A/V Room









Cypher - Making science fiction serious once more

Interview by: Jack Foley

STEVEN Soderbergh once told me that he felt it would be great if people stopped looking at science fiction films as westerns, while speaking at the London press conference for his film, Solaris.

It is a sentiment echoed by Cypher director, Vincenzo Natali, who agreed that he was happy that the genre had, once again, become a little more serious and intelligent, thanks to the likes of Soderbergh’s remake and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

"Science fiction is becoming so popular and so prevalent, but the thing is that it’s a very resilient genre; it absorbs other genres," he told me. "You can make a science fiction film that is also a comedy, and a horror, and a Western, or a combination of all if you wish, and still put it under the science fiction umbrella.

"It’s almost always a hybrid, and I’m just happy that, more recently, it has become a little more serious, and intelligent."

Cypher, starring Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu, falls comfortably into that bracket, thrusting viewers into a futuristic world, in which corporations rule and loss of identity is commonplace.

Northam stars as out-of-work accountant, Morgan Sullivan, who seeks an escape from his lacklustre existence by joining the multi-national computer corporation, Digicorp, to become a commanding spy. But, after falling under the spell of Liu’s elusive Rita, he is forced to work for a rival organisation as a double agent, and finds his only means of escape lies in uncovering the identity of a deep cover operative, known as Sebastian Rooks, who seems to have made a living out of playing one side off against the other.

The picture which results is a twisting and claustrophobic potboiler, that has earned Natali some rave reviews, as well as some favourable comparisons to The Matrix, The Manchurian Candidate and the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

And while Natali is flattered to have drawn such weighty comparisons, he remains modest in his achievement, stating that most of the credit lies with the writer, Brian King, whose story he developed.

"When Brian first mentioned the idea for Cypher, it was simply about a man travelling from convention to convention, and, no matter where he goes, it all seems same; and over the course of his travels, he starts to lose his own sense of identity," explains the director.

This was exciting to me - in a world controlled by large corporations, and drained of humanity, what happens to people? Do they lose their sense of identity?"

He continues: "As soon as I read the script, I was impressed by how complex and how flawless it was. Brian and I had already been working together on developing a project with a Hollywood studio that went nowhere, but we remained friends afterwards.

"He initially gave me the script to get an opinion, and my opinion was that he should let me direct it. I immediately knew it was a film for me.

"We started filming eight months after I agreed to do it, which was almost too fast, but then I guess it just felt like one of those things that was meant to be."

The ability to be able to start filming again was another reason why Natali embraced the project, for the director had found himself in ‘development hell’ following the release of his breakthrough movie, Cube, five years earlier.

"I’ve certainly had some Digicorp-type experiences, yes," he laughs, when recalling the period, during which it seemed, at times, like he might never get to make another film again.

But in spite of the experience, the director insists he would leap at the opportunity of tackling a big budget project should the opportunity arise.

"Hollywood is a big scary machine," he admits. "But I would love to do studio films. It can be hard making films that have a lot of visual effects for very little money, and I am fortunate to have worked with generous people. But I keep dipping into the same well, and, at some point, I’m going to have to start paying them!"

Not that Natali has to worry, for the distinctive look of the film is another of the reasons why critics are hailing it as such a work of quality. And it is something that the director tackled early.

"I knew instantly that this was a film that had to be told from a first person perspective. It takes place in the main character’s head and that idea excited me, because Cube was a movie that was far more about being a group dynamic.

"I wanted to design a look that accentuates the transformation the main character makes. The film evolves visually, along with Morgan Sullivan, as he turns into Jack Thursby, and, ultimately, into who he becomes. I saw it as being a highly stylised film and as a director it was really exciting to be able to create that kind of world."

And commenting on those comparisons with The Matrix, which could yet help to propel him into the blockbuster spotlight, Natali adds.

"I love the first Matrix film, and thought it was highly intelligent, so that is amazing to hear and very flattering. But if there is any similarity, then I guess it comes from the fact that both movies have similar influences, most notably in Philip K Dick.

"When I read Cypher for the first time, it read to me as a more faithful Philip K Dick story than a lot of the films that are actually based on existing Philip K Dick stories. And I’m sure that the Wachowski Brothers were influenced by him as well.

"As for comparisons with The Manchurian Candidate, it also compared with another of John Frankenheimer’s films, Seconds, with Rock Hudson, which was also a paranoid thriller concerned with identity.

"I felt this was a movie that paid homage to other sources, but I think it is the way that Brian takes all of those familiar elements and blends them together, is what makes it so unique. In a way, the movie is a little like the character of Morgan; a blend of different elements, which ultimately comes into its own."

It is hard not to disagree, for Cypher is the type of movie which really ought to be seen by any true fan of science fiction.

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