Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Cast: Jennifer Lopez (as Dr. Catherine Deane); Vincent D'Onofrio (as Carl Rudolph Stargher); Vince Vaughn (as Special Agent Peter Novak); Jake Weber (as Special Agent Gordon Ramsey); Dylan Baker (as Henry West); Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as Dr. Miriam Kent)
Synopsis: In the future, a research facility has developed the ability for therapists to enter their patients' sub consciousness, useful especially to communicate to coma patients. The FBI request their facility to enter the head of recently captured and comatose serial killer Carl Rudolph Stargher (D'Onofrio), to find where his next victim is before she dies. Therapist Dr. Catherine Deane (Lopez) selects herself to enter his nightmarish psyche as FBI agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) watches on.
I unfairly dismissed Tarsem Singh once as proving when elaborate images aren't enough in cinema, without any sense of connection to make them work as a whole, but here with The Cell, this is not necessarily the case. Even as a person obsessed with style, I find myself only enamoured with movies that have an inbuilt sense of the environments being fleshed out with a distinct personality to them. Revisiting The Cell, it's a case that Singh is betrayed by the scripts more than any problems with his directorial skills, and I say this with an admiration for The Cell despite its flaws. The story about a scientific technique that allows one to enter dreams/the subconscious is immediately going to interest me, and it still stands out strongly despite the crippling flaw that prevents the film from being more then fascinating, that it's the clichéd serial killer crime movie at the end of the day. The film struggles between its premise and this, swathed in the post-Seven (1995) influence in its grubby, dark tone. The performances are also varying. Lopez is okay in the lead only, and Vaughn is dangerously close to the gruff cop stereotype, having Gil Grissom 's stubble pre-CSI, and its only when The Cell takes risk that they are able to try a little harder.
The plot does throw up one inspired, if very controversial idea, as a crime thriller that forces you to think of real life for once. Boldly, though it may put off many viewers, it suggests that even if Stargher is a killer of women who bleaches their corpses, and then dangles himself over them on hooks masturbating, he is still the product of cruelty and sadism, Deane finding his inner child and the various torments replayed in front of her as she travels further into his mind. Many will find this offensive, under the belief a serial killer would be welcomed on the nearest electric chair instead, but forcing the viewer to ask if environmental influence or the psyche of a person could make them into a Jeffrey Dahmer is something few horror films manage to do. Some of the content is exceptionally heavy handed, such as the reference to an Christian baptism in a lake that isn't necessarily anti-religious but an attempt to link an obsession with drowning and water Stargher has.
Most of it, even if exaggerated, is a sincere attempt to try to make the villain a much more complex entity. The film makes the issue more palatable because the premise means Stargher is split into two people, the child he was and who he is now, portrayed in his own head as a deranged king who presides over his own kingdom. It also provides the backbone of the film as it becomes the more interesting dramatic conflict than the woman who is in peril because of Stargher, the cliché that's obviously going to be resolved by the end as you'd expect it to be in a crime thriller.
The few tantalising details the plot's crux has are what I like the most in the film, even if it's incredibly brief, enough context and layers to how the technology work and the laws to it to suggest a great deal of implications. While it never reaches the levels of the animated film Paprika (2006) in depicting the subconscious/dreams, it still envisions unique, phantasmagoric interpretations of the individuals' psyches, far more so as Singh does understand the tones of dreams and uses it to his advantage for atmosphere.
It would be perfunctious to call aspects of The Cell's visuals music video-like, as Singh directed videos like R.E.M's Losing My Religion and is as indebted by them as much as other sources for the film. Instead, alongside the imagination, it's the areas of inspiration which really stand out with him, from Damien Hurst with a scene with a bisected horse to René Laloux's Fantastic Planet (1973) playing in the background of one scene.
A strong visual palette is here that out-trumps other horror/thriller films, conveying the subconscious scenes with immense boldness. The serenity of a child's mind is depicted with an actual desert dune almost from a Persian desert, whilst Stargher's hellish mind is saturated with gothic, fairy tale like images as well as stuff, for good or bad, straight from a Marilyn Manson album. Even the technology that allows the therapists to enter others' mind has a graceful, vaguely Cronenbergian vibe to it, suits like human muscle and the participants literally hung from cables as if in a levitating act.
Not only is it worth praising the production team for the film's technical quality, but it would be criminal not to mention the late Eiko Ishioka, an art director, costume and graphic designer whose boldest work for cinema was for Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula. Her work, contributing to Singh's first four films before her passing, is exceptional, worn pieces of art which could only exist in fantasy but are a marvel showing the importance of costume design in films and what they can contribute to a movie's atmosphere. Her work especially helps create a balance between the grotesque gore and nastiness of the film, especially in the dreams, and a glamour and spectacle also inherent in them, making it perfectly logical for Stargher to go from a serial killer to a strange pale faced King decked out in his own royal colours.
The film's only danger in terms of visuals is to make all of this connect together, but for every moment where it dangerously veers to commercialised gothic, the level of craftsmanship to the film is what keeps it all consistent rather than a collection of random moments. It goes as far as contribute a lion's share of hard work in making The Cell more than a middling film, providing it with virtues that I can hold on to with praise. Even dated computer effects, especially the coloured shapes and images seen when people enter the subconscious, are actually accentuated by their obsoleteness, a materialistic sheen from their obvious artificiality. That the dreams are never attempting to be realistic, and many have theatre-like qualities, helps immensely.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Mind Bender
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
In terms of the visuals and the content on an abstract level, I cannot put it on the List however. Smart moments of recognition between reality and dreams, and how they can influence each other, do stand out, but the film is a mainstream crime thriller at the end of the day. The images are beautiful and startling, but never fully symbolic or possessing an unknowable air of there being more to what is taking place. That doesn't detract from the virtues but I cannot give it a rating just because of how it looks either.
I'll openly say that Tarsem Singh may not really be a favourite director of mine, but at least with The Cell I can see his talent. An okay film in consistency altogether, but an inspired one nonetheless.