Aug 23, 2019


The Cell is a film that not a lot of people seem to like. References to it over the last few years have mildly spiked in conjunction with the introduction of the critically beloved but little seen NBC series Hannibal, as the two share breathtaking images of unrestrained beauty married to that of the macabre (one particular Hannibal character's fate seems lovingly lifted directly from the former). Every so often you may accidentally catch someone expressing enthusiasm for this horror/science-fiction/serial killer thriller aptly described as "The Silent of the Lambs meets The Matrix," but more often than not, no one has all that much positive to say about it.

Universally derided Jennifer Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a child psychologist employing an experimental approach in her work: her ability to enter the mind of her subject in an effort to examine his/her reality and attempt to study the visual representation of her patient's cognition to determine the root cause of her patient's illness.  This procedure takes its toll on Catherine, both physically, in that it exhausts her and forces her to such stimulants as marijuana (run!) to come down, as well as emotionally, as despite how cutting edge the machinery is, it just doesn't seem to be helping her current patient, a young boy named Edward. That this technique isn't helping with his illness certainly isn't sitting well with Edward's parents, who begin threatening to pull him from the project altogether.

Meanwhile, you've got Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), a serial killer who likes to kidnap women and murder them, and then basically turn them into dolls. Hot on Stargher's trail is Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in an ever increasingly rare dramatic performance), a detective intent on hunting down the madman before he claims another victim. Their paths soon cross and Novak locates Stargher at his home, but it's too late, as it would seem Stargher is now comatose, having suffered what would seem to be his last seizure. And it's really too late because Stargher did manage to kidnap one more girl and place her in his inescapable cell apparatus, which over time fills with water, causing the victim to suffer and eventually drown. With the only one person knowing the location of this apparatus now in a coma, Novak requests the help of Catherine and her team to enter Stargher's mind and determine how to find this cell by sifting through the many layers of his madness.

As for The Cell being summarized as "The Silence of the Lambs meets The Matrix," this kind of generally lazy pull-quote that a critic concocts hoping to be quoted in subsequent marketing efforts is actually right on the money. You take a hunt for an infamous serial killer and marry it to this strange abstract world where everything seems possible and there are no physical rules to keep everything in place, and The Cell is exactly what you'd get. Many critics faulted this mash-up, not because of the approach, but because of the ol' "style over substance" bit, for which a lot of films get attacked. Too much Matrix, not enough Lambs. And that's a fair critique. Even the most ardent lovers of The Cell have to admit that its visual merits far overshadow and outweigh its thematic ones.  Not only does the film definitely tote the admittedly fantastic visual effects, but except for the mind-suit gimmick, it doesn't do much with the serial killer route beyond what we've seen in this genre so many times before: the killer was abused as a child, has sexual issues, and for the most part retains no semblance of genuine human emotion.

While one should always stress the importance of content over context, sometimes said context can just be so expertly performed that it can capably carry its weak content across the finish line. And that's ultimately what The Cell kind of is: a flawlessly designed and presented horror/thriller with a story strongish enough to complement it, but one still weak enough to prevent the finished product from being celebrated across the spectrum.

J. Lo and V. Vau (sorry) both turn in pretty standard performances, the former finding herself playing a role she's never played before, and likely won't again. Personal opinions of her "celebrity" aside, she manages to pull off a pretty tricky role, especially in the film's final moments when she's been dolled up as Stargher's demented queen.

But the real star is here director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Self/Less), who became famous for directing the music video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." His visuals on display are tremendous. He manages to create entire landscapes that are both twisted as well as beautiful, revolting as well as sad, and some of them will flat-out mystify you, such as the bodybuilder (a past victim, though based on a true story) that comes to life only when needed to do Stargher's bidding, or any of the several bizarre set-pieces, some of which are recreated from infamous and abstract art pieces (mostly notably the horse vivisection, inspired by the art of Damien Hirst, and the painting "Dawn" by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum). Whether original constructions or inspired by elsewhere, all of these images come together and form a demented and disturbed visual tapestry akin to literally a living nightmare.

If you were to accuse Tarsem of being more creatively engulfed by the idea of constructing this strange world rather than exploring the thematics of the serial killer aspect, he would have agreed with you:
You know, the serial-killer thing didn't interest me at all... At the turn of the century, a studio would make any film that had a serial killer in it. I just said, "Okay, so that's the nutshell I need to put it in? It's fine." In the '70s, everybody was making disaster movies. If I'd made The Cell in the '70s, it would have been about a burning building, with a guy having a dream on the 14th floor. I'd make it because of the dream, the studio would make it because of the building burning. Same thing here—I looked at the script, said "Oh, serial-killer thing—I don't give anything about that. Okay. Put that on the side. And inside his head… wow, clean palette."  
Then I came up with all this shit which was called overindulgent, masturbating on dead bodies or whatever. I just said, "All I'm saying with this is, don't laugh at this character, okay?" And that's it. That's what it took.
(Source: The AV Club.)
The Cell made enough bank the year of its release for New Line Cinema to consider it a success, and to ensure a very terrible direct-to-video sequel (though it would star Frank Whaley and take several years). Despite its commercial success and mixed love from critics, Tarsem did not jump right into another studio project, but instead bankrolled The Fall, an independent feature shot in countries all over the world over a span of several years. It was also pretty fantastic, and far more interesting and satisfying than his next big studio project, The Immortals, which starred a pre-Man of Steel Henry Cavill.

Tarsem has gone on record saying of all the genres he's worked in so far, he enjoys thrillers the most, and hopes to do another sometime soon. Here's hoping that's true.

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