Imposter (2001)

- by John Bruni

Imagine an Earth at war with aliens, a war so extended that children grow to adulthood with no knowledge of peacetime. Imagine a world so threatened that force-field domes enclose entire cities. Imagine a world where democracy has long been sacrificed to a state of continuous martial law. This is Earth in the year 2079, at war with aliens from Alpha Centuri.

As a child, Spencer Olham (Gary Sinese) lost his father, tortured and killed after being captured by the aliens during a battle. Now an adult, Spencer builds weapons for use against the aliens. His wife, Maya Olham (Madeline Stowe) soothes his pain; speaking of her he says, “I know my salvation.” The film brushes aside the question of how Earth sends ships to a star that, despite being our nearest neighbor, would take tens of thousands of years to reach by the rockets seen in the film. We’re just given to assume that, somehow, Earth’s civilization has massive capabilities for quick interstellar travel, as do the aliens.

There are television monitors everywhere; a news story grabs Spencer and Maya’s interest when it mentions a major forest fire in Sutton Woods. After an intimate moment with Maya, Spencer heads in to work and meets his friend Nelson Gittes (Tony Shalhoub). He tells Nelson that he and Maya camped in Sutton Woods over the weekend. There’s an odd moment in which Spencer gives a soldier (they’re everywhere) an odd stare, almost a derisive look, and then he and Nelson eyeball the new weapon they’ve built. Spencer philosophizes that the weapon is as radical in its own way as the A-bomb was back in 1945. He makes an oddly negative comment about it and his friend says, “What’s the matter with you?”

Major Hathaway (Vincent D’Onofrio) confronts Spencer with a team of soldiers, stating no one can be ambivalent about the war when they see soldiers dying every day. Shaking hands with Spencer he says, “I’m Major Hathaway, Special Unit, Enemy Infiltration,” and triggers something up his sleeve that stabs Spencer in the arm, immobilizing him. “Take it away,” Hathaway says about Spencer’s twitching body. Nelson shouts, “Who are you?” at Hathaway and the soldiers; the words echo in Spencer’s mind as he’s strapped to a gurney and rolled away.

A series of montage shots follow: nurses injecting him, doctors examining him. He flashes back to moments with his wife, and he hears her voice shouting, “C’mon, run, run!” Is it a memory from Sutton Woods?

He comes fully awake in a living nightmare, strapped to a chair in an operating theater. Hathaway comes in and talks of Spencer’s accomplishments as if Spencer is deceased. An ominous set of surgical tools is wheeled in, lifesaving tools misused as instruments of pain. In a display of what appears to be insane cruelty, Hathaway slashes Spencer’s arm. The military has, he says, intercepted a Centaurian special intelligence courier. They’ve decoded what the courier carried, a plan to infiltrate Earth using humanoid robots. Spencer appears genuinely mystified at the receipt of this knowledge.

Hathaway elaborates, saying Spencer’s not human anymore; he’s a genetic cyborg with synthetic DNA. He breathes, sweats and bleeds yet seems to have no idea what he is. This robot, Hathaway says, has murdered Spencer and assimilated him right down to his memories, behavior and physical appearance. Spencer vehemently insists he’s himself, not a fifth-column alien. Hathaway describes Spencer as a cyborg with a compact but extremely powerful super-nuclear device hidden inside his chest. Spencer is a sleeper, harmless until he encounters Earth’s supreme chancellor. If this happens, alien programming inside him will take over. The bomb in his body will detonate, eliminating the chancellor and an immense portion of the surrounding area.

Spencer sees his friend Nelson watching from the surgery windows above and begs for help, reminding Nelson of close personal memories they share. “Memories, senses, knowledge,” Hathaway says, “You pilfered them all.” He orders that Spencer be secured on a “vivisection table” where a spinning claw will cut into his chest and remove the Centaurian super-bomb.

As he runs he has repetitive flashbacks of walking in Sutton Woods with Maya, along with memories of his father dying in alien hands. The memories cause him to stumble and fall. Is it human frailty brought on by the drugs injected in him, or is it Spencer’s stolen mind conflicting with a killer cyborg’s programming? He comes to a jittering stop, hallucinating.

Still pursued, Spencer exits the domed city and meets up with the underground, the luckless poor living in the ruins of a city that predates the domes. They threaten him, and Spencer makes a deal for his life. He’s brought to Dr. Carone (Tim Guinee) who removes a tracking device implanted in all dome-city denizens. Spencer keeps it with him in a shielded capsule. Now he can roam inside the domed areas without being traced. In return, he’s to provide Cale (Mekhi Phifer) a big batch of drugs from his wife’s hospital.

Reaching the hospital, Spencer wants to prove he’s a good man. He does a kind deed, steering Cale to meds that will help Cale heal his loved ones and many others. Spencer makes it to the scanner and a partial sweep indicates he’s 100% human, but the machine freezes right at the spot in Spencer’s chest where the bomb would be.

Hathaway reignites the pursuit, and Spencer evades him for a time by, yes, jumping down another air vent. Captain Burke (Gary Dourdan), Hathaway’s right-hand man, shoots a number of innocent people while trying to hit Spencer. The sacrifice of innocents for the cause of the greater good comes up several times in Impostor.

The acting is good and the premise interesting – Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories are always compelling – but one has to wonder. If an enemy were so good at making copies of us, right down to our most intimate memories, wouldn’t that enemy be so superior to us as to render any resistance on our part futile? Essentially, that enemy has god-like powers, knowing us in a way that reflects what is said about God in the Book of Psalms. . .

“My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.”

Like the Creator, the aliens have the ability to not only make perfect copies of us, but to alter us. Spencer is himself, yet at the same time and without his awareness, he could also be a walking bomb. Philip K. Dick was undoubtedly bringing up a question common to many of his stories. What makes us who we are? Is an identical copy of us, right down to our DNA and memories, still us? In this case Hathaway says absolutely not, Spencer’s living being was stripped from him and warped into a walking alien time bomb, but the one thing the aliens couldn’t take from him was Spencer’s soul.

One wonders if Philip K. Dick also wrestled with another issue, one that may have bothered him personally. Philip K. Dick grappled with mental illness in his own life. He may have wondered why people sometimes do the exact opposite of what they know to be good for them. Are we akin to alien doppelgangers, doomed to doing deeds we know in our hearts we shouldn’t? To quote the Apostle Paul,

“For the good that I will to do, I do not do, but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”

Perhaps, beneath the surface of Impostor, Dick wrestled with issues that get right down to the core of our human condition. If we sometimes do the opposite of what we believe we should be doing, do we really know who we are? Like Spencer, who is certain he’s a good man but may, in fact, be totally evil, we wrestle with this conundrum.

For Philip K. Dick, the question “Who am I?” was no idle thought. It shouldn’t be for us either. But for Spencer at least, at film’s end the denouement will be unequivocal. And, although the ending may seem obvious, there’s a good twist to it. No spoilers here; watch the movie to answer the question, “Who’s good, and who’s evil?” Sutton Woods will prove to be the key.

You’ll love the huge sets, intended to make the year 2079 seem entirely plausible, familiar even. The feel is that of being in an industrial dictatorship, as if the society portrayed in propaganda posters before the fall of the Soviet Union had been updated to 100 years in the future.

Oh, and one more thing, you’ll notice director Gary Fleder and his team found some creative ways to save on production costs. If any of the opening shots look familiar, they should. They were borrowed from Armageddon, Starship Troopers and Gattaca. A good deal of the uniforms and military equipment, minus the guns, also came from Starship Troopers.

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