Cell, The: Tarsem’s Visually Striking, Narratively Flawed Sci-Fi Starring Jennifer Lopez

Acclaimed commercials and music videos director Tarsem Singh makes a visually striking but narratively flawed feature debut in The Cell, a sci-fi thriller that tries to differentiate itself from the familiar serial killer genre with a new intriguing premise–and lavishly surreal special effects.

Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who experiments with a new radical therapy that enables her to enter and literally experience the unconscious secrets and fantasies of a demented murderous 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 schizoid 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.

With the exception of an inventive postulate, a huge gap prevails between The Cell’s slight narrative and characterizations and its sumptuous production values, resulting in a hybrid of a movie, a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with sensory elements that recall Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. In moments, pic achieves the meticulously crafted look of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The link to Coppola’s film is provided by Japanese costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who here collaborates with April Napier in producing luxuriant costumes for Lopez and company.

Lopez, who recently received more press for her wardrobe and music than screen work, may not be the most credibly cast therapist in American film history, but she is certainly one of the most beautiful and sexiest actress to work in Hollywood today. However, acting-wise, 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.

In the credit sequence, shot in an African desert of sensuous golden sands and baby blue sky, a stunning long take reveals Lopez in a long white dress marching alone toward what turns to be a little boy, Edward Baines (Colton James), one of her disturbed patients. 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 the still comatose Edward, hoping to bring him back to reality and his grieving parents. Catherine asks for more time to prove the validity of her scientifically shattering therapy.

Meanwhile, a dangerous serial killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), is on the loose, developing his own radical and 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 hunt down 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 similar type of coma as Edward’s.

For a while, Protosevich’s script is chilling in its mixture of serial killers’ pop psychology with a Jungian (rather than Freudian) interpretation of dreams. Operating in an unexplored territory, yarn goes one step beyond Silence of the Lambs, delving into a killer’s innermost thoughts. Consumed by sexual disorder, death wish, and royal power, Stargher displays five alter egos, each more fantastical and demonic than the other.

Problem is that whatever story The Cell has is told in the first 40 minutes, after which it’s all long sequences–rounds as they’re called in the text–of visual effects which occupy at least half of the running time. But with all the admiration for 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 Jungian imagery.

The little suspense that exists is the question of whether or not Julia, who’s in a hidden booby-trapped cell, will survive. However, audiences acquainted with the genre know that a serial killer’s latest victim is almost always rescued at the last moment. The Cell suffers from another structural weakness: Unlike thrillers whose femme protagonist is thrown into danger, encountering face-to-face the killer, Catherine is never in jeopardy because Stargher lies comatose on a bed besides hers for most of the story.

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. Like Bigelow, helmer is blessed with strong visual sensibility, but also like her, lacks feeling for psychological motivation or narrative logic.

Lopez is more seductive than persuasive as a compassionate therapist, whose limits of her empathy are stripped raw and tested when she’s forced to experience what a killer feels. Pic gains an enormous boost from its intelligent thesps, many of whom are linked with high-profile indies. D’Onofrio adds another credible performance as the “ingenious” serial killer; Vaughn is good as a hard-core, both rebellious and obsessive, agent; Jake Weber is effective as Novak’s counterbalancing partner, a strait-laced law officer who goes by the book; 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, Middle Eastern finery, among others.

What might propel The Cell into a cult movie is its boldly surreal visual scheme, which echoes paintings of Heironymous Bosch. Using a mix of radical design, cutting-edge effects and shadow-filled cinematography, it’s an unbridled space that can turn within seconds the image of tormented victims into swimming mermaids in a White Snow fairytale.