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The Cell
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   Tarsem Singh (director)
Genre:   sci-fi/fantasy
Released:   August 18, 2000
Review Date:   October 03, 2002
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Anyone who tells you that The Cell is about a serial killer is technically correct, but has missed the point of the film. Sure, the plot revolves around the rush to find the killer's latest victim before she ends up dead, and there are some twisted sequences that are hard to watch, even on the third and fourth viewing (the person who thinks this is tame stuff probably listens to the "Lust" sequence in Se7en to put themselves to sleep at night). Some will chose to skip The Cell because they don't want to see such things, and that's perfectly understandable. But The Cell, aside from being a bit dark and disturbing, is also lovely and lyrical, and one of the most visually stunning genre films I've seen. Those who live for movies like City of Lost Children, Dark City, Existenz, and The Matrix will want to give The Cell a look.

Because while FBI profilers and homicide detectives usually try to get inside the heads of serial killers, Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn (Swingers, The Lost World) go, pretty much literally, inside the head of a serial killer (with the help of some technology that doesn't much differ from the gadgets in Existenz and the short lived Fox show VR.5). Imagine if Alice, rather than taking a tumble down the rabbit hole, instead fell headlong into the brain of Charles Manson. In The Cell, stairs go on forever; a dog soaked in blood shakes itself to dry off; a living horse is completely vivisected in the span of an eyeblink; and a gallery of the killer's victims comes to life at the touch of a switch, like marionettes in a grotesque automated Nickelodeon.

We've all seen sequences in television shows in which a character is hallucinating, or dreaming, or in a coma, or going into someone's mind, but nearly all of them are not believable as dreams. Most are too linear and mundane. Even those which capture the essence of the oxymoron known as "dream logic" (like some episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) are limited by the constraints of television sets and budgets. Anything can happen in dreams. In The Cell, anything can happen, and frequently does.

The Cell creates perfectly a world which is both horribly beautiful and beautifully horrific. Each visual component - the makeup, the cinematography, the editing, the effects, the costumes, the sets - is lush and meticulous, and most of the scenes look like paintings that have been stretched into three dimensions.

Let's talk about the film's star for a moment. It's very easy to dismiss out of hand the acting chops of someone like Jennifer Lopez. I mean, maybe she should make up her mind: movie starlet or purveyor of highly-processed low-grade hip hop pop. But, for a genre fan, Jennifer Lopez will never be the selling point of The Cell anyway, just as Keanu Reeves was not the selling point of The Matrix. I can remember talking to someone as we waited in line at opening night of The Matrix: "So, Keanu Reeves is in this movie, huh?" "Yeah, um, well, at least Laurence Fishburne is in the movie too. It can't be all bad." The most I was hoping from Keanu was that he didn't ruin the movie; and not only did he not ruin the movie, he also turned out to be a quite adequate choice for the role. Lopez, too, is a good fit for her role in The Cell, and her character is much more demanding, acting-wise, than Neo is.

As far as performances go, The Cell is solid all the way around. Co-star Vince Vaughn is fine. Supporting actors like Marianne Jean Baptiste, Jake Weber (American Gothic) And Patrick Bauchau (The Pretender, Kindred: The Embraced) add plenty of class. Jake Thomas, who plays young Carl Stargher, makes my ever-lengthening list of kids who should have been cast as Anakin Skywalker instead of Jake Lloyd. And Vincent D'Onofrio's (Men In Black, The Thirteenth Floor, and, yes, he was Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket) Carl Stargher may come in third place in the Serial Killer Olympics after Hannibal Lecter and John Doe, but it's a very close third.

The Cell contains elements (the icky forensics and autopsy details; the killer's den of fetish objects) that might seem derivative, coming, as they do, post-Silence Of The Lambs, post-Se7en, post-Millenium, post-Profiler. But each works well within the framework of the movie, and director Tarsem Singh shows that he knows the clichÈs of the serial killer genre, and will purposely play against expectations (as in the obligatory SWAT team sequence).
At one point, Vince Vaughn looks at a picture of the killer and says "You're a bad man, aren't you, Carl?" and the next shot is of Carl lying in the bathtub, spitting water out of his mouth like a fountain, and looking nothing at all like an egomaniacal "bad man." In the DVD's director's commentary, Tarsem also reveals how he wanted to modify the "victim in peril" ending, but was kind of voted down by others involved in the decision-making process.

The story and characters here are serviceable, and well played, but it's not the main attraction. Tarsem says straight out that the serial killer script is just a prop on which to hang his sumptuous visuals. "If you are seeing anything realistic in this film," he says, "point it out and I'll take it out." The name of the documentary on the DVD is "Style as Substance" and Tarsem's previous work was in commercials and music videos. As such, people will moan that The Cell is taking movies in the wrong direction: it's a flashy, vapid confection for audiences with attention deficit disorder.

But directors who started in music videos and commercials are uniquely qualified to create visually rich films. They must cram plot, theme, message, character, and razzle-dazzle into a 30-second spot or a three-minute song. That takes discipline. Everything in The Cell is shot with care, from water pouring out of a pipe to a tortoise pushing its way through tall grass, to the heat distortion from an airplane engine. The images and cues and symbols are layered one on top of another. The result is a deep canvas that yields new details each time you watch.


The DVD includes the usual stuff: trailers, deleted scenes with director's commentary, and filmographies. There is also the documentary "Style as Substance," which goes one better than the puffed-out commercials-disguised-as-documentaries that play on MTV and HBO and E!; also, six visual effects vignettes (with narration), and commentary tracks from the director and the production team. A lot of extras with very little repetitive overlap (unlike The Mummy Ultimate Edition DVD).

Minor complaints: one costume designer (I believe it's April Napier) evidently thinks that the apex of culture and literature for anyone from middle America or the Southern states is a velvet Elvis painting. And what's that computer game demo doing on there?

DVD rating: 8/10

For the record, RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers prefers paintings of dogs playing poker - and ceramic religious icons from the Dollar Store - to velvet Elvi (that's the correct plural of Elvis).

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