The Cell

Turns out the mind of a serial killer looks a lot like a perfume commercial
Tarsem Singh
Jennifer Lopez
The Setup: 
Woman uses sci-fi technology to enter the mind of a killer.

I've gotten into a little jag of serial killer movies--actually mostly the Hannibal Lecter ones--and that's what made me realize I had to move this one to the top of my list. So this is directed by this dude Tarsem, and was his first feature after directed a bunch of commercials and music videos. It was sold at the time as something that is going to FUCK WITH YOUR MIND, and include all sorts of trippy visuals. You also have to understand that, at that time, Jennifer Lopez was not yet a total joke and there still lingered a little idea that maybe she was a decent actress. It ended up disappointing on all counts, and quickly vanished, although I was not long ago in a hotel room, flipping through channels, and came across an MTV feature on the "most creative" movies (what does that EVEN MEAN?), and this was in the top five. They concluded that the number two, most creative movie EVER, I mean OF ALL TIME, was Inception, by the way (number one was safe choice The Wizard of Oz).

So we open in this desert where Lopez is in a white dress, and there's a horse, and she walks on the dunes up to some kid, who is all shy and nice until he suddenly turns mean. Then we rejoin her in the lab, where she wakes up in this red suit that kind of looks like exposed muscles [First seen in BS Dracula], and where she hangs suspended from the ceiling like in Coma. Turns out she is at some experimental therapy program where, through some unexplained sci-fi technology, she is able to enter the minds of others, like the kid, who is in a coma, and have some sort of reparative therapy there. That is as yet unsuccessful. It's been over six months and the kid has not responded at all, and the parents are about to pull him from the program. We see Jennifer, whose character is Catherine, in her real life as a serious therapist who is apparently just as serious about her lip gloss, and who confuses barely-audible baby talking and pouty faces with being "sensitive." Which tells you that the filmmakers do the same, and now, 10 minutes in, you already know that there is not one person behind the camera that is SMART enough to mess with your mind in any way. Ah well, already paid, might as well sit through the rest.

Meanwhile there's a serial killer on the loose, and his kick is to put women in a cell (hence the title) where he keeps them for a few days, until it suddenly fills up with water and they drown. He is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, always a welcome presence. Except here, I guess. Anyway, he is soon apprehended, but not before he slips into a coma, causing Vince Vaughn as Peter, rocking an unfortunate perm, to come to Lopez's institute to see if she can pop into the killer's mind and find out where the latest victim is. They only have that day, by the way. Lopez does more of her moo-moo baby talk and makes pouty faces, then they agree. Oh, but I forgot to tell you, the night before all this happens, we have a notable--notable for being completely unrelated to anything else--of Lopez sparking a fatty in her apartment. Presumably this is meant to engender audience sympathy for her? We also see that the killer has installed hooks into his back, like some of those extreme performance artists you may have seen, and uses them to suspend himself over his dead, bleached victims and jerk off! Umm, sorry, that's just really distasteful. I think we're supposed to think that it just shows how messed up he is, and the filmmakers just don't realize that THEY thought it up, and THEY decided to show it, and it really just makes THEM look like really gross people.

Anyway, so Lopez enters the mind of the killer. One thing I noticed is that I didn't write down any notes on the dream sequences, because I didn't see anything there that made much of an impression. If you've seen commercials and music videos, you're not going to see anything new here. The first dream sequence is pretty empty and shows us nothing, and before you know it Lopez is awake again.

By the way, when they caught the killer and raided his house, they found all sorts of equipment with a name and particular logo on it, and ANYONE who has EVER seen a movie before would instantly be running that though the computer to find more information on it. In fact, it's such an obvious clue, you kind of assume that they HAVE run a search on it. We'll come back to this.

So Lopez goes back into the killer's mind, where she sees a horse that soon receives the Damien Hirst treatment. As I'm cleverly hinting, if you follow contemporary art at all, you have also already seen everything this movie has to offer. So blah, blah, a bunch more empty visions, and now--oh NO--Lopez has come to believe that the dream is REAL (I thought she did this professionally?) and that means, though arbitrary logic, that she could DIE FOR REAL!

The only solution is for Vaughn, who has no training in these delicate operations of the mind, to go in after her! He gets the grudging assistance of Lopez's African-American assistant whose one defining characteristic is that she can't say an unsnide, non-condescending word to a white person. Vaughn enters, to the accompaniment of a bunch of rather undistinguished computer animation, and soon finds J. Lo, who is apparently under some sort of spell. But first they kiss, so we can have that to show in the trailer and make it look like some kind of sizzling romance might be happening. He is tortured, but gets Lopez to break out of her spell and save him, then they hang out in this room with a dream version of the torture cell in it, whereupon Vaughn sees the logo we noticed way back when and thinks "Wait a minute! This might MEAN SOMETHING!" while you at home are like "No, really?"

Really. He wakes up and runs a check on the logo, which you or I or anyone would have checked hours ago, and it leads them directly to the killer's lair. So he goes there while Lopez locks her assistants out and reprograms the machine so that she can bring the killer into HER mind! Which is so dangerous, risk of losing her mind, etc. Turns out in her mind she's a Catholic saint, which we'll politely decline to comment on. She's friendly to the nice boy that represents the killer as an innocent boy, but turns into a huntress who brings down the big bad adult killer, stabs and kills him. Oh, but this kills the child, too! So she baptizes him and sends him to rest in a little decorative pool, then wakes up and weeps for the dark depths of humanity she has witnessed.

Meanwhile Vaughn and team find the killer's lair with the victim on the cusp of being drowned. Vaughn breaks the glass to release the water and--gee, isn't there a lot of juiced-up electrical equipment in that room? Do you really want to fill the place with water? Turns out this isn't a problem, they rescue the woman, and soon after has a little reunion with Lopez. We end with another sequence of her in the desert from the beginning with the boy, meaning that her therapy continues. The end.

Well, it was a disappointment then, and it's a disappointment now. Among the problems are that the stakes are low, and there's little sense of how any of this is progressing. Maybe we're inured to violence, but soon into the movie, the killer is caught. He is not out there, and will not kill again. If this one victim dies, that's truly sad, but that will be the end of it. Then the dream sequences are freaky, but have no real sense of progression. It's one weird thing after another, but we have little sense of achievement, or even what one COULD do to make progress, so rather than advance the story, they become little more than distractions. And the ideas that Lopez could lose her mind or die for real just seem like trumped-up dangers to provide some sense of urgency, because otherwise it's all a dream and none of it really matters. By the time Vaughn decides to investigate the logo that is such an obvious clue you assume that he MUST HAVE already investigated it, and it leads directly to the killer--i.e. ALL of this could have been avoided--you're just waiting for it to wrap up.

So this movie lives or dies by the effectiveness of its visuals, and has set itself up that those ARE the reason to see the movie, and, well, they're just not that effective. If you've seen TV commercials and music videos, you've kind of seen it all before. As I said, they don't really advance the story, and in themselves they have little resonance. Compare to something like The City of Lost Children, which is packed with freaky visuals that hinge on real-world phenomena, and thus each ring with eerie resonance. Here, it's just one weird thing after another, and the connections are pretty dim: the killer's mind is a dark, wet, dingy place. Or it's a palace set up with himself as ruler. Pretty superficial. And, as I mentioned, there's no sense of how one could make any progress on the case in there, so it's just one weird thing after another, and as I said, I think it says something that I wasn't moved to write down any highlights from the dream sequences. Because the weren't any.

Also on the disc is a feature called "Style as Substance," which seems titled to convince us that there IS some substance to all this, and if we don't see it, well, it's just our limited little minds. It is made up of various people lauding the visionary genius of director Tarsem (pronounced TAR-sem, although its amusing when Vaughn comes on and mispronounces it). In here we hear again and again that he pushed his crew to go further and further thinking up freakier and even freakier things, which is lauded as evidence of his well-nigh incomprehensible genius. Unfortunately, it confirms the reality that the dream sequences were created in an attempt to show freaky shit, without any unifying sense of telling a story or providing escalating tension, which one suspected from the film. We also see casual footage of Lopez standing around, chewing gum with her mouth open like some gutter child!

Anyway, so you might want to rent this because you're curious about the dream sequences, and I can't stop you, but I think you're safe in skipping it altogether. A lot of people on IMDb like it, but those also tend to be the reviews that are riddled with spelling errors, if you know what I'm saying. You deserve better than this, and there are better movies out there, so why not go straight to them?

Should you watch it: 

It won't kill you, but it won't do all that much for you, either.


Hey, Scott. First time commenter, semi-long time follower. I stumbled onto your Jaws 4 review and have been checking in ever since. The Cell... boy, I remember this movie. My sister and I recently watched this again and we were both blown away by how... BEAUTIFUL... this movie is. The cinematography is breath taking. They don't make many movies like this anymore. I'll be sure to catch up on your recent reviews. Cheers/ -mARK