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Film / Cypher

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So... what else do you do besides travel to dull cities and talk to women in hotel bars?

Cypher is a 2002 sci-fi thriller directed by Vincenzo Natali (of Cube and Splice fame), starring Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu.

The story follows Morgan Sullivan (Northam), a bored and henpecked house-husband who gets a job as a corporate spy in order to add some excitement into his dull routine and annoy his overbearing wife. At first he's thrilled by the prospect of creating a whole new life for himself as a "secret agent" but soon finds that the realities of the industry are somewhat less interesting - recording presentations about shaving cream distribution and consumer trends in the processed cheese market.

However, after he runs into a beguiling and flirtatious woman named Rita Foster (Liu) at a hotel bar, things take a dive off the deep end.

Beautifully shot with Natali's trademark visual flair, this was a smart low-budget neo-noir with a storyline very heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick.

Not to be confused with Cypher Language.

WARNING: Colossal Spoilers Ahead!

This film provides examples of:

  • 555: Notably averted with Rita's secret number, which uses 726 for the exchange code, rather than the 555 usually used in most movies fictional works. Howevever, 555 can still be seen printed on a taxi cab and is the middle section of the telephone number Finster gives Morgan to call him after the Vault job.
  • Accent Relapse: Inverted; Morgan goes through a few along the course of his espionage activities due to inventing an accent for his spy persona. Later subverted when he drops to his original British accent after remembering he's really Sebastian Rooks.
  • Adrenaline Makeover: See Becoming the Mask.
  • Almighty Janitor: Virgil, the keeper of the vault, seems to have amazing skills but was demoted to do low rank work because computers have taken over the business.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The neurograph and Rooks's brainwashing devices.
  • Becoming the Mask: Morgan's transformation into the personality of his James Bond-esque alter ego, Jack Thursby. Later subverted when Morgan is (not-really-)brainwashed by Digicorp in that his new life is just like his old crushingly boring and futile life, and not like the swish and romantic one he had invented for his first assignments.
    "I... I smoke cigarettes! I play golf! I'm not supposed to live in the suburbs!"
  • Beneath the Earth: The Vault, which houses all of Sunway Systems secret files, is a massive complex located deep underground somewhere in the midwest, that can only be accessed through a super-fast elevator.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Sebastian Rooks, a Magnificent Bastard who is often ruthless but capable of genuine feelings (at least for Rita), versus the heads of Digicorp and Sunway Systems who are... just your ordinary ruthless bastards. There's also the protagonist Morgan Sullivan who tries to maneuver between all of them, but he's actually Rooks.
  • Brainwashed: Digicorp trains many of its field operatives this way, so they can pass through their opponents neurograph technology.
  • Brainwash Residue: His affection for Rita, the newly discovered smoking habit, interest in golfing and other traits of his true identity leak into Rooks's cover identity as Jack.
  • Broken Masquerade: What happens to Morgan ever after the Red Pill, Blue Pill incident.
  • Catapult Nightmare
  • Chekhov's Armoury: See Foreshadowing below.
  • The Chessmaster: Sebastian Rooks. He also has most of the qualities of the Magnificent Bastard and the Manipulative Bastard
  • Chess Motifs: Explicitly stated. Sebastian Rooks is the, er, Rook with Morgan Sullivan being the Pawn. The clever part is the sacrificial Pawn becoming the Rook when he reaches the reaches the metaphorical end of the board, all in order to protect the Queen, Rita. The two opposing technology corporations, DigiCorp and Sunway Systems, are also color-coded as the opposing sides of a chess board, with DigiCorp being black, and Sunway Systems white.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Morgan's world is an endless succession of neutral tones, by way of a heavily desaturated look.
  • The Dreaded: Sebastian Rooks, to the extent that even Finster and Callaway appear to fear him. Rooks later ensures his reputation is deserved when he kills them both in cold blood.
  • Drink-Based Characterization: Morgan starts to drink "whiskey, single malt, on the rocks" whenever he's out doing missions as "Jack Thursby" because he wants to feel like a badass secret agent, even surprising his fake wife when he says he wants some, because apparently he didn't drank before. It eventually is revealed that it's because this is Sebastian Rooks's favorite alcoholic drink. Morgan's love for it is The Constant after his memory erasure.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Dunn is shown to habitually drink heavily after musing on his banishment to the Vault after neurograph machines made his job as a mole spotter obsolete.
  • Double Agent: Taken to ridiculous extremes. Almost every character is a double agent, to the extent you'll be sure that even the cleaners had a hidden agenda. And the protagonist is... well, let's see. He starts as a spy for Digicorp, they brainwash him into a double agent to be planted at Sunways, but Sunways had the brainwashing sabotaged so he could be a triple spy, then he contacts Foster to become a spy for Rooks, then gets tempted into betraying Rooks for Digicorp as Rooks's mole in Digicorp had planned all along, and then turns out to be Rooks himself playing all the others. So that's 6 times; a Sextuple Spy. Yeah.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: The protagonist is the plaything in a Gambit Pileup. He ends up a hex-tuple spy, ultimately working for himself. He pulled a Memory Gambit before the movie began, so he could pass one set of lie-detectors to get into one agency, then fail the same set of lie-detectors to get into the rival agency.
  • Elevator Action Sequence: A vertigo-inducing maglev variant.
  • Elevator Escape: See above.
  • Enemy Mine: When Finster and Callaway realize they are after the same man (Rooks), they work together.
  • The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend: After being drawn in by her good looks, this is why Morgan begins to trust Rita.
  • Eye Scream: The brainwashing devices.
  • Faceless Goons: The Sunways private army.
  • Feed the Mole: Sunways' plan for Jack Thursby; see also The Thirty-Six Stratagems.
  • Femme Fatale: Rita Foster.
  • Flock of Wolves: Played with. It turns out that ALL the attendants of the conferences that the protagonist visits across the country in his job as a corporate spy are also agents of DigiCorp sent to spy on their competitors. However, they're not actually spies, but targets for DigiCorp's brainwashing program.
  • Foreshadowing: And how. The boating book, whisky, Cohiba's, Rita, the bad dreams and headaches
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: At the finale of the movie, Rooks and Foster are looking at the disc containing the Sunway Systems file on Rita Foster which gives background on the character's life.
  • Friendless Background: Morgan.
  • Gambit Pileup: Might as well be the Trope Codifier.
  • Gambit Roulette: Not only is Digicorp plotting against Sunways through Morgan, but Sunways are plotting against Digicorp through Sebastian Rooks. However, Rooks is also plotting against Digicorp and Sunways through Morgan Sullivan by way of Rita Foster and... well, just go watch it.
  • The Ghost: Sebastian Rooks. Later revealed to have been a massive subversion.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Played with with Finster and Callaway. Finster has a quietly menacing air about him from the word go, whilst Callaway is friendly and approachable when he introduces himself to Morgan. Later subverted in that we see that they're both equally vicious, murdering bastards with their own private army of Mooks.
  • Henpecked Husband: Even after he's done all the cooking and cleaning, Morgan's wife shouts at him when he tells her he's going to be working freelance instead of going to work for her father. Thankfully Morgan has Taken a Level in Badass, and he refuses to go along with her plans for him. We later see an identical situation, with "Jack"'s wife ordering him about around the house and directing his career path. And even later, we learn that Morgan's "wife" was just one of Rooks's employees posing as such.
  • Homage: It's impossible to do a story like Cypher without at least alluding to PKD and Where Eagles Dare.
  • House Husband: Justified in that his wife is the breadwinner, but Morgan clearly doesn't enjoy being one.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Morgan accidentally shoots Rita in the hotel.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Justified by Applied Phlebotinum.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: Jeremy Northam was not a well-known actor when he took the role of Morgan Sullivan in 2002. However, his acting and the way he morphs into various different characters as the story continues and his character learns how to be a corporate spy was considered exceptional at the time. It won him several acting awards for the part that he played which unfortunately spoils the film for anyone who hasn't seen it. He was awarded for playing three separate personas - Morgan Sullivan, Jack Thursby and Sebastian Rooks. The advertising of the awards it and its actors have won can ruin the major plot twist that Morgan Sullivan was Sebastian Rooks all along.
  • Lie Detector: The entire movie is build around the fact that neurograph machines have become able to tell for certain if somebody tells a lie. That's why spies have to be brainwashed in order to protect their secret identities.
  • Living Lie Detector: Virgil Dunn. Nevertheless, neurograph machines have put him out of business.
  • Locked in a Freezer: One of the first scenes where Morgan is told what the hell is going on.
  • MacGuffin: The disc from the vault. Turns into a MockGuffin after the trip to The Vault since the true agenda is to delete the data, not to retrieve it. Morgan himself is a Living MacGuffin created by Rooks.
  • Manchurian Agent: Subverted. Morgan is already an agent and requires a trigger to go back to his normal self.
  • Meaningful Name: The character of Virgil C. Dunn (keeper of the vault) would appear to be a reference to the Latin poet Virgil, specifically in Dante's The Divine Comedy it was Virgil who was the guide the Hell and Purgatory, as a non-Christian he was unable to enter Heaven.
  • Mega-Corp: Two of them, namely DigiCorp and Sunway Systems. Complete with intelligence agencies that dwarf those of most countries, and of course their own commando teams.
  • The Men in Black: Are in place everywhere to uphold the Masquerade.
  • Mexican Standoff: Between Digicorp and Sunway security forces in the hotel.
  • Mind Screw: A Gambit Pileup complete with several revelations and an ending that changes everything.
  • "Mission: Impossible" Cable Drop: Rita employs this trope when helping Morgan to escape from the vault.
  • Mock Millionaire: In getting into character, Morgan begins effecting traits of a globe-trotting playboy; wearing finer clothes, indulging in top-label scotch and cigarettes, referring to exotic locations he's traveled to on his yacht. Subverted, as those are all qualities of his true personality, a genuine billionaire.
  • The Mole: Too many to count.
  • Oh, Crap!: Morgan as he's trying to escape the lift shaft, plus Finster and Callaway as they see the bomb.
  • Precision F-Strike: Don't ask Morgan to go and work for his father-in-law.
  • Pretend to Be Brainwashed: A bunch of sales people are drugged from served drinks and then brainwashed. Amongst them, the protagonist manages to stay sober by means of an antidote. He then continues to act like everyone else while observing what is being done to the group.
  • Red Pill, Blue Pill: "If you want answers, take the shot."
  • Secret Identity
  • Serious Business: Whatever business Digicorp is in. Yes, industrial espionage happens in the real world, but the resources spent here to spy on their competitor, and to prevent them from spying on you, are really turned up to eleven. Makes you wonder what exactly those companies make.
  • Sexier Alter Ego: Jack Thursby certainly is one to Morgan.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Morgan takes up smoking as part of his spy persona.
  • Spanner in the Works: "It's a good plan really. Except for one little detail he forgot to account for. Me."
  • Spot the Imposter: "Are you a double agent?"
  • Spy Fiction: With Cyberpunk elements.
  • Stepford Suburbia: After his interview with Digicorp, Morgan drives back home to his suburban residence. The cinematography puts emphasis on the uniform sterility of his neighborhood to justify why he would want to seek out a more exciting existence as a corporate spy.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Morgan Sullivan is actually Sebastian Rooks.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Justified. Morgan Sullivan starts out the movie as a timid, cuckolded house husband who's looking to make his life a bit more interesting by becoming a corporate spy. By the end of the movie he's sat through an intensive brainwashing session without batting an eyelid, escaped from an ultra-high security data centre and blown up a small army of Mooks. Subverted in the sense that he's been a badass all along and didn't know it.
  • Tropical Epilogue: The ending scene features the protagonist and his love interest spending time together on a sailboat in some tropical location.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The only real change from now is the introduction of the neurograph devices, and the implausible architectural structure that is the Vault.
  • Twist Ending
  • What You Are in the Dark: An interesting variant - given the opportunity to create an entirely new personality from scratch, the meek and awkward Morgan Sullivan creates the persona of Jack Thursby, who is inadvertently similar to the ruthless and sophisticated Sebastian Rooks.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Rooks's plan adapts with the varying state of the two rivalling Gambit Roulette-playing technology firms and Morgan's mind. Although to be exact, it's more that the unknowing Rooks/Sullivan has his plan adapted for him by Rita, whom he's no doubt briefed on what the likely outcomes of various events will be and what do do if and when they happen.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: People keep warning the protagonist that his current employer will do this to him. Then when he decides to betray that employer and work with the one who warned him about it, someone else warns him that his new employers will do the same. Doesn't actually happen to him, but it does happen with Finster and Callaway and their Mooks who, after being used to help retrieve the MacGuffin, are blown up by Rooks as he makes his escape.