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"IMPOSTOR"
(2002) (Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stowe) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: After being accused of being an assassin with a bomb planted in his chest, a scientist goes on the run and tries to prove that he's really himself rather than a synthetic duplicate.
PLOT:
It's the year 2079 and Earth is under attack from the Centaurians, invaders from a distant solar system that want to conquer Earth. As a result, most well-to-do Earthlings live under protective electromagnetic domes that shield them from the relentless attacks, while agents from the Earth Security Agency, such as Major D.H. Hathaway (VINCENT D'ONOFRIO) of the enemy infiltration unit, are on the lookout for synthetic human "replicants."

They're beings who look, act and think just like the real people they've replaced, unaware that they're really assassins equipped with bombs in their chests programmed to kill important political figures. Hathaway believes that Spencer Olham (GARY SINISE) is one of them who's targeted to terminate a visiting Chancellor. A respected scientist with the Defense Bureau who's designed a massive and potent military weapon with his friend and colleague, Nelson (TONY SHALHOUB), Spencer can't believe the accusation and claims he's the real person.

Hathaway disagrees and is ready to kill him to remove the bomb. Thus, Spencer escapes and suddenly turns into public enemy number one. He ends up in the Dead Zone outside the protective city dome and finds himself at the mercy of street dweller Cale (MEKHI PHIFER), who agrees to assist him in exchange for access to valuable pharmaceutical drugs.

As the unlikely partners make their way back into the city and to the hospital where Spencer's wife, Maya (MADELEINE STOWE), works as a doctor and administrator, Spencer hopes to run a medical scan that will prove his innocence, all while trying to avoid Hathaway and his troops who are determined to catch and/or kill him.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Like most any literary genre and perhaps more so than many, the works of sci-fi authors are obviously great fodder for cinematic offerings. One of the more respected such novelists was the late Philip K. Dick whose various stories have been turned into sci-fi films such as "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and the upcoming "Minority Report."

Now, his 1953 short story, "Impostor," hits the big screen in a film of the same name. Starring Gary Sinise as a futuristic scientist who goes on the run and tries to elude Vincent D'Onofrio as his pursuer, all while attempting to get in touch with his wife played by Madeleine Stowe, the plot obviously has Dick's sci-fi touch throughout it, although I can't personally attest to its faithfulness to the original source material.

Like the author's other works, this one features a confused protagonist in a world where reality isn't always what it seems to be. As adapted by Scott Rosenberg ("High Fidelity," "Gone in 60 Seconds"), written by screenwriters Caroline Case (making her debut), Ehren Kruger ("Reindeer Games," "Scream 3") and David Twohy ("Pitch Black," "The Fugitive"), and directed by Gary Fleder ("Don't Say a Word," "Kiss the Girls"), the film obviously has the potential to be an exciting, engaging and thought-provoking effort. After all, there's the familiar hero on the run story and the fact that viewers won't know if he's real or the bomb-equipped duplicate until the end.

Unfortunately, despite that and the story element mixture of "The Fugitive" and "Total Recall," the film is rather disappointing and flat. Beyond the fact that none it ever seems terribly original (notwithstanding the age of the original story), a bigger problem stems from the way in which the filmmakers have set up and then told the story.

Although some of the end product is probably the result of many moons of release delays and the inevitable tinkering and/or butchering that occurs with that (the film was eventually edited down from an R to its current PG-13 rating), much of the blame must obviously be leveled at Fleder. Not even taking into account the hack job of editing by Bob Ducsay (the "Mummy" films) and Armen Minasian ("Don't Say a Word," "Down Periscope") and possibly others, Fleder's directorial style is mediocre when not slipshod.

Looking and feeling like a straight to video effort that might have starred the like of Jean-Claude Van Damme (and including some decidedly cheesy special effects), the film rarely, if ever, engages the viewer in regards to the hero's plight or the eventual truth about his real identity. Part of that's due to the way the film has been shot and the story is visually told. Using all sorts of "weird" camera shots as well as unnecessary slow motion footage, Fleder's directorial style is often distracting and annoying.

It doesn't help, however, that the scribes' script doesn't fully play up the protagonist's dilemma and his attempts to overcome it, or the potentially spellbinding "is he or isn't he" sci-fi aspect. For starters, the film jettisons the whole introductory bit about Spencer's military invention - that brings up comparisons to Oppenheimer and the first use of the atomic bomb - a point that easily could and should have been put into play here.

One can imagine Spencer trying to elude Hathaway and prove his innocence, all while trying to prevent others from using his weapon that's not quite ready to be tested and could prove to be catastrophic. That would have added some urgency to the proceedings, something that's sorely missing despite the failed attempts to induce it. In addition, the film does the same with Spencer's drug-induced hallucinations that could have further added to the "is it real or not" confusion.

Indeed, the film's biggest problem is that the protagonist's efforts to accomplish those "elude and prove" measures aren't particularly interesting, clever or imaginative. The same holds true for the obstacles he encounters, with both of those factors pretty much belying the usual fun found in the sci-fi and action-adventure genres. Even the revelatory ending - designed to have the big, shattering twist - unfortunately feels more contrived and at least halfway predictable rather than surprising or shocking.

The overall identity theme is also mishandled. Unlike "Total Recall" that at least had some fun related moments amidst director Paul Verhoeven's blood and guts violence, this one feels flat in such regards. It certainly doesn't play off that mystery enough to make it interesting and/or engage the viewer.

Then there are the various illogical moments that permeate the proceedings. A simple test - in fact, the one that Spencer wants to run on himself - would prove whether the protagonist is real or not, but Hathaway inexplicably never runs one. Had a past, personal vendetta been in play here (Spencer fired him in the past, etc.), such an omission could have been accepted.

There's also a bit where an I.D. transmitter - that's been removed from Spencer's body - doesn't register as he's carrying it through security, but does so once he plants it on Hathaway, as well as the hero finding a crashed spaceship -- the cause of a large, publicly reported fire - that no one else happened to see from the ground or air.

As far as the performances are concerned, Gary Sinise ("Mission to Mars," "Forrest Gump") is okay as the protagonist on the run, but is limited by the material that doesn't give us enough time to know and/or like him before the main plot kicks in. Thus, he can't make the character sympathetic enough to cause the viewer to worry about his well-being and/or root for his success.

As his pursuer, Vincent D'Onofrio ("The Cell," "Men in Black") can't do much with his shallowly drawn character, particularly when he isn't given anything interesting to do or challenges to overcome. For instance, his character could have believed that injuring or killing a replicant might just detonate his bomb, thus imposing a tricky proposition as far as capturing Spencer. Alas, that's not the case. As a result, D'Onofrio isn't remotely in the same league as Tommy Lee Jones in a similar role in "The Fugitive," and delivers what may be the blandest performance of his career.

Madeleine Stowe ("The General's Daughter," "Twelve Monkeys") also can't do much with her underdeveloped character that's just reactionary in nature and is pretty much reduced to just looking concerned. Meanwhile, the urban street dweller character played by Mekhi Phifer ("O," "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") feels too contrived, and Tony Shalhoub ("Thirteen Ghost," "Spy Kids") disappears far too quickly, thus limiting the impact that either actor can have on the proceedings.

While the film isn't horrendous or exactly torture to sit through, it's clearly not as good as it might have been. It certainly wastes a halfway decent setup and the built-in potential provided by Dick's original story. Something of a pretender itself of decent sci-fi thrillers, "Impostor" rates as just a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed December 28, 2001 / Posted January 4, 2002


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