Before you pay good money to sit through Gary Fleder’s Impostor, try to picture what Blade Runner would’ve looked like as a low-budget series on a UHF channel. That’s what Impostor is like. This new sci-fi flick puts that philosophical workhorse “what it means to have a soul” through its paces, and in the process plunders something from almost every bleak vision of the future ever put on film, including Metropolis, Things to Come, 1984, Star Wars, Brazil, and The Fifth Element. But Impostor takes most of its flavor from Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 film. Like Blade Runner, it’s based on a Philip K. Dick story revolving around lifelike, murderous cyborgs, and features a noir-tinged manhunt through a city that resembles a giant decaying flea-market.
Set in 2079 (60 years after the events of Blade Runner, if anyone’s keeping count), Impostor has as its backdrop a 30-year war between Earth and some imperialistic meanies from the Alpha Centauri galaxy. This time around, though, the protagonist isn’t a bounty hunter assigned to track down the replicants, but a top-flight weapons designer accused of being an alien-planted android programmed to kill a government official. Gary Sinise plays the man whose memories might only be a figment of a computer chip. Vincent D’Onofrio is the relentless government bloodhound who’s chasing him. Madeline Stowe and Tony Shalhoub are his wife and best friend, there to express faith or doubt in him as he struggles to establish his humanity. And Mekhi Phifer is the requisite streetsmart black man who helps him along the way.
That’s one hell of a talented lineup, but Impostor’s performers act as if they’re only meeting the terms of a judge’s alternative sentencing, giving the movie the dour reek of a drunk-driving school. Shalhoub, who last year set the house on fire as the charismatic lawyer in The Man Who Wasn’t There, sleepwalks through ten colorless lines of dialogue before making an early exit. D’Onofrio comes off worst of all, giving a performance so stiff and joyless that it’s a wonder his storm-troopers don’t suspect him of being a robot. Impostor also includes a real head-scratcher of a cameo: Lindsay Crouse, looking starchier than ever, as the chancellor of a worldwide dictatorship. It’s only too bad that Woody Allen isn’t around to flatten her nose with a steamroller.
Computer graphics have made it possible for even modestly-budgeted movies to include some flossy effects, and in a breathless prelude that sketches in the background of the intergalactic war, Impostor provides one eye-catching sight: a spiky futurist skyline jutting up beneath the force-field that covers it like a bell-jar. Once that’s over, though, the movie settles into a lot of overly familiar prop-work, such as the chintzy luminous boxes that serve as DNA-sampling machines. “The Vivisector,” a torture device that looks like an eggbeater, stands out as the one original touch in the overcrowded production design.
Originality is in short supply throughout Impostor, but even its predictable ending could be forgiven if only the getting there was more fun than it is. Instead of trying to be a latter-day Blade Runner, it might’ve been a gas to use this cast in a deliberate attempt to make an Ed Wood movie. But a chasm looms between the sarcastic and the slipshod, and this is a movie consumed by endless chases through hallways and tunnels, with a ready-made escape route—if only a hole in the wall—always materializing at the critical moment. Sinise’s predicament—the charge of treason that threatens his life, separation from his loved ones, and doubts about the nature of his own identity—is delivered so carelessly that none of the earnest talk about his humanity can ever take hold. Impostor proves once again that it’s hard to gain traction when you’re standing on cheese.
– Tom Block