Identity Crisis

Trying to figure out whether the 'Impostor' is human or alien won't appeal to most moviegoers, but sci-fi fans may make it a cult classic

January 04, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the future, it will pay to know who your friends are - as well as what they are.

Impostor is a paranoid, claustrophobic look into a future where danger is ever-present and nothing, not even our own senses, can be trusted. It should come as no surprise that this tableau was imagined by Philip K. Dick, a futurist obsessed with the question of illusion vs. reality.

The film, however, presents a quandary to fans of sci-fi as a genre, and Dick in particular. As a movie, it's considerably flawed. It has a middle that's padded, a look that could use a few more light bulbs, a protagonist who never earns our sympathy, and an audio mix that leans much too heavily on the bass, often making it impossible to understand what's being said.

But as an effort to translate Dick's fevered mind into the language of celluloid, (and it's a mind in which hallucinogens played no small part), Impostor hits its mark. The hazy backgrounds, shifting speeds, multiple images, murky palettes - if this isn't how Dick saw the world when his creative juices were flowing, it's how many of us suspect that he saw it.

The year is 2079, and Earth is a wreck. We're at war with a race of aliens from Alpha Centauri, and we're not faring well. Although the Centaurians are genetically and intellectually superior, they haven't advanced much in the area of morality; their only goal is our destruction.

To protect ourselves, we've built huge protective domes over major cities. Although the people inside are safe, those on the outside live in squalor and have been written off as not worth saving. Microchips have been planted in people within the cities to keep track of their comings and goings. Individual governments have been replaced by one centralized ruling council to coordinate our war with the aliens. No matter how you spin it, life in 2079 is pretty bleak.

Providing a ray of hope is Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise), a scientist who's about to unveil his newest invention, a weapon he predicts will finally turn the war in Earth's favor.

But a sinister secret-agent type named Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio) shows up with horrific news: Olham really is a replicant manufactured by the aliens, who have killed the real Olham and replaced him with what essentially is a walking time bomb, designed to kill the Earth's chancellor. Hathaway grabs Olham, drugs him and takes him off to an interrogation/extermination room.

When Olham wakes up (the story never is clear about why Hathaway and his cronies didn't simply kill him), he escapes. Eventually, he gets outside the dome, where he enlists the grudging help of an outcast named Cale (Mekhi Phifer) to prove he's human.

But is he?

Impostor does a nice job of keeping the question open; the aliens program their replicants to think they're human, and about the only way to tell otherwise is to rip their hearts out and detonate the bombs hidden therein. Olham is sure of who he is, except little things keep happening to suggest he might not be. Even his wife, Maya (Madeleine Stowe), who should know whether he is real or not, can't make up her mind.

Impostor originally was envisioned as one-third of a three-part film based on Dick's writings, and it's too bad that original concept fell through. A chase that takes up roughly the middle third of the film easily could be eliminated, and a more streamlined version of this story would play much better.

While D'Onofrio and Stowe are both fine in roles that play to their strengths - his picture should appear next to "sinister" in the dictionary, while she's in many ways reprising her more substantial role in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys - Sinise is trying something different, an everyman character in whom audience members can see themselves. But it doesn't work; he's too intense a presence, too singular a persona, to be easily identified with.

Here's betting Impostor becomes a cult film of the first order, however; while mass audiences may find little to grab on to, sci-fi fans should appreciate Dick's vision and the faithfulness with which it is brought to the screen.

Impostor

Starring Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stowe

Directed by Gary Fleder

Rated PG-13 (adult language, violence, sexuality)

Released by Dimension Films

Running time 97 minutes

Sun score **1/2

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