Once in a while, a film will come out that will push the envelope of the art and craft of filmmaking, either narratively, technically, or visually. "Metropolis", "Citizen Kane", "Star Wars", "Blade Runner", "Pulp Fiction", and "Dark City" have all challenged the staid principles of conventional cinema, and in the year 2000, comes the newest member of this distinguished club. "The Cell" has polarized audiences, similar to the way "The Thin Red Line" did two years ago-- while some have called director Tarsem Singh's directorial debut daring and visionary, many others have declared it to be pretentious and pointless, the bastard child of blending "Silence of the Lambs" with "The Matrix". To dismiss "The Cell" as empty-headed eye candy cashing in on the burgeoning 'serial killer' genre would be premature-- there is a lot more at work beneath the surface than one initially would suspect.
Psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez of "Out of Sight") has a novel way of getting into the heads of her catatonic patients, which is illustrated in the film's opening scene. Using the virtual reality-based synaptic-transfer machine, Catherine is able to literally enter the minds of her patients. Unfortunately, success in using the radical treatment has remained elusive, such as in the case of a young boy that Catherine has been attempting to coax back into consciousness.
However, Catherine and her two research associates (Marianne Jean-Baptiste of "28 Days" and Dylan Baker of "Random Hearts") must get results when they are called on by FBI agents Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn of the 1998 "Psycho" remake) and Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber of "U-571") to help them with a case. The FBI have just captured serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio of "Men in Black"), who has subsequently lapsed into a coma. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of his most recent victim are still unknown, and based on his established modus operandi, the victim is locked in a glass tank that will automatically fill with water in less than 40 hours. Thus, Catherine must get inside Stargher's head and try to learn the location of his last victim before time runs out-- and when she does, she finds herself in a nightmare landscape shaped by a twisted and perverse mind.
One of the most noticeable aspects of "The Cell" are the wild visual flourishes and varied canvases that Singh uses to bring the 'mindscape' of the subconscious to life (which shouldn't be surprising, considering that Singh worked in music videos and commercials prior to helming "The Cell"). The imagery employed can be overwhelming at times, mixing up the surreal textures of Salvador Dali, the gothic motifs of Tim Burton, the multimedia approach favored by Oliver Stone ("Any Given Sunday"), Japanese-inspired costume design, and some truly eye-popping set pieces. By this standard alone, "The Cell" could be easily labeled the most visually arresting film of the year.
However, Singh also skillfully pieces together the visceral and narrative elements in a manner that makes "The Cell" disturbing yet enchanting to watch. Though nothing that Catherine experiences inside Stargher's mind is 'real' per se, Singh is able to convey a sense of impending dread to the proceedings, creating a sort of claustrophobic tension. It's not very often I see a film that triggers a physiological response-- with "The Cell", my heart was pounding as I endured Singh's brutal blend of sound and images, and felt genuine concern for its characters.
In addition to the unmistakable visceral elements, first-time scribe Mark Protosevich has also crafted a taut script that seamlessly blends Catherine's "Matrix"-like voyage into the killer's mind with a riveting police procedural. On the one hand, in order to find the victim's location, Catherine must salvage the last shreds of humanity buried deep within Stargher's soul, which has been misshapen by years of psychological trauma, without succumbing to the seductive and overpowering madness herself. This is counterpointed with a heavily time-boxed thriller that has Stargher's victim fighting for her life while the FBI tries to piece together her location. As I watched "The Cell", I found it easy to become mesmerized by the competing stories, and eagerly anticipating the fruits of their convergence.
As she has shown since her breakthrough in "Selena", chanteuse Jennifer Lopez is a versatile and under-appreciated actress. Though her performance in "The Cell" is a notch slightly below her outstanding work in 1998's "Out of Sight", she still exhibits a wide-enough range to carry the film as its heroine and emotional center. As her character journeys through Stargher's head, she credibly switches gears as the internal workings of the killer's mind continually re-invent her. There are very few flaws to be found with her performance here, and it should provide some food for thought for those moviegoers who think that Lopez is just another pretty face. Few faults could be found in the rest of the cast, which is marked by a number of memorable performances, including Vaughn's low-key portrayal of obsessive FBI agent Novak, D'Onofrio's chilling portrayal of Stargher, and Gareth William's forceful work as Stargher's abusive father.
If you have become jaded by the plethora of 'serial killer' or 'virtual reality' movies in recent years, "The Cell" will serve as a powerful antidote for your indifference-- when was the last time a film sent your heart racing? Defying the conventions of both genres, while telling a compelling and visually imaginative story, "The Cell" marks an impressive debut for director Tarsem Singh, and will certainly be remembered in years to come.