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by: Michael Dequina

Just about one thing separates The Cell from a pulpy thriller you'd find premiering on late night cable or your local video store. But it's that solitary difference that not only makes it special, but a cinema landmark or sorts--the visionary imagination of director Tarsem Singh. In the hands of this music video veteran and first-time feature director, a by-the-numbers story becomes the incidental backbone of one of the most visually arresting films of recent memory.

Writer Mark Protosevich obviously enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs, for much of The Cell's story particulars mirror those of the Oscar-winning film. There is a young woman (Tara Subkoff) trapped in a specialized prison in a dog-loving serial killer's (Vincent D'Onofrio's Carl Stargher) lair--in this case, a glass cell that is timed to incrementally fill with water, ultimately drowning the prisoner. There is an intelligent, resourceful young woman (here, psychologist Catherine Deane, played by Jennifer Lopez) who must find out the location of the latest victim before it's too late. The high concept twist? Stargher is quickly captured, but soon comatose--and the Hannibal Lecter whom Catherine must consult with is Sargher's own unconscious mind, by way of a futuristic technology that enables her to enter the dangerous world inside the killer's head.

The sci-fi spin is intriguing, but not much else Protosevich comes up with is. For a film that is a psychological thriller, the psychology is dismayingly simplistic. In her exploration of Stargher's mind, Catherine uncovers the root of his psychosis, and it's nothing particularly shocking, if not completely predictable. There is also a fleeting reference to an incident in Catherine's past that is implied to have factored in her career choice as child psychologist. The heady issues that are addressed are obvious and shallow.

But when speaking of Singh's final, finished film, complaints such as these are almost moot. The Cell is a clear, classic case of a director's vision invigorating standard material. The film moves at an effectively erratic pace: action in the real world moves fairly swiftly, but once it's in the world of the mind, the pace becomes more languid, befitting the surrealism of dreams. It is in this latter realm that the film really soars. Dream worlds in movies are nothing new--witness the oeuvre of David Lynch or, for a less highfalutin example, the Nightmare on Elm Street series--but the visual ideas put forth by Singh are spectacular and unique; there's an atmosphere of excess that hasn't even been reached in Lynch's famously bizarre work. Tom Foden's production design and Eiko Ishioka's costumes are gloriously outré, one standout being the garishly frightening look of the "demon" Stargher and his "throne room." Also adding immeasurably to the mood are Paul Laufer's grainy yet vibrant cinematography and the CGI work by visual effects supervisor Kevin Tod Haug.

For all the film's flights of fancy and the script's derivative nature, The Cell maintains a foothold in reality through the cast. Lopez is convincingly, appealingly smart and vulnerable as the headstrong heroine; Vince Vaughn is effective in the by-the-book role of FBI Agent Peter Novak; and D'Onofrio manages to make a lasting, eerie impression in a very dialogue-light role. The smaller roles surrounding the lead trio are all played by familiar, reliable actors, such as Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Pruitt Taylor Vince.

It has been said that it's not what you have, but what you do with it, and that statement applies to Singh and The Cell. As written, the film is not terrible, but just average; as executed, The Cell is, to use a cliché, something that truly hasn't been seen before.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)


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