The Cell (2000)

D: Tarsem Singh
S: Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D'Onofrio

An advanced form of psychotherapy which allows one person to literally enter the mind of another is used to penetrate the psyche of a serial killer when he falls into a coma before the FBI are able to find out the location of his latest victim, a young girl imprisoned in an automatic drowning cell set to go off in just a few hours. Rookie therapist Jennifer Lopez (Out of Sight) goes inside loonie Vincent D'Onofrio's (Men In Black) head to get the information and finds herself making contact with the killer as a child, the one fragment of innocence remaining which needs to be nourished and protected from his evil adult alter-ego.

Yes there is some striking imagery in The Cell. Director Tarsem Singh (who has chosen to shorten his name to Tarsem in most publicity, but not on the credits) has worked in conjunction with his cinematographers, production and costume designers, and some digital toolbox technicians to craft a series of quite vivid dreamscapes. Some are lush and evocative, some are nightmarish. The film is filled with surreal imagery designed to create a sense of the netherworld of the human unconscious and take the audience on a virtual trip through it. This is all very well and not uninteresting. Yet it has been done before in various ways over time, from the Dali dream sequence in Spellbound to the mechanics of probing the mind which gave Silence of the Lambs its dramatic engine. As a surrealist film, The Cell is clumsy and literal, as a serial killer thriller, it lacks genuine suspense and emotional affect. One finds oneself sitting back and admiring the pretty pictures, then recoiling at the not-so-pretty ones, but the characters never come to life as believable human beings and end up as much ciphers of self as any of their mindscapes.

The script (by Mark Protosevich) is not without its interesting elements, but the characters are poorly drawn. A visually striking opening scene introduces us to the mindscape of a young boy in a coma with whom Lopez is working and trying to forge a connection. The particulars of his problem are never fully explored, though the film trades heavily on contrasts between deserts and water and continues to use the latter as some kind of controlling metaphor throughout. It quickly becomes apparent that the film is going to persist with a one-two punch of surrealism followed by literalism as the plot unfolds. We are introduced to our killer next, again without very much explanation of anything and only as much visual information as is necessary to create particular effects. Ditto when the pursuing cops are introduced, including insomniac obsessive Vince Vaughan, who will himself eventually find his way into the killer's mind in search of Lopez when she becomes 'lost' in the fantasy.

There isn't a lot going on dramatically here, just a series of perfunctory expositional scenes which establish the premise, lay out the players and set things in motion. As the film progresses, the three threads are drawn together and the visual fireworks begin on cue. The audience has already been lost though. You are left with either a sense of excitement about just what you're going to see next (which is not a good basis on which to establish a relationship with material as dark and terrible as serial murder/mental illness), or you are asked to sit and wait for the next big moment which you can assess as you see fit. To use an old cliché, you don't actually care about the characters, much less what happens to them. The film invites you into a unique world, but when you get there, you find it much less stimulating than the visuals suggest.

Despite its much-vaunted visual richness, the surreality of the film is limited to a small range of aesthetic signifiers (dolls, bio-mechanics, wings). Despite the relative lack of detailed dialogue, the audience has no problem decoding what it sees in terms of the characters' inner worlds because none of it is surprising in the least. There is very little ambiguity here, and the elaborate set ups and decoration belie how shallow and unrevealing it all is. As we are continually brought back to the 'real' world, the story there has become so equally routine that the film loses all chance of our involvement, and by the time it reaches its silly finale, boredom has set in. Add to this Lopez' poor performance (which concentrates on sultry facial expressions and wide-eyed 'concern' which alternate with the camera's concern for her body and face as an erotic object) and the lack of tension generated by the climax and you have almost nothing to take home other than a sense of its dedication to spectacle.

Tarsem and cinematographer Paul Laufer are apparently best known for commercials and music videos. It has fast become a cliché of contemporary movie criticism, but the film reflects an admaker's concern with momentary affect and no-think slickness. It is a music video without a soundtrack (Howard Shore's nerve-jangling score is actually one of the few elements of the film which works, but the imagery has too much life of its own to allow it to perform its task properly), a series of moving paintings which sustain interest only so long as you find them worth looking at. The story they are attached to is banal and ill-worked out, a cast off from seventies and eighties sci-fi cross-bred with nineties serial killer material. While David Fincher came from a similar background, he worked with a much stronger script on Se7en and did much more with much less spectacle in a film which still towers above anything that has been made in its image ever since. The Cell does have the merit of at least attempting something different by its defiant focus on the internal, D'Onofrio is quite good and the visuals are remarkably crafted, but it simply does not have the basic tools to make this tale anything more than a vehicle for overextended, literally self-indulgent sequences which mean a lot less than they presume. Disappointing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.