Synopsis: An F.B.I. Agent persuades a social worker adept with a new experimental technology to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colton James, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff
Director: Tarsem Singh
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Aside from a few bright spots here and there, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t remember many of the movies that came out during the summer of 2000. Between May and August, the only notable releases that may be part of your library were Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Perfect Storm, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Hollow Man, and the first X-Men. At the tail end of it all came The Cell and it sure wasn’t like the rest of them. Featuring two stars on the rise and with a focus more on breathtaking (and sometimes horrifying) visuals than, oh, consistent logic, it’s a beautiful film to look at but not one you should think too hard about.
Serial killer Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) has been abducting young women and using them to fulfill his fantasies involving pain and purification. Keeping them locked in a glass cell until he is ready to dispose of them by drowning them slowly and videotaping it, the women all have a limited amount of time before they run of breathing space. Stargher has been getting sloppy, though, and that’s how Agent Novak (Vaughn, The Internship) tracks him down only to find Stargher has lapsed into a coma brought on by a schizophrenic illness. Desperate to find the latest victim Stargher has kidnapped, Novak is referred to a clinic where Catherine Deane (Lopez, Second Act) has been pioneering a new method of reaching patients suffering from the same condition.
Through some scientific sleight of hand, Catherine is able to enter the mind of her patient and can help unlock them from their perpetual dream state. Once she’s inside, though, she’s susceptible to any kind of deceit or harm the patient might inflict which is why up until now the experiments have always been with children. Novak needs Catherine to go into Stargher’s mind to see if she can find where he’s hidden his most recent prey (Tara Subkoff) before it’s too late. As evil and torturous as Stargher is on the outside, what goes on in his brain is even worse. The deeper Catherine goes into Stargher’s mind, the more challenging it is to separate reality from fantasy and soon she’s stuck in a hellscape with no end in sight.
While recently re-watching The Cell for the first time in well over a decade, my mind began to play tricks on me. For some reason I got it into my head this surreal thriller was an early entry in the resumes of stars Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn when actually both actors had already made quite a splash on the big screen. After a strong debut in Selena, Lopez was just coming off the rousing success of 1998’s brilliant Out of Sight, which firmly established the former Fly Girl as an actor that could hold her own against A-listers like George Clooney. Vaughn had managed to survive a dino attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and come out unscathed from Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. So…both were sitting pretty.
It must have been a curious experience for fans of the stars to see them in this strange mix of fantasy and horror, taking themselves very seriously in situations that come off more than a wee bit goofy nineteen years later. Director Tarsem Singh (Mirror Mirror) makes his feature film directing debut and the movie is a dream to look at…literally. Even viewed all these years later when we have the benefit of advanced CGI and drone cameras that could capture the same shots, what he’s done with cinematographer Paul Laufer (who has never made another movie, strangely) is nothing sort of brilliant. Ditto to Eiko Ishioka’s (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and April Napier’s (Lady Bird) stunning costumes, which somehow managed to not get nominated for an Oscar…though the impressive make-up work did get a nod.
Where the movie starts to lean into silly territory is when Mark Protosevich’s script has Lopez and Vaughn giving the material more weight than it probably deserves. This is, after all, a serial killer thriller with a sci-fi edge so to have theoretical discussions of good and evil acts only as padding instead of character development. There are large chunks of Lopez/Vaughn scenes that could be excised without us losing anything from either – both are strong enough actors to convey exactly what we need with less. Vaughn, in particular, is weighed down by one histrionic monologue that’s almost laughable in its attempt to be the next dramatic piece favorited by future Julliard applicants.
Even sitting at almost two decades old, The Cell holds up rather well and it was pleasing to see this so soon after watching Lopez turn in some of her best work in years in Hustlers. Though she’s made some frothy fun ones over the years, it’s when she takes a shot at being serious and different when she shows just how good of a performer she really is. It may not goose you in the fear department as it could have when it first premiered but it gets an A for effort — the images Singh whips up have a certain grotesque beauty to them.