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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 Edward Johnson-Ott
1½ stars out of 4

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 dolls.

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 expect.

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

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