming too small for the actors to fit in.

On second viewing I found Cypher much less effective. Clearly the mystery element and the twist [blackout]of Sullivan’s true identity[/blackout] are what the movie is all about,and once they are understood there’s not much left except admiration for Northam’s acting and the futurist set design.

And in case you’re wondering, the bible passage that Rita tells Sullivan encodes her phone number (Job 13:17) says, “Hear diligently my speech, and my declaration with your ears.” It gives the invalid telephone number 436-726-3993 which seems kinda appropriate.

Alternative Cypher Movie Poster

Here’s my design for an alternate poster for Cypher. The image of the mysterious Rita at the bar is one of the best in the film and was crying out for moody silhouetting. The trick was to get the sense of high-technology in using the dot font and the swirls of neon colour. Click the poster to see alternative posters for other spy thrillers.
Alternative Minimalist Movie Poster for Cypher staring Lucy Liu

Cypher: My Rating

A glossy, cyberpunk mystery thriller that holds the viewer’s attention right to the end.

Want to watch it?

Here’s the trailer:

The DVD is on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here

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