Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Cell

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE CELL

3/10

US 2000
dir. Tarsem Singh
scr. Mark Protosevich
cin. Paul Laufer
stars Jennifer Lopez, Vincent dOnofrio
107 minutes

The Cell is a tarted-up rehash of the 1983s minor classic Dreamscape, in which Dennis Quaid discovered he had the power to enter the subconscious of others while they slept. Directed by Joe Ruben, of The Stepfather fame, Dreamscape occasionally crops up on late night TV, and its well worth seeking out, not least because it doesn’t take itself at all seriously. The Cell, however, is a very po-faced enterprise which seems to think its both a serious psychological investigation and also an eye-poppingly opulent and arty visual feast. Its neither. In the right hands, this could have been a powerful, groundbreaking movie. Unfortunately its in the hands of Tarsem Singh, and he steers the materials pulpy sci-fi elements towards the choppier waters of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, with ultimately laughable results.

The film opens with a series of awe-inspiring shots of the Namibian desert, the huge red dunes and ridges familiar to anyone who’s seen the Danish dogme movie The King Is Alive. A tiny white speck walks among the vast geometrical planes its Jennifer Lopez, as psychologist Catherine Deane, and the dunes are part of the subsconscious mental landscape of a comatose child. Through a vaguely-defined technological process, Lopez is able to enter and explore such psychic environments, engaging the otherwise inaccessible patient in vital therapy. The exposition taken care of, the film moves onto its main plot. Serial killer Carl Stargher (dOnofrio) has lapsed into an irreversible coma, and the only way for the FBI to find out where he’s hidden his latest victim is to use Lopezs dreamscape techniques. The bulk of the movie follows Deanes travels through Starghers baroque imagination, aided by federal agent Novak (Vince Vaughn). Its a race against time, because Starghers victim is imprisoned in a glass cell which is slowly filling up with water.

This is one of those films in which huge amounts of energy and time have been expended on the costumes, scenery and special effects, in direct inverse ratio to the effort expended on script, dialogue and characterisation. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film was the trip youre led to expect, but it falls a long way short even in this regard. There are some incredible images, some beautiful and some gruesome Starghers inner self models a billowing, silken purple cloak that covers the walls and ceiling of a huge chamber; an imaginary horse is turned into an instant, living Damien Hirst by sheets of glass but Singh throws so much at the screen its not surprising he hits the target every now and again. Even with those two examples, nothing actually comes of them they’re just throwaway bits of eye candy. Most of the supposedly amazing shots and scenes are just cackhanded stabs at surrealism, or galumphing splurges of kitsch Starghers subconscious is that of a man who’s spent too long glued to adverts for cars and alcopops.

In fact, the films most impressive cinematography comes not in any of the dreamscape sequences, but in the waking-world passages. The lab in which Deane works is an icy blue affair reminiscent of Gattaca or the cold neon of Michael Mann, and during the procedure she has to wear what looks like a suit of figure-hugging Japanese armour made of red licorish. There are occasional flashes of David Cronenberg during the lab scenes, but they only serve to remind the viewer of that directors effortlessly superior excursion into similar territory with his last movie, eXistenZ. Singh just doesn’t have the kind of skill needed to do justice to his films high concept, and he’s pretty useless when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the thriller framework – this is very perfunctory serial-killer stuff, full of bog-standard Hollywood coincidences and last-minute escapes, with an extremely muddy and unsatisfactory climax. To be fair, it isn’t all Singhs fault the script feels like it was the only draft ever written, packed full of clanging dialogue (my favourite – a scientist asks an FBI man about strange scars on DOnofrios back. We removed 14 metal rings, comes the deadpan response.)

On a wider level, The Cell is a compendium of missed opportunities and gaping plot holes. Some of the errors are schoolboy level – at one point Lopez enters dOnofrios mind but doesn’t realise it: she thinks she’s still in the dream-lab. Except dOnofrio has never been awake in the dream-lab, and can have no way of knowing anything about it. Singh might just have got away with this lapse if he’d revealed the false nature of Catherines perceptions by having dOnofrio come to life in his licorish suit, but the moment passes and the scene trails off. Likewise, much is made in the early going of dOnofrios dog, an albino husky-type animal called Valentine. Is dOnofrio somehow worshipping the dog, or something? The unique dog turns out to be a plot mechanism enabling the feds track down the killer, and he ends up in the dream-lab, observing the goings on with bemusement, and for no good reason. I may sound facetious when I say Tim, who plays Valentine, gives the films most believable and engaging performance, but I only wish I were.

As scientists, the talented Dylan Baker (the best thing about Todd Solondzs Happiness) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste have that slightly baffled, slightly disgruntled look of performers left to their own devices. Vaughn looks as though he’d rather be anywhere else but in this movie a charitable view would be to suggest its his character who’s overfed and in need of a fortnights kip but its sad to see the man who, in Swingers, personified the money coming over as such used, non-consecutive bills. Whatever, he has precisely zero chemistry with Lopez, whose role is principally decorative its one of the kinks of dOnofrios character that he turns women into bleached, inanimate dolls, and Singh does pretty much the same with his leading lady. This could be called offensive as could the numerous, unneccessarily lingering cuts back to the girl in the cell – but to use such a term would be to flatter this director with more intention and sense than he possesses.

Vincent dOnofrio has always fared best with strong directorial handling, which is precisely what he doesn’t get here. As a result he Malkoviches it up for all he’s worth, speaking in an infuriatingly slow whisper of a lisp. Theres even a scene where he has a series of violent seizures in a kitchen that must be a direct hommage to the moment in Being John Malkovich when the thesp momentarily snaps back into himself before being colonised by the pensioners. That movie also featured a climactic chase in which Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz pursued each other through the various layers of Malkovichs subconscious. The sequence can’t have lasted more than three breakneck minutes, but it contained more psychological depth, not to mention laughs and directorial skill, than The Cell can muster over the whole of its dopey hundred-plus minutes.

by Neil Young