"Imposter" is a penny-pinched "Blade Runner," a stubbornly unexciting ride into the near future fronted by superb thesps in slumming mode. "Impostor" is based on a Philip K. Dick's short story, and like so much of the sci-fi master's work, this is fundamentally a detective thriller that strives to consider the realm of personal identity.

“Imposter” is a penny-pinched “Blade Runner,” a stubbornly unexciting ride into the near future fronted by superb thesps in slumming mode. Built on a mood of paranoia and the theme of the uncertainty of appearances, “Impostor” is based on a Philip K. Dick’s short story, and like so much of the sci-fi master’s work, this is fundamentally a detective thriller that strives to consider the realm of personal identity. Despite extremely resourceful uses of existing locales to depict a besieged America 75 years hence, pic’s futuristic setting only partially convinces, and helmer Gary Fleder’s indifferent handling gives the whole enterprise a generic feel that won’t be enough to provide action fans the early January fix they’re desperate for right now.

On Dimension’s shelf since it was shot two years ago, before Fleder’s similarly uninteresting contempo thriller, “Don’t Say a Word,” production is hardly the kind of embarrassment that such dust-collectors usually portend. Indeed, it reflects the upfront involvement of star Gary Sinise — in one of his rare lead outings — also serving as producer alongside Fleder. In the end, alas, the obvious interests of an actor of Sinise’s range and depth are subsumed to the blunt demands of a standardized chase movie.

A brief prologue establishes weapons designer Spence Olham (Sinise) as the son of a father who died in the human race’s battle against theCentauri, a highly developed and aggressive alien force intent on controlling Earth. Something like the invading beings in “Independence Day” but without the apparent instinct for overwhelming force, the Centauri remain unseen throughout pic but their power is felt through their ability to kill people and replace them “Body Snatcher”-like in an identical form, only with a ticking nuclear bomb encased in the heart chamber.

In the year 2079, Spence is happily married to Maya (Madeleine Stowe), a doctor at the Veterans Hospital in the center of an unnamed city that looks as if it was designed by an architect geek who read too many illustrated science fiction tomes. Spence and Maya’s home is replete with voice-activated creature comforts, while the outside world is under a giant shield to ward off invading Centauri.

The war’s latest weapon, a Spence creation for which he has trepidation a la Robert Oppenheimer and his nuke, is about to be presented to the ruling chancellor (Lindsay Crouse), and Spence and pal Nelson (Tony Shalhoub) are feeling the pressure. But things suddenly turn upside down in pic’s most startling scene as security chief Hathaway (Vincent D’Onofrio) suddenly zaps and drugs Spence and arrests him. The charge: Spence is Spence no more — he’s an alien replicant, who believes that he’s Spence.

D’Onofrio delivers the grimness with enough brio to convince Nelson and probably most of the audience. But Spence won’t be put down, and escapes death on a surgical table. Checking in with Maya via videophone, he realizes that even she has her doubts about him.

The dogged Hathaway is Javert to the desperate Spence’s Jean Valjean, but without “Les Miserables”‘ — or, most especially, author Dick’s — acute social critique and psychological layering. Things are as chase-movie basic as can be, and with just enough convenient plot gaps to extend the chase as far as it gets. Spence runs through picturesque wasteland, hides in alleys and tenements , and has the kind of kill-me-or-help-me relationship with a young man, Cale (Mekhi Phifer), that every movie fugitive hero requires.

Spence can get proof of his true identity at Maya’s hospital, where he can also get Cale the medicine he needs for the quasi-underground hospital he helps run in the boondocks — but only if Cale helps get him back into the city.

“Impostor” plods along, somewhat efficiently if uninterestingly, until a crucial moment in the hospital over an hour into the running time gives the game away as far as Spence’s true identity is concerned. It’s a moment that the filmmakers perhaps felt was ambiguous enough to keep us guessing, but is actually so obvious that it utterly saps the final sequencesof any suspense or impact.

Sinise’s rather intense performance is, in retrospect, quite an act, since there is so little for him to build on and so much yardage for him to run from the unflappable, growling D’Onofrio. It does suggest, though, what interesting work Sinise could do in a finely made thriller grounded in ideas and character.

Stowe’s gifts for emotional acuity are underused, and unlike a much more developed role in sci-fi thriller, “Twelve Monkeys,” she isn’t allowed to get out of the starting gate this time. The fine Shalhoub is disposed of early on, but Phifer keeps the movie’s momentum going as a guy just as hard-pressed as Spence.

Pic’s frequent droopiness is hardly helped by dim light levels; entire scenes are nearly lost in the dark. Even with the esteemed Industrial Light & Magic as main effects designer, pic’s futurist look is least convincing in its digitals, cityscape views and larger effects. Recalling George Lucas’ “THX 1138,” Fleder and crew hunt down a marvelous range of actual locations that powerfully render the story’s paranoid atmosphere amidst bunker-like architecture.

Impostor

Production

A Dimension Films release and presentation of a Marty Katz production in association with Mojo Films. Produced by Gary Fleder, Gary Sinise. Executive producer, Michael Phillips. Coproducers, Cary Granat, Andrew Rona, Michael Zoumas. Co-executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Directed by Gary Fleder. Screenplay, Caroline Case, Ehren Kruger, David Twohy, based on the story "The Impostor" by Philip K. Dick; adaptation, Scott Rosenberg.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Robert Elswit; editors, Armen Minasian, Bob Ducsay; special sequences and additional editing, Jonathan Silver; music, Mark Isham; music supervisor, David Schulof; production designer, Nelson Coates; art director, Kevin Jay Cozen; set designers, Colin De Rouin, Harry E. Otto, Fanee Aaron; set decorator, Anne D. McCulley; costume designer, Abigail Murray; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Arthur Rochester; supervising sound editors, Eric Lindemann, Mark Mangini; visual effects supervisor, George Murphy; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; additional visual effects, Metrolight Studios, Netter Digital, Blackbox Digital, Computer Cafe, Digital Firepower, Cinema Production Services, Threshold Digital Research Labs; special effects coordinator, Clay Pinney; special prosthetic effects, Mastersfx Inc.; makeup FX designer, Todd Masters; fight choreography, Pat E. Johnson; associate producer, Jossamber Stevens; assistant directors, James Sbardellati, Steve Love; second unit camera, Rick Bota; casting, Heidi Levitt, John Papsidera. Reviewed at Miramax screening room, L.A., Dec. 31, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13.CQ Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Spence Olham - Gary Sinise
Maya Olham - Madeleine Stowe
Hathaway - Vincent D'Onofrio
Nelson Gittes - Tony Shalhoub
Dr. Carone - Tim Guinee
Cale - Mekhi Phifer
Chancellor - Lindsay Crouse
Midwife - Elizabeth Pena
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