In “The Cell” commercials and musicvideos director Tarsem makes a visually striking feature debut that’s flawed by weak narrative. Sci-fi thriller tries to differentiate itself from the familiar serial killer genre with an intriguing new premise — along with lavishly surreal special effects and sumptuous production values. Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who experiments with a radical therapy that enables her to enter and literally experience the unconscious secrets and fantasies in a demented murderer’s mind. Unfortunately, the elaborate journeys into the brain, which are breathtaking in their own right, overwhelm a slender story that’s not particularly suspenseful or involving, resulting in a movie that’s a feast to the eye but not much for the intellect. New Line should expect a vigorous opening but, due to mixed reviews and questionable word-of-mouth, box office will stabilize around mid-range numbers. Pic is likely to enjoy longer life on video and might become a hot midnight item.
Lopez may not be the most credibly cast therapist in American film history, but she is certainly one of the most beautiful and sexiest actresses working in Hollywood today. When it comes to acting, however, “The Cell” doesn’t rep a propitious follow-up to Lopez’s vivid performance in “Out of Sight,” for it confines its star to a few scenes of substance, mostly offering her a stage to parade in two dozen eye-popping outfits. Japanese costume designer Eiko Ishioka collaborated with April Napier in producing luxuriant costumes.
In the credit sequence, shot in an African desert of sensuous golden sand and a baby blue sky, a stunning long take reveals Catherine (Lopez) in a long white dress marching alone toward what turns out to be a little boy, Edward Baines (Colton James), one of her patients, who’s in a coma. The dazzling imagery evokes a child’s vast, unbridled imagination.
Cut to Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the authoritarian mentor who manages the research institute where Catherine is employed. It’s been seven years since Catherine began experimenting with a radical methodology, invented by Henry West (Dylan Baker), the genius who created the synaptic-transfer machine. Results have been unsatisfactory: Up until now, Catherine has only used her technique on Edward, hoping to bring him back to reality and his grieving parents. Catherine asks for more time to prove the validity of her therapy.
Meanwhile, dangerous serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) is on the loose, developing radical, creepy methods of torturing female victims. Latest is a blonde named Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff), whom he imprisons in a claustrophobic underwater tank — a torture cell that’s a time-triggered deathtrap.
Stern FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) turns to Catherine as his last hope, requesting that she use the chemically induced therapy to enter Stargher’s mind and uncover the location of his lair. Indeed, Catherine boldly invades the shifting shadows and bizarre secrets that inhabit Stargher’s deranged brain. Once caught, the killer falls into a coma similar to Edward’s.
For a while, Protosevich’s script is chilling in its mixture of a serial killer’s psychology and a Jungian interpretation of dreams. Yarn goes one step beyond “Silence of the Lambs,” delving into a killer’s innermost thoughts. Stargher displays five alter egos, each more fantastical and demonic than the other.
Problem is that the story is told in the first 40 minutes, after which long sequences of visual effects occupy at least half of the running time. For all their seamless execution, these journeys don’t advance the narrative and at times arrest its dramatic momentum. Indeed, despite its billing as a suspenser, “The Cell” is more effective as sci-fi in the manner of “Strange Days” or “Blade Runner,” futuristic fever dreams whose power lay not in their linear narrative but in the sensory texture of their imagery.
The little suspense that exists lies in the question of whether Julia, hidden in the booby-trapped cell, will survive.
“The Cell” suffers from another structural weakness. While in most thrillers the protagonist will almost certainly end up encountering a killer face-to-face, Catherine is never in jeopardy here because Stargher lies comatose on a bed beside hers for most of the film.
So what’s left? A sumptuous engorgement of the senses, a volcanic eruption of colors and sounds. Tarsem takes viewers on wild hallucinatory rides through alien landscapes and diabolical dream worlds that are savage and even erotic. Helmer is blessed with strong visual sensibility but lacks feeling for psychological motivation or narrative logic.
Lopez is more seductive than persuasive as a compassionate therapist, the limits of whose empathy are stripped raw when she’s forced to experience what a killer feels. Pic gains an enormous boost from its intelligent co-stars. D’Onofrio adds another credible performance as the “ingenious” serial killer; Vaughn is good as a hard-core, both rebellious and obsessive, FBI agent; Jake Weber is effective as Novak’s straitlaced partner; Jean-Baptiste conveys well a scientist operating on the edge of what’s possible and permissible; and Gareth Williams is scary as Stargher’s abusive father.
Special kudos go to Paul Laufer for his dazzling lensing of a mind filled with macabre and monstrous images; British production designer Tom Foden, who drew on various sources (Tarkovsky’s films, primitive paintings of animals) in forging operatic sets; and Ishioka and Napier, whose costumes seem to have been inspired by Samurai designs and Middle Eastern finery, among other influences.