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The Cell

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Cell

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn
Director: Tarsem Singh
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: August 2000
Genres: Suspense, Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Vincent D'Onofrio, Jake Weber, James Gammon, Tara Subkoff, Dean Norris, Musetta Vander, Dylan Baker

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Let's say you're one of the record number of visitors to New York City this summer. After hitting the usual spots, your artsy friend takes you to the Museum of Modern Art--which you shamefully enter despite the strike. You spend three hours looking at works of Kandinsky, Picasso, Magritte and your feet are tired and your mind is a blur. You go outside and your friend suggests that you head right on uptown to the Guggenheim after which you would finish the day at the Museum of the American Indian. What do you say? Something unprintable? Of course. This is not to say that you're a boor. You certainly did appreciate the colorful and imaginative works that MoMA had to offer, but when the colors blend into a shapeless rainbow, you've had enough and want nothing more than to head across the street for a burger, get a nap at the hotel, and then take in a Broadway show that has a real story and not just a bunch of impressive visuals.

That's how I felt about "The Cell." This sci-fi movie with horror-genre undertones is a painter's palette of color and a Jungian melange of dreamlike imagination. Tom Foden's production design, particularly of a glorified and dangerous fish tank that can hold thousands of gallons of water and yet empty out in eight seconds is a stunner. April Napier's costumes could get window space at New York trendiest boutiques. Paul Laufer's lensing captures the vastness of a North African desert and the interior of a person's mind with equal aplomb, and who better to helm the pot pourri than music video director Tarsen Singh or to parade about the set than Jennifer Lopez--whom "Variety" critic Emanuel Levy has just called "the sexiest woman in Hollywood"?

But alas, the weak spot is Mark Protosevich, the screenwriter and co-producer of this lavish spectacle, as his chronicle is swallowed by the ocular. The tale does have some suspense, particularly involving the race against the clock to find a young and frightened woman who is trapped in a fishbowl, the water about to rise above her head in a matter of hours if she is not found by the dauntless men of the FBI. And as one of the scientists explains, even though the villain is in an irreversible coma, the man could actually cause bodily harm to the good guys who have entered his mind--I guess in much the way you can have a nightmare and, not realizing that you are simply dreaming, will wake up in a cold sweat, teeth chattering, mind discombobulated.

Inspired, perhaps, by such sci-fi movies as David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ," in which a virtual reality game designer gets trapped in one of her own games with a man who is supposed to be protecting her; and Ken Russell's 1980 work, "Altered States," about a scientist who uses himself as a guinea pig; "The Cell" opens enigmatically in a stunning African desert as Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) rides a stately stallion while wrapped in a drop-dead white costume as she proceeds toward a small boy, Edward Baines (Colton James). The real Baines is in a coma: she has entered his schizophrenic mind to see what makes him tick with the goal of helping him by this unique understanding. The so-called synaptic-transfer machine that enables her to do this was invented by Henry West (Dylan Baker), and presided over by Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). While this transpires, a far more gruesome scenario is being enacted as serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) tortures and kills young women by dropping them into an hidden underwater tank. When Stargher is caught, comatose as a result of a brain disease, FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) runs the unconscious killer over to Henry West's lab with the hope of discovering the location of the water tank. Stargher is the only one who knows this, and he is no longer able to help. There is one hope. Catherine must enter the sick man's mind to see how he thinks, win his trust, and get him to divulge the information before his latest victim, Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff), is drowned.

The major part of the enterprise is taken up by Tarsem's desire to impress the audience with his direction of some startling scenes, astonishing even when compared to his typical MTV work and designed to unnerve even the cynics who have seen it all and have played the video games. The film would have been much better had Tarsem balanced his visuals with more dialogue, not only psychological palaver but political exchanges between Catherine and Peter. Peter, for example, explains that he had been a prosecutor who gave up that career and became an FBI agent, disgusted when a killer is freed on a technicality and proceeds to dismember a new victim. Catherine, by contrast, is what Peter might call a bleeding-heart liberal, a woman who has extraordinary empathy with the deviant and the sick and uses her gift to bring them back to some degree of normality.

Instead we are taken into a world that would please painters like Heironymous Bosch, Magritte, Salvador Dali and the like, a continuous array of startling imagery broken up from time to time with breaks to the real world. While the optics are indeed bold and imaginative, they are overdone and what's more, Vincent D'Onofrio--a terrific actor who scared the pants off many a viewer as a psycho killer in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket"--is not at all frightening this time around. Instead he is almost laughable in his array of costumes and facial contortions, expressions of what is going on in his sick mind which Catherine has entered. Vince Vaughn is convincing as an FBI agent who, considering his hard-core conservative views of crime is surprisingly laid-back and whose mellow tones mesh with the near-whispers of the lovely Ms. Lopez.

If you're not overly concerned about narrative, "The Cell" is worth seeing for its brazen visual concept, and for its believable acting particularly by side roles performed by Jake Weber as the straight-arrow FBI agent, Marianne Jean- Baptiste as the wary but ultimately daring scientist, and Gareth Williams as a monstrously abusive father.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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