Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) is planning to work for his father-in-law, at the request of his demanding wife, but the meek Morgan finds a job as a typical salaryman in the meantime, under the direction of Digicorp, a powerful business corporation that sets unexpectedly him up in the world of industrial espionage thanks to his anonymously grey demeanour. He doesn't have to do much, simply record the talks held at conventions, but along with a special gadget disguised as a pen, he does receive a new alias, which excites him - now he can pretend to be anyone he wants to be...
A convoluted spy fantasy that Philip K. Dick would be happy to watch, or write for that matter, Cypher was screenwritten by Brian King for director Vincenzo Natali, who had made waves with his economical science fiction low budgeter Cube shortly before this. Where a similarly complex thriller like The Spanish Prisoner fails because once you work out that nobody except the main character is to be trusted, the story holds no surprises, this film constantly catches you off guard with its visual flair and genuine, almost playful strangeness. As in the David Mamet film, there is still the element of nobody being who they say they are, but as it's science fiction, it can take you to unexpected places - and does.
Morgan is a kind of a cliché of a Walter Mitty character at the beginning (his alias of Jack Thursby even sounds reminiscent of James Thurber, Walter's creator), living out his dream of being a spy after a cowed existence on a level of low ambition, but when a mysterious woman (Lucy Liu) appears at his first convention, he is filled with misplaced courage and confidence and chats her up at the bar. He's doing well until she points out the wedding ring on his finger, whereupon he returns to his downtrodden self, makes excuses and leaves. But what is such a classy woman doing at a mundane corporate event like this? As you may surmise, there is more to her than meets the eye, a running theme here.
Therefore nothing is what it seems, and Natali keeps the camera close to his actors and the everyday objects around them, not letting you see too much and emphasising the claustrophobia of the experiences under surveillance and secrecy. Carefully, an air of absolute paranoia is set up, with those everyday objects - pens, telephones, even a salt shaker, all grist to the mill for hidden technology. Morgan begins to question his own identity, especially after he witnesses what is really happening at those apparently ordinary conventions in a humorously weird play on how a boring meeting at work can make you zone out as the boss drones on, and Northam is very impressive as both a mild-mannered, unimportant businessman and a reluctant double agent in fear of his life that he turns into, or perhaps was in the first place.
Once the tale opens up to include vast underground bases and gigantic supercomputers, the cold intimacy of the earlier scenes is lost, and a more hackneyed spy story emerges. And that final twist is guessable, sad to say, especially once you're attuned to the relentless duplicitousness of the plotting, but the winding journey to get there is stylish and clever. Its main character is a cog in a very large machine, and its sinister conglomerates are grand villains, reminiscent of the evil organisations of a sixties James Bond movie, so the film manages a sense of great scale on a medium budget that uses CGI in more subtle ways than if it had gone over the top with it - nothing dates quite as bad as computer graphics, but Cypher cannily gets away with it with aplomb. Ultimately not much we haven't seen before, especially for PKD aficionados - maybe an even more ambiguous ending would have suited it better - but the ice-cool presentation was sleek and excellent. Music by Michael Andrews.