Screenplay : Caroline Case and Ehren Kruger and David Twohy (based on the short story "The Impostor" by Philip K. Dick, adapted by Scott Rosenberg)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Gary Sinise (Spencer John Olham), Madeleine Stowe (Maya Olham), Vincent D'Onofrio (Major Hathaway), Tony Shalhoub (Nelson Gittes), Mekhi Phifer (Cale), Tim Guinee (Dr. Carone), Shane Brolly (Lt. Burrows)
If Impostor feels like a good idea for a short film awkwardly blown up to feature-length proportions, it's because that is exactly what it is.
Shot back in 1999, it was originally intended to be one of three segments that comprised a science-fiction anthology movie called The Light Years Trilogy (the only other completed segment, titled "Alien Love Triangle," was directed by Trainspotting's Danny Boyle). The Light Years Trilogy was ultimately scrapped, but the heads at Dimension Films liked the Impostor segment so much that it was padded out from its original 30-minute running time to just over an hour and a half. The padding shows, as the movie devolves from a taut, paranoid futuristic identity crisis into a belabored chase through underground tunnels and ventilation shafts that seems to go on forever. The tension developed in the movie's impressive first 15 minutes gradually dissolves as the plot lumbers forward with little purpose other than to fill time until the twist ending.
Based on a 1953 short story by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick (whose works have inspired Blade Runner, Total Recall, and the upcoming Minority Report), Impostor takes place in the not-too-distant future—2070, to be exact—when Earth is under constant attack from an unseen alien race called Centurai. The Centauri have already destroyed many major cities, and the remains of human civilization has bonded together in large cities covered by electromagnetic domes to protect them from aerial assaults, with everything outside the domes devolving into a post-apocalyptic ghetto.
Gary Sinise stars as Spencer John Olham, a successful weapons engineer with a loving wife (Madeleine Stowe) and a comfortable existence, despite the intergalactic turmoil around him. Olham goes to work one morning and finds himself taken by government agents and accused of being an "impostor"—a genetically cloned replicant that is also a ticking bomb created by the Centurai to assassinate a major political figure.
Olham rages that he is who he says and thinks he is—the old "I know who I am" routine. But, the lead agent, Major Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio)—a sort of militaristic Joseph McCarthy figure—informs him that these Centauri-created replicants are not aware of what they really are. Thus, it is never clear until the very end whether Olham is human or not, which makes viewer identification with his plight immediately complicated. In the same vein as much of Philip K. Dick's other works, Impostor plays with the frightening ideas of how technology can overrun individual identity, making it impossible to determine who is genetically human and who is not, even for those accused of being something other than what they think they are.
Of course, had Impostor stuck with those ideas, as it likely did in the 30-minute version, it would have been a serviceable exercise in thought-provoking sci-fi. Especially in today's troubled, post-September 11 era of trying to spot terrorists in every crowd and assessing the balance of persecuting a few to save many, Impostor's uncomfortable focus on mass annihilation through infiltration and questions about what it takes to prevent such occurrences strike more than a few contemporary chords (at one point, Hathaway declares confidently that he has no trouble sleeping at night even though he knows he killed 10 innocent men because, in the end, he ended up saving thousands).
Unfortunately, once Olham escapes Hathaway's clutches and goes out on the lam, the movie bogs down into a murky mess (narratively and visually), and interesting thematic elements are drowned out almost completely. Screenwriters Caroline Case, Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road), and David Twohy (Pitch Black) labored mightily to expand the plot, but the best they could come up with is a shallow partnership between Olham and a desperate rebel from outside the domed city (Mekhi Phifer) who needs medical supplies for a rag-tag hospital. The complete lack of connection between this subplot and Olham's identity crisis is glaring and distracting, so that when we get to the climax, the waters have been too thoroughly muddied for the sake of the running time to get the full impact of the twist ending (it has a Twilight Zone kind of feel to it that requires narrative brevity—otherwise it comes off as trite).
Impostor has other problems not related to the plot expansion, most notably the excessive use of darkness that makes even the most routine action nearly imperceptible. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (8MM, Magnolia) underlights every single scene, regardless of location (so, even in a well-funded hospital, surgery takes place in dim rooms barely lit by tiny lamps as if the most pressing concern is saving on the monthly energy bill). Director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls>, Don't Say a Word) tries to pile on the style with canted camera angles, distorted lenses, and film-noirish patterns of light and dark, but it's not enough to hide the fact that Impostor is an impostor itself—a short film masquerading behind too much footage to convince us it's worth being a feature.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick