Reality Check: Mark Kermode on a Sci-Fi Adaptation of a Story Philip K Dick Never Got Round to Writing

By Kermode, Mark | New Statesman (1996), August 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Reality Check: Mark Kermode on a Sci-Fi Adaptation of a Story Philip K Dick Never Got Round to Writing


Kermode, Mark, New Statesman (1996)


The cult sci-fi novelist Philip K Dick died in 1982, ,the same year that Ridley Scott s Blade Runner achieved the seemingly impossible task of bringing the author's peculiar brand of paranoid existentialism to the screen. A tale of an android-hunter who falls in love with a robot and then discovers that he may himself be a replicant, Blade Runner (from the novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) set the template for a string of PKD-inspired cinema fantasies including Total Recall, Impostor and Minority Report.

While it's impossible to know what Dick would have made of any of these films other than Blade Runner (of which he approved), it is intriguing to imagine the paranoid meltdown that Vincenzo Natali's Cypher might have provoked in his hyperactive mind. Because, despite its crystalline cinematic distillation of a classic Dick narrative (all "alternate realities" and "artificial personalities"), PKD would have had no memory of writing Cypher, which is, in fact, based entirely on an original script by the feature first-timer Brian King. Indeed, this may be the finest screen adaptation of a story never written by Philip K Dick.

The set-up for Cypher is classic PKD: a schlubby accountant, Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam), cast adrift in an anonymous grey-washed future of monolithic architecture and impersonal workspaces, seeks escape from his humdrum existence by becoming an industrial spy for a vast multinational, Digicorp. Having passed a series of intrusive psych-tests designed to weed out counter-spies from rival corporations, Morgan is invited to adopt a new identity--Jack Thursby (whose surname makes knowing reference to The Maltese Falcon)--and is ready to work as an industrial snoop. But after a chance meeting with an exotic Jerome fatale called Rita (Lucy Liu), Morgan/Jack discovers that there's more to his new life than meets the eye (or indeed the mind), and begins to spiral into a world of self-doubt in which not only his actions, but his very identity, become matters of confusion and intrigue. One minute he's attending marketing conventions for everyday toiletry products, the next he's hanging out of helicopters, dodging bullets and escaping a range of adversaries, all of whom want to use and abuse his shifting grip on reality.

Natali laid some of the philosophical groundwork for Cypher in his first feature, Cube, an ambitious existential nightmare in which six people are inexplicably trapped in a giant mechanical puzzle. …

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