Fake Out

Impostor ponders big themes, but it's not the real thing.

Gary Sinise (right) stars as a weapons designer -- or a weapon.
Gary Sinise (right) stars as a weapons designer -- or a weapon.
Impostor's been sitting on the shelf for a year and a half, and before that it was a short intended as part of a larger trilogy, so it arrives in theaters already bearing a fetid stench. It helps less that it arrives the first week of the new year, a dumping ground where studios bury the corpses they hope no one will ever find. There is a tiny upside, of course: Impostor comes without hope or expectation, and any hint of competency might engender slight goodwill; if one is dazzled by the mere sight of moving pictures, it indeed does not disappoint. But Impostor is doomed regardless, not least of all because it shares its main theme with two films released during the last month -- Hollywood's sweeps season, when Oscar contenders vie for critical love and audience lucre. Like A Beautiful Mind and Vanilla Sky, Impostor toys with our notion of what's real and what's imagined; everything we see is not to be believed, and everything we believe is not to be trusted. Only Impostor presents its ankle-deep theme with trite, sci-fi (and buddy-picture) clichés -- and, worse, it's a sloppy bit of filmmaking, by a hack who mistakes "art" for "nauseatingly unwatchable."

Once more, filmmakers have rifled through the pages of Philip K. Dick and discovered yet one more tale about What Makes Us Human; little wonder, then, that Impostor feels as though it was cobbled together from Total Recall and Blade Runner outtakes. (The former was very loosely based on Dick's story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"; the latter, on his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Everything about Impostor, from its dank futuristic setting to its unrelentingly bombastic score to its what-the-f---? finale, is so familiar, one can only wonder whether we haven't awakened in an alternate reality where such movies are, in fact, brand new and not empty revisions of better works.

Spence Olham (Gary Sinise, slumming it again in low-rent sci-fi) is a weapons designer about to unveil his 21st-century atomic bomb, which will rid the earth of the Alpha Centauri invaders, with whom humans have been at war for decades. (The movie's set in 2079, and the skies have been blotted out by electromagnetic shields to ward off the alien marauders. And in the future, everyone talks on video cell phones and wears Member's Only jackets.) Spence is a decent guy -- son of a soldier killed in action, husband to a kindly doctor (Madeline Stowe), lover of John Lee Hooker. But Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio), a government man outfitted in John Woo hand-me-downs (including a trench coat that billows even inside), is convinced that Spence isn't human, but an alien replicant encoded with Spence's DNA and fitted with a bomb-for-a-heart intended to kill the earth's chancellor (Lindsay Crouse, in a role smaller than an amoeba).

The entire film's meant to be a guessing game: Is Spence who he says and thinks he is, or is he really a replicant who murdered the real Spence and hid his body in a burned-out forest? It's further complicated by the fact that Hathaway has filled Spence's bloodstream with heavy psychotropic drugs that warp his vision; through strobe-light effects and slow-mo gimmicks, the futuristic setting is rendered bleak and burned-out, and it's populated with men in black who may only be shadow. Spence, paranoid and plagued by hazy visions, is the archetypal untrustworthy narrator -- the hero who believes the world's out to get him for all the wrong reasons.

Spence wants only to prove his humanity, the theme of a thousand sci-fi films (for further reading, see last year's A.I., as well). If he thinks he's Spence, even if he's not -- well, damn it, isn't that good enough? After all, he knows the intimate details of his and his friends' lives -- the secrets one keeps buried in the heart's dark places. But no one trusts him, not his wife or best friend Nelson (Tony Shalhoub, cashing the check), and so he's left to run from Hathaway, rendering Impostor little more than Future Fugitive. Besides, director Gary Fleder (who made Kiss the Girls and last year's Don't Say a Word) and his handful of screenwriters, including Reindeer Games' Ehren Kruger, don't have the attention span or the smarts for such deepthink, and so Impostor boils down to nothing more or less than a track meet captured on film by handheld cameras aimed in all the wrong places. (The movie's fight sequences appear to have been filmed using the cameras as weapons; worse, they take place in settings so dark, it's impossible to tell the white guys from the black guys, among them Mekhi Phifer as the one guy on earth who believes Spence's story.)

Had Impostor been given care, perhaps it might have been a contender: Its finale bears a wrenching kick, one twist that gives way to another. But by the time it arrives, you're so baffled and bored, it means nothing; it's the chuckle that was supposed to have played as a gasp. Turns out, some folks just don't know Philip K. Dick about making movies.

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