The images are all in the debut feature by Tarsem Singh, a whiz at commercials and music videos whose keen eye for color and composition is evident in every frame. “The Cell” is visually extravagant, offering a palate of hues and a succession of settings and costumes that have an almost hallucinatory sheen. Yet like another recent specimen of similar cinematic artistry, Vincent Ward’s “What Dreams May Come” (1998), all the seductive beauty is linked to a thin, ultimately unsatisfying narrative; it’s a pity that Tarsem couldn’t apply his dexterity to something meatier than Mark Protosevich’s script, which tries to add modernistic layers to a few old movie cliches but doesn’t really manage the job. Beautiful to look at but cold, detached and sadly predictable except for its surface ostentation, “The Cell” is rather like a big, gaudy package which, when unwrapped, turns out to be empty.
“The Cell” is fundamentally a combination of two genres, the driven scientist flick (which goes back to such examples as “Frankenstein”) and the serial-killer melodrama (in its contemporary formulation best represented by “Se7en” and “The Silence of the Lambs”). We’re first introduced to psychologist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), who uses a cutting-edge mechanism funded by billionaire Lucien Baines (Patrick Bauchau, in a mere cameo) to enter the subconscious of the mogul’s comatose son in order to cure the boy; her journeys into the kid’s mind, where she interacts with the youth and tries to lead him out of his illness, are rendered in dreamlike, surrealistic sequences of startling immediacy. The plot then shifts to the pursuit of schizophrenic serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) by hard-as-nails FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn). Stargher, who’s one of those mass murderers, happily found only in fiction, who apparently have resources sufficiently unlimited to construct the most elaborate means of torture and death (all to satisfy perverse sexual urges, of course), has just abducted his latest victim, Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff), whom he’s imprisoned in an isolated chamber which will gradually fill with water, drowning her; her death throes will be meticulously photographed so that Stargher can use the videos to excite him as he dangles from the ceiling via metal clamps which have been installed in his back via body-piercing. The feds track Stargher down, but he collapses in a coma just before they get to him, so Novak approaches Deane to enter the killer’s psyche to try to find out where the cell trapping Hickson is located before she’s inundated.
This leads to a series of episodes in which Deane visits Stargher’s mind, confronting him both in his current destructive form (variously costumed as some foreign potentate or as a demonic figure) and in his remembered boyhood as a winsome abused child. There’s also a sequence in which Novak follows her into the fellow’s brain in order to rescue her when she’s become lost there. All of this is played out in slow, dreamy passages punctuated by lots of gore and sadistic violence. The method does eventually give Novak some clues as to finding Hickson; but Deane becomes so obsessed with helping the frightened boy Stargher that she endangers herself by going into the killer’s mind again to save him from his evil impulses. (This third-act twist is distinctly old hat; remember how the scientist in “The Thing” literally committed suicide by trying to converse with the monster in the name of progress?)
“The Cell” can be termed a head-trip both in terms of its basic narrative and with respect to the effect it wants to have on the audience. But like most such experiences, while it offers dizzying moments, the payoff is less than one would hope, and the picture finally proves much more conventional than its style would suggest. (A like problem infected Douglas Trumball’s supposed mind-bender “Brainstorm” back in 1983.) Long before the film ends, the viewer realizes that its visual extravagance is merely a cheap device (speaking dramatically rather than financially, of course; the look must have cost tons to achieve)) to gussy up what’s basically a standard catch-the-maniac plot.
The cast seems straitjacketed by the story, too. Lopez is, as usual, quite lovely as the heroine, but she doesn’t have much more to do than look chagrined and, in the dream sequences, glide about in flamboyant outfits that could be castoffs from Natalie Portman’s wardrobe in “The Phantom Menace.” Vaughn remains an exciting young actor, but here he’s more perfunctory than usual, and it’s doubtful that any performer could pull off, without evidence of embarrassment, what’s he’s required to do when sucked into Stargher’s brain–react to watching himself being disemboweled (the image is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds). D’Onofrio is an even more talented fellow, but he seems curiously muffled as Stargher, doing most of his acting in the “real” sequences with an unflattering mop of hair and an aspirin bottle; the getups he’s forced to don in Stargher’s “subconscious” seem to mute his usual exuberance even more. There are some excellent performers in the supporting cast, but they’re mostly wasted. Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Baker are very able people, for instance, but they have little to do but sit at computer consoles and appear worried as Deane’s co-researchers; and Tara Subkoff is just the object of a series of physical indignities as Stargher’s latest victim. Jake Thomas proves affecting as Stargher’s recollected image of his own abused childhood, but the climax involving him is unclear at best.
Like “What Dreams May Come,” “The Cell” offers periodic moments of visual amazement. It lacks, however, the pyschological depth and emotional resonance which could have lifted it beyond the realm of accomplished but ephemeral eye-candy. See it for the imagery, by all means; but don’t expect much more from it than that.