Initially, my expectations for "The Cell" were low, primarily because of its
mid-August release date. August is the month studios traditionally use to
burn off those movies they consider too anemic to compete against the big
summer flicks and too insubstantial to face off against headier autumn fare.
Then Roger Ebert got me all stirred up. On his weekly TV show (which the
local affiliate thoughtfully airs on Saturday nights at 3:30 a.m.), Ebert
and his new partner raved about the production, calling it one of the best
movies of the year. After gushing over the eye-popping visuals, they went on
to praise the story, claiming that it worked on multiple levels.
I'm glad Roger and his comrade in arms had such a fine time. As for me, "The
Cell" turned out to be just another late summer disappointment, filled with
flashy images and little substance.
Created by award-winning commercial and music video maker Tarsem Singh (he
now bills himself simply as Tarsem, you know, like Charo), the film comes
off like a grisly, feature-length perfume commercial with delusions of
grandeur. What a drag.
Jennifer Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a psychologist involved in an ultra
high tech form of therapy. Using a whiz bang machine, she can enter the
subconscious of her patients. Decked out in a body suit that appears to be
made of red Twizzlers, Catherine closes her eyes and awakens in the
dreamscapes of her clients, where she wanders through trippy MTV style video
sets, dispensing psychological bromides while wearing the kind of outfits
that Cher and Madonna trot out for award shows.
The story begins within the mind of Edward Baines (Colton James), a comatose
little boy. Set against blue skies and majestic desert sand dunes, we watch
as Catherine tries to win the trust of the child, hoping to eventually draw
him back to the real world. The segment is impressively shot and,
unfortunately, the high point of the film.
While Catherine strolls through the psychic Sahara, whacked out serial
killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) wages a terror campaign outside the
lab, torturing women to death and then turning their corpses into animated
After the lunatic is captured and falls into a coma (how convenient),
straight arrow FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) turns to Catherine and
her comrades for help. Somewhere, Carl's latest victim, Julia Hickson (Tara
Subkoff) is trapped in a huge torture tank that fills with water every few
hours. The young woman is destined for a horrible death, unless Catherine
can enter his mind and discover the location of the lethal aquarium. The
bulk of the movie hops between Catherine's forays into the killer's cranium
and disturbing shots of a frantic Julia trying not to drown.
The makings of a solid film are present, but Tarsem is so fixated on
creating groovy tripscapes that he neglects everything else. While Julia's
situation remains dire, there is no sense of danger with any of the
principal players. Character development is virtually nonexistent, leaving
Lopez and Vaughn stuck in one-dimensional roles.
Despite setting much of the film in Carl's deranged brain, the story stays
at a Psych 101 level. Catherine attempts to build a rapport with Carl's
inner child, learning that the killer was abused as a boy. Meanwhile, the
adult Carl skulks about, sporting a series of over-the-top costumes that
Elton John would surely die to own.
When Spike Jonze ventured into the mind of another person in the wonderful
"Being John Malkovich," he was smart enough to realize that outrageous ideas
are best presented in a low key, matter-of-fact fashion. Tarsem seems
incapable of turning off the flash. Even in the real world scenes, he uses
swooping camera shots, jump cuts to extreme close-ups and other visual
stunts. As a result, nothing in the film feels genuine.
To make matters worse, the subconscious segments suffer from overkill. Too
often, Carl's costumes, created by April Napier and Japanese designer Eiko
Ishioka, appear more silly than imposing. As for the general look, imagine
REM's "Losing My Religion" video (also directed by Tarsem), magnify the
excesses by 10, toss in some gross out footage and you'll know what to
Ultimately, "The Cell" is little more than creepy, vapid eye candy, with a
story barely grafted on. Ads for the movie use a quote describing the
production as "'The Matrix' meets 'Silence of the Lambs.'" What a load of
crap. "The Cell" lacks the imagination, excitement and thrust of the former
film, and the character development and storytelling expertise of the
latter, leaving viewers staring at an overlong, inert music video peopled
with lavishly costumed characters all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott