Catharine Deane is a psychotherapist who is part of a revolutionary new treatment which allows her mind to literally enter the mind of her patients. Her experience in this method takes an unexpected turn when an FBI agent comes to ask for a desperate favour. They had just tracked down a notorious serial killer, Carl Stargher, whose MO is to abduct women one at a time and place them in a secret area where they are kept for about 40 hours until they are slowly drowned. Unfortunately, the killer has fallen into an irreversible coma which means he cannot confess where he has taken his latest victim before she dies. Now, Catherine Deane must race against time to explore the twisted mind of the killer to get the information she needs, but Stargher's damaged personality poses dangers that threaten to overwhelm her.
Directed by: Tarsem Singh
. Starring: Jennifer Lopez
, Colton James
, Dylan Baker
, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
, Gerry Becker
, Musetta Vander
, Patrick Bauchau
, Vincent D'Onofrio
, Catherine Sutherland
, Vince Vaughn
, James Gammon
, Jake Weber
, Dean Norris
. Music by: Howard Shore
As a mystery, The Cell fails pretty dismally. As a psychological study, well, it fails pretty dismally. As a study of any of its character, The Cell is embarrassingly simplistic. As a triumph of production design, though, much of what would be unforgivable in another film becomes at least worth watching. As films driven only by art design go, The Cell is miles ahead of What Dreams May Come and miles behind Dark City.
In terms of its underlying ideology, The Cell has a "Look Mom, I just read Freud" look about it. Mark Protosevich's script is conceptually interesting, but rarely intelligent. It jumps only to the easiest conclusions and breaks down the psyche with all the skill of a freshman in Psychology 101. Abusive parents, religious trauma, and sexual insecurity are trotted out as backstories for the film's killer as if they add anything new to the genre. What the script does best is present the concept and then avoid overanalyzing it.
Catharine Dean (Jennifer Lopez) is a former social worker and child psychologist working on a multimillion dollar project to try to bring a billionaire's son out of a coma. A team of scientists have found a way to put Dean into the deepest recesses of the kid's mind through an unexplained system that seems to involve computers, wires, biosuits, and a lava lamp. Meanwhile a team of FBI agents led by Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) is tracking down a killer who turns his victims into dolls using bleach and other yucky stuff. Through the kind of investigative work done only in movies. Two clues lead to a single suspect and in less than ten minutes they're prepare to arrest Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), who the audience already knows is both the killer and a total nutjob. When the feds arrive at his house, though, Stargher's mind has basically imploded, leaving him in a coma, with his most recent victim still unaccounted for. Naturally they take the body to Dean's research team. And naturally with no training involving killers, they send her into his mind to look answers. Why? Apparently because she's the one who fits in the suit. But when she gets too deep in the killer's mind, well, you can be sure they've got a suit in Vince Vaughn's size.
Everything that follows is stirred by coincidence and luck, rather than anything within the plot. This happens presumably because none of the characters are developed enough for resolutions to occur organically. Every once in a while there are hints about the main characters, but they're few and far between. Lopez conveys warmth and some determination, but that's her only character. Vaughn has some determination and a limited amount of vulnerability. But neither one is actually a human. As the killer, D'Onofrio gets to wear a variety a super outfits and some odd makeup, but despite all of the explanations for what's wrong with him, his performance is limited by obvious instructions to just look scary. That'll be satisfying for some people. I wanted more.
The Cell looks like a fabulous music video. When judging the quality of the film's art direction it's worth noting that no matter whose mind we're in, it never appears to be anything more than elaborate set. Nothing is more than surface (like the plot and characters, actually). Everything is, however, extremely original. From the dream costumes which seem to mix bondage gear with flowing colorful fabrics, to the use of water to make everything glisten, The Cell creates something unique. The fact that this film will be ignored for technical notice at the Academy Awards (just a gut feeling) is something of a crime in a year when films showed a general lack visual of creativity.
Still, the film left me completely unsatisfied as is to be somewhat expected when your main villain is in a coma the whole time. For all of the gore and disturbing images, the film has a severe lack of conflict to drive it along. I understand that for some people this film will be a major headtrip, of the best kind.
Review by Daniel J. Fienberg from the Internet Movie Database.