Previous entries in this series can be found here. Without further ado, I present number three in my list of favourite, unmissable Alternate Reality movies, the brilliant Cypher.

3. Cypher (2002, dir: Vincenzo Natali) 9/10cypher poster

The Cambridge dictionary offers two illuminating definitions of the word ‘cipher’ (the correct way to spell this word) as a ‘person without power, but used by others for their own purposes.’ The other definition says it’s an encoded ‘system of writing that prevents most people from understanding the message’. Both of these statements refer obliquely to what is really happening at the core of the excellent Cypher, for you’ll need to watch it at least twice. Most people will assuredly be ‘prevented from understanding the message’, at least first time around!

Courtesy of the director of Cube (from 1997), Vincenzo Natali’s feature debut, Cypher (2002) is one of the best unsung Alternate Reality movies of all time. An intelligent script from Brian King plays fast and loose with viewer expectations, as Cypher very skilfully conceals far more than it reveals – for about three quarters of the movie. This, however, makes the final reveal all the more rewarding. How to describe it? Well, if I said it was twisty sci-fi with shades of film noir, a futuristic thriller rooted in corporate epsionage (between rival software companies), I would be correct. But like all attempts to capture the essence of great art in one sentence, my description would fall short. Let’s just say it could be Jeremy Northam’s finest moment. Or Lucy Lui’s, for that.

Cypher is all about the ineffectual and diffident Morgan Sullivan (Northam) who works for a software company, Digicorp. Sent on a secret mission to spy on a rival firm, he secretly records its seminars through a concealed mini-device housed in a pen, something so clichéd that James Bond would wince with embarrassment. The plot thickens, as they say, with the arrival of a mystery woman, Rita Foster (Lucy Liu), whose evident seductive charms are not wasted on Sullivan. Our hero has been told to assume the alias of Jack Thursby, as he ingratiates himself into the shady hi-tech world that is Sunway Systems. He even wakes up one morning to find he – apparently – really is Thursby, complete with a new house, and new wife, there to greet him as he sets off for work.

However, we soon sense that – like the unconscious mind – there’s far more going on beneath the surface. We suspect a much bigger story arc, and it turns out we’re right. It all goes back to the mysterious Rita, with whom Sullivan/Thursby has become entangled. He is asked to trust her over and over, but can he? Then there is the bombshell: an even shadier figure (whom no one has ever seen) has been subtly pulling strings, by playing Digicorps and Sunways Systems off against each other. This is one Sebastian Rooks, a wealthy, dangerous freelancer who must sabotage one of these companies in a dangerous mission. He sends Sullivan/Thursby to retrieve a computer disk from the heavily fortified Sunways vault. Apparently, his very life depends on the successful retrieval of said disk. In an action sequence of manoeuvres worthy of the Mission Impossible franchise, the disk is switched and our hero escapes in the nick of time with help from Rita and a helicopter. The disk must then be delivered to a secret location, a large mansion, where our hero will find Rooks. Where he will most certainly find Rooks.

To digress, perhaps this isn’t strictly speaking an Alternate Reality film, though it’s clear that its environment has a strange ‘otherness’ – hinted at in its bleached out colour, sombre lighting and mild mood of paranoia. Sullivan’s wife, always nagging him for being such a loser, somehow has an air of unreality. As if she was merely following a script – within the movie itself. Remember when Jim Carrey, in the Truman Show, realised that his life was nothing more than an elaborate screenplay, and everyone was in on it? This is the vague impression created by Cypher. None of this seems quite normal, and Sullivan/Thursby is clearly having some kind of experience. But what, exactly? Has he been drugged perhaps? Or is everything here some kind of Matrix-like virtual reality? And just who the hell is Rita?

Here come the spoilers. The alternative reality, for most of the film’s 95 minute running time is reserved for Sullivan/Thursby. It is he – and he alone – who’s undergoing an entirely different understanding of the events we see. This will sound confusing for now, but read on. Because, he is not the bookish wimp we think he is, and indeed, he thinks he is. He is not the man we see trapped in a loveless marriage with an overbearing wife. Nor is he the out-of-his-depth, bespectacled worm who falls for a sexy femme-fatale. He is none of these things. He is Sebastian Rooks. The problem is that he doesn’t know it yet.

Rita awaits him at the mansion when the disk is delivered, though he’d been told she was about to lead him to his death, and that once in possession of the disk, Rooks would kill him. Our anxious hero shoots Rita in the arm during an awkward scuffle, at which point he’s summoned to meet The Man. As he waits, it dawns on our hero that he is himself the person he’s been sent to meet. This is the Big Reveal. His head swirls: a bottle of his favourite whisky, his preferred brand of cigarette, his golf clubs and a photo of himself and Rita, are all there in the room. He looks to her in disbelief as armed men approach the building.

The whole identity charade has been his own invention – a kind self hypnosis to get past Digicorp’s powerful and highly sensitive security and scanning technologies. He needed to convince himself he was someone else, first! The whole thing has been designed by Sebastian Rooks – right down to the counterfeit, nagging wife. First, though, as his memory returns, he and Rita must evade the armed security goons of Digicorp and Sunway – a helicopter waits on the roof. If he can remember how to fly it they can get away. After all, he built it!

Still, though, we don’t know what was on the disk Rooks stole, and why he had to have it. And we don’t know who Rita is! Not until the last scene. On a luxury boat out on the ocean, it is clear that Sebastian Rooks and Rita Foster are lovers. The disk contains sensitive information on her, indeed, it’s a digital death warrant. As he inserts the disk into a laptop her face appears on the screen, marked “terminate with extreme prejudice”, after which Rooks slings the disc into the ocean. It was all done for love. Mystery solved. Reality restored.

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