The future? It will be cheap...
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The Independent Culture

The most inspired instance of special-effects parsimoniousness in science fiction cinema was John Carpenter's debut feature Dark Star, in which he took a beach ball, stuck on a pair of claws and called it an alien. A close second is Cube, the 1997 debut by Canadian-based director Vincenzo Natali. Since the film was set entirely in a series of near-identical box-like cells, every set simply recycled the same few sheets of plastic as walls, lit a different colour for each scene. Such Lego-like economy allowed Natali to build a self-enclosed nightmare world, complete with ready-made pop-Kafka existential dread.

Natale's follow-up looks as though it cost a few dollars more to make than Cube, but not that much. Cheapness is one of Cypher's primary virtues, along with its derivativeness. Natale has a true B-movie bargain-hunter sensibility: like Carpenter, Roger Corman or Eighties cash-in specialist Charles Band, he has a recycler's dislike for letting anything go to waste. Cypher contains bits of Kubrick and Spielberg, a paranoid worldview taken piecemeal from Philp K Dick, a heavy salting of Hitchcock, a lacing of 007. But as in the best low-budget sci-fi cinema, generic borrowings not only provide a shorthand means of telling us what sort of universe we're dealing with, they also provide a short cut to the serious philosophical questions that often underlie the seemingly cheapest, most off-the-peg material.

Initially, Cypher looks as if it's going to be a cut-price answer to Spielberg's Dick adaptation Minority Report. In fact, this is a far better film, since Natali's budgetary limitations means he can never indulge in superfluous dazzle. There was no reason for Spielberg to curb his show-off urge to regale us with an entire plausible future world, while Natali has to suggest his world using a minimum of simple broad strokes. Cypher uses some CGI flash, but sparingly and very much to the point. What Natali and writer Brian King are interested in is telling a story as rigorously as possible, and their mathematical precision is what makes this labyrinthine intrigue - a classic example of the who-am-I-where-am-I mindfuck puzzler - so engrossing and enjoyable.

The film starts in some future corporate HQ, where a man called Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) reports for a job interview. Successfully passing the lie-detector tests, he's enlisted as an industrial spy, though this gauche, twitchy malleable milksop hardly seems like Bond material. But then he's merely required to fly to such quintessentially dreary venues as Omaha, Buffalo and Des Moines and sit through gruellingly grey seminars on Shaving Foam Distribution in North American Outlets; his discreet radio-transmitter pen does the rest.

This bizarrely passive job does have its appeals. It allows Sullivan to escape from a stultifying suburban home life with his wife - drawn in unreconstructedly misogynistic colours as a gloating castratrix - and to remodel himself to his own specifications. Under the pseudonym Jack Thursby, Sullivan creates a dashing new self who smokes fancy cigarettes, drinks single malts and has an intimate knowledge of South Pacific yachting routes. We witness the very moment when the wallflower Sullivan, improvising small talk at a business reception, gently but spectacularly blossoms into his gregarious smoothie alter ego. It's astute casting: Jeremy Northam, who tends to specialise in rakish charmers, effectively plays a man pretending to be Jeremy Northam. As the geekish, shuffling Sullivan, he lays it on cartoonishly thick, all the better to make Sullivan look absurdly out of place in the new world he inhabits, very much like Philip K Dick's beleaguered little-man loser-heroes. Mixing James Stewart diffidence and Jerry Lewis gawkiness, Northam's Sullivan is a 1950s jerk in a 2050s universe.

Before long, Lucy Liu turns up as the enigmatic Rita, a femme fatale in a copper Louise Brooks bob; she's less a character than a fancily mounted narrative function, but Liu brings a sly, dry humour to the proceedings and is more than game in the action sequences. Her arrival thickens the plot considerably, at which point I should probably reveal no more: this is the sort of film where the phrase "I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you" could fit plausibly into just about any scene.

Now and then, you may start rubbing your eyes and asking yourself whether you haven't been here before. In an inspired comic set-piece, Sullivan is obliged to sit through a transcendentally boring business presentation while wearing glasses that are a fancy refinement of Malcolm McDowell's horrific eye-clamps in A Clockwork Orange: we also see a brainwashing technique that's a digital-age revamp of the one in Alan J Pakula's The Parallax View. There's a distinct nod to the North By Northwest cropduster scene, with Sullivan dumped in the middle of nowhere to await further developments; this makes perfect sense, as Northam is a convincing reincarnation of Cary Grant's smoothie-in-a-pickle persona. And the use of a red pill to free Sullivan's mind is not so much a steal from, as a witty snipe at The Matrix - as if to say that whatever teasing questions the Wachowskis can raise about the nature of self, Natali can raise them a lot cheaper.

All the borrowings only enhance the oppressively paranoiac feel of the whole apparatus: the sense that we're in a world cobbled together from scraps of borrowed stories reinforces the uncanny sense of deja-vu and of hermetic enclosure: although Sullivan shuttles all over the USA, and although the film moves snappily from location to location, nevertheless we always remain bounded in a universe as disconcertingly constricted and airless as that of Cube.

Cypher has a gleeful sense of its own absurdity, yet manages to raise some serious points about the nature of corporate mentality. It also pulls off a rare feat in sustaining its unease right up to an ingenious double-twist denouement, then rounding things off on a gentle up-beat - paranoia with a surprisingly graceful feelgood ending. It has a strikingly bare-bones visual style too - shot by Derek Rogers, Cypher is best described as steely, the tone set by the cool grey-blue chrome glaze of the opening sequence, and colour gradually seeping in throughout as Sullivan's life progresses from anaemic to flat-out lurid.

Natali has made one of the smartest, most entertaining films of the year, and although it might be premature on the strength of only two films, it's tempting to hail him already as a true cheapskate auteur with a consistent vision: a Fritz Lang of future pulp? Natali's next project, apparently, is called Nothing: let's hope it's as appetisingly high-concept as it sounds.