The Cell
The Cell

USA, 2000. Rated R. 108 minutes.

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker, James Gammon, Patrick Bauchau, Tara Subkoff, Jake Thomas
Writer: Mark Protosevich
Music: Howard Shore
Cinematographer: Paul Laufer
Producers: Julio Caro, Eric McLeod
Director: Tarsem Singh


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

For a movie so visually inventive, The Cell has a remarkably trite plot. At its core, it's just a humdrum serial killer movie. Wacko kidnaps and kills women for deviant purposes; cop and psychologist race against time to save the latest victim. The twist is that the killer suffers from an acute form of schizophrenia that leaves him in a coma while the victim is trapped in an unknown location, where she will be drowned by a time-activated device unless she is rescued. All this is not so much a story as an excuse–an excuse to explore the spectacularly unsettling mindscape of the killer.

Jennifer Lopez is Catherine Deane, a therapist who works at a research facility that has developed an experimental technology that allows her to link minds with anyone. She has been using this technology to make contact with a young boy in order to draw him out of his coma, without success. Meanwhile, FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) is chasing twisted killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio, who always chooses odd roles but is always brilliant in them). Just as the FBI closes in, Stargher lapses into a coma similar to the one gripping the boy Deane has been treating. Somehow the FBI must find Stargher's latest victim before she dies.

That's how the film gets everyone strapped to a table, wearing weird virtual reality outfits. The plan is for Deane to enter Stargher's mind and get him to tell her where his prisoner is. If you've seen the video for R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion, also directed by Tarsem Singh, you'll have an idea of what to expect. Just as Losing My Religion was a surreal, color-saturated amalgam of images borrowed from religion and art, so too is Stargher's mind. This is where The Cell is at its best and most interesting. Tarsem Singh doesn't go for cheap shock effects. Stargher's mind is a profoundly disturbing, painstakingly realized dreamworld of images both moving and horrifying. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it would take hundreds of thousands of words to explain what Deane finds in Stargher's head. Let's just say that The Cell does an admirable job of portraying Stargher's dual nature. Appearing at times as a frightened little boy and at other times as the vicious emperor of his realm, Stargher is a man trapped in his own mind, just as his victim is trapped in a plexiglass cell.Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez

The exploration of Stargher's mind is fascinating, but The Cell limits itself to that. Apart from the usual pop-psychology conclusions–we all know by now that those who are abused as children tend to be abusers themselves–there's little else to draw from the film. The Cell is poor science-fiction because it doesn't do a good job of explaining the rationale of the experimental therapy. In the expository sequence at the start of the film, Deane makes contact with the boy she is trying to help, but there is no post-mortem of her experiences with the other doctors, who, one would think, would want to analyze and interpret every detail of what she finds in the child's mind. This would have laid the groundwork for her entry into Stargher's mind. Instead, there is no strategy. We don't know results the scientists are hoping for and the specific ways they hope to achieve them. It's as if Deane is thrown into the child's mind and left to fend for herself. If she succeeds in befriending the boy, then what? Does the boy magically wake up?

By focusing on Stargher, the filmmakers miss an intriguing opportunity. It's implied that Novak has a background of abuse similar to that of Stargher, yet this is not explored, even though Novak eventually follows Deane into Stargher's head. The question of how, with similar backgrounds, one man could become a sadistic killer and the other a driven law enforcer is unanswered. How interesting would it have been to probe Novak's mind, and compare it to Stargher's? The mechanics of how this could have been done don't matter–reverse the polarities, cross the streams, reconfigure the deflector array to emit a tachyon pulse–any pseudo-scientific babble would have served–but they should have inserted hunters and hunted into Novak's head, too.
The Big Picture

Just as The Cell avoids confronting Novak's personal demons, it errs by making Deane two dimensional. She is generous, kind, impossibly gorgeous, and has a beatific smile, but she is dull. Selflessness isn't very interesting unless it involves sacrifice. What is Deane risking? Why is Deane so driven to help tortured souls?

In the serial killer genre, even hack writers know to make the killer as intriguing and repulsively fascinating as possible. But they often neglect the hunters. The Silence of the Lambs turned on Hopkins' performance, but it is Foster's character, Clarice Starling, who is the backbone of the movie. If she weren't a fully-developed person in her own right, her interactions with Hopkins wouldn't mean anything. That's what separates a psychological thriller from a freak show. The Cell teeters awfully close to the latter. A movie's pyrotechnics should never get in the way of a good story; here, the story undermines the wonderful art direction and visual compositions. The Cell doesn't escape the prison of its uninspired story, but the impressive visuals often make you think it does. For that reason, The Cell is worth seeing; just don't expect it to be as groundbreaking as it looks.

Review © October 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.

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