Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.
To accept The Cell, you need to make a few giant leaps to have it make even a little sense. First, you have to go with the idea that inside everyone’s head is a literal surreal landscape where there are versions of us that walk around through rooms. Actually, that’s not a huge leap, since it’s an idea that has been presented in movies dealing with the subconscious before this one. A bigger leap is accepting Jennifer Lopez as an experienced child psychologist working on a high-tech experimental program. The biggest leap is accepting Vince Vaughn as a serious actor.
What we have is an experimental facility being funded by a very wealthy couple for the benefit of their son, who is comatose with a rare virus. Essentially, a psychologist named Catherine Deane (our very own Jenny from the block) puts on a weird contraption, and the kid is put into the same thing, and she enters into the kid’s subconscious mind. His mind is a weird Arabian dreamscape thing, and the kid sometimes turns into a monster.
The second plot here is that a serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) has just killed his latest victim. As it happens, Stargher has the same weird condition that the kid does, but he’s managed to avoid becoming comatose to this point. He has a series of weird, murderous fetishes. He subjects his victims to a long, slow torture that ends with them drowning. He then bleaches them and turns them into the corpse equivalent of a sex doll. Yeah, it’s pretty lurid.
So, while Catherine strives to keep the funding for her project, which is actually run by a guy named Henry West (Dylan Baker), assisted by Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the FBI is trying to find the identity of Carl Stargher, since they’ve just found the body of his seventh victim. This team is led by Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), although it seems like his assistant, literally named Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber) does all the work. So how do we get these two plots together?
Simple. Just as the FBI are closing in on him, Stargher ends up comatose. And, since he has taken another victim who might still be alive, they need to find out where she might be. What this means is that Stargher is going to be strapped into the machine and Catherine is going to enter his mind to find out what she can about the location of what is essentially his killing jar.
Plot-wise, The Cell hits a number of standard tropes pretty hard. For instance, we’re told that it’s possible to suffer real trauma from things that happen in the subconscious of someone else—it’s literally said to us that it’s the equivalent of the old wives’ tale about dying in your dreams. We’re also told that it’s possible to reverse the machine so that instead of Catherine entering someone else’s mind, she can bring that person into hers. However, this is really dangerous. So guess what’s going to happen before the end?
The main draw for The Cell is the exceptional look of the film. The Cell, like a lot of the work of Tarsem Singh, is absolutely gorgeous. While the real world sequences are nothing to write home about in terms of costuming and set design, the subconscious world, especially that of Carl Stargher is a completely different matter. This is a film of significant beauty in that respect. Vast landscapes, incredible costuming, things that look like art installations, some of which were influenced by actual artwork…it’s amazing, and it’s one of those cases where I get frustrated with the Academy. The Cell was Oscar-nominated for makeup, a nomination it clearly earned. It wasn’t nominated for set design and costuming, though, and it genuinely should have been.
For all of the eye candy, though, there’s a lot that doesn’t work here. The casting is very strange. We’ve got some great people in some of these roles. Vincent D’Onofrio is inspired casting as a schizophrenic serial killer, for instance, and I’m always happy to see Dylan Baker in just about anything. But Vince Vaughn as an FBI agent who used to be a prosecuting attorney? Jennifer Lopez as a child psychologist? I mean, I get that J Lo was almost certainly cast because she’s J Lo and 2000 was kind of her era. But seriously. Critic Mark Kermode frequently cites “Meg Ryan is a helicopter pilot” (from Courage Under Fire) as something that pulls him out of the movie world because it’s just so ridiculous. “Jennifer Lopez is a child psychologist” does the same thing for me.
The Cell has a lot of big ideas. It fulfills a few of them, and it looks good doing it. There’s a lot of wasted potential here, because some very interesting ideas are only half-explained or half-used in an effort to give characters a backstory they don’t really need. This is a science fiction film with some serious horror elements. Backstory is less important than the cool ideas and incredible landscapes that aren’t used nearly enough.
Why to watch The Cell: It’s pretty as all hell.
Why not to watch: Vince Vaughn? Really?