Morgan's Not a Free Man

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Review of ’Cypher‘, director Vincenzo Natali

’I‘m not meant to live in the suburbs!‘ cries Morgan Sullivan during one of several identity crises in the sci-fi tinged thriller Cypher. His exasperation at his continuing normality is the deadpan humorous base on which director Vincenzo Natali builds an engaging, hyper real story of industrial espionage.

Sullivan, a bespectacled everyman with a yearning for excitement, is employed by multinational Digicorp as a corporate spy. But his expectations of Bond-style escapades for his alter-ego Jack Thursby are initially dashed as he is asked to record a dismally dull conference on marketing cosmetics. His only consolation is a brief flirtation with a woman called Rita, who (surprise, surprise!) is not all she seems ...

Mercifully, we are not asked to spend an hour and a half with a variation on Steve Coogan‘s self-deluding ’I‘m a tiger, grr‘ character. The corporate conferences that Morgan is supposed to spy on are, in fact, brainwashing sites - Digicorp really have put something in the water. Rita reappears to break the programming. Then things begin to get complicated as a rival corporation employs him as a double agent.

Cypher is an intelligent and multilayered film. The title itself has several meanings, including ’a message in code‘, ’a key to such a code‘ and ’a nonentity‘ - all of which seem applicable to Morgan and his tribulations. It is also full of genre references. Morgan‘s initial interrogation takes place in Room 102; David Lynch‘s dizzy intensity is mimicked as is Dark City‘s debt to Kafka; and enlightenment is offered, Matrix-style, in the form of a red tablet.

Cypher is the film many fans hoped Matrix Reloaded would be. Natali understands - in a way the Wachowski brothers seem to have forgotten - that the fantastic is most exhilarating when it breaks through the mundane. It‘s Morgan‘s desire to escape his plodding, joyless life, his feeling of powerlessness in the face of two interchangeable corporations, which is recognisable in a way that Neo‘s life as a deity could never be.

A brilliantly directed film thus earns itself enough credit, despite its derivativeness, to mute irritation at such cliches as Morgan‘s hair and eyesight improving alongside his confidence. And while the final of many twists should come as little surprise - the previous reversals having inexorably taken us to only one credible conclusion - it doesn‘t detract from the pleasure of a relatively low-budget film that boasts big (if borrowed) ideas.