The Cell (2000), or The End Of Material Things

6 08 2009

What more can you say about Tarsem? He’s just that guy. You know, that guy who is so interested in the way things look that he hardly stops for a moment to question what he’s looking at. He doesn’t see a film the way you and I see them, he sees it as potential to become a living work of art, a moving portrait. In that aspect, he is one of the great visionaries of our time, creating scenes and moments that are so heart-breakingly beautiful that they slip the surly bounds of cinema and become a truly deep artistic expression that anyone can appreciate. Tarsem’s problem is, if this embarrassing Pepsi commercial can attest, that he does not always have it in him to capture a good subject or premise:

Oh, man… Poor Emperor Iglesias.

This problem is evident in his would-be classic mind-bending thriller The Cell. He creates a surreal world that hinges on boundless beauty, but they frame it in a clunky serial killer movie. His problem is much the same problem I dissected in the Masters of The Universe review that when fantasy melds with reality, only mediocrity can occur. I feel as if I’m right again, as The Cell could have been amazing if not for the premise.

It’s basically an episode of CSI mixed with an episode of The Outer Limits. Coma expert Dr. Jennifer Lopez uses all kinds of weird ways to get people out of comas. One of these many ways is by immersing a patient in virtual reality and coaxing their subconscious out of it. It’s highly experimental, but Dr. Jennifer Lopez hopes to use this to bring out the mind of a captured serial killer who might have one more victim trapped somewhere. Through the mind’s eye, we explore the twisted mind of Carl Rudolph Stargher, a freak with daddy issues who let his emotional wounds get the best of him. His mindscape is as terrifying as it is beautiful, and somewhere inside she discovers the good within him, represented by him as a child. Can she bring the child back out of him, or will his horrible adult visage be too much for her to handle?

This is really two movies; the cool landscape of a virtual reality serial killer mind, and the boring procedural police thriller. If I hadn’t seen the latter part in here, I would give this movie a 10 right now, but unfortunately there is WAY more bread in this sandwich than delicious filling. Why would you make a movie where the selling point is the fantastical nature of it, only to keep it chained up like a comatose serial killer until key moments? I can see why a movie like Alien would want to keep its fantastic eponymous character under wraps most of the movie because that’s it. No more aliens after that, there’s just the one. This mindscape is LIMITLESS though. Tarsem could have made an entire movie based on the bizarre characters seen within, and we could have perhaps surmised that it was all a coma dream. It almost feels like he could have made that movie, but felt at the last second that we couldn’t handle it and chose to make a lot of scenes that should have been filler into the “real” story. What a tease…

The acting is a mixed affair. While Jennifer Lopez was a cinch to play Dr. Jennifer Lopez M.D. for this film, I almost felt like she phoned it in. The character wasn’t even that difficult, as she was really only an observer for most of the film, and she STILL made it a safe and sterile performance. She looks beautiful in the scenes inside the mind, I give her that, but she is dispassionate and model-like. Hell, even Beyonce had more spirit in the damn Pepsi commercial! Vince Vaughn is here, for some reason, playing an FBI agent, and he is also a eunuch in the verve department. He doesn’t even crack wise too much! What a waste! The only saving grace is Vincent D’Onofrio, who amazes with the savagery and the timidity of a truly confused individual. He is the serial killer, but he is also the wounded man from a difficult childhood. He is the monster and the innocent, the killer and the victim. He makes the viewer question what is right and what is wrong with a perplexing dive into the murky waters of moral ambiguity. It is well-done, and really saves a cast that otherwise has no business dealing with each other.

Tarsem, as I said, is a damn fine director, and if not for certain sections of this film (actually, quite a lot of different sections), it would be amazing. The visual aspect of Stargher’s virtual mind is simply breathtaking. There are few words to describe the eloquence and beauty of some of these images, that look to be ripped from the great Surrealist paintings of the early 20th century. Just look at this:

That’s just… It’s just beautiful. Simple as that.

With a good score by Howard Shore and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a dull cast with a notable exception, and wonderful direction by Tarsem when he’s not pointing his camera at the center of dullness, The Cell is a marred masterpiece. It could have been something. It could have been a contender, like its Tarsem-directed 2008 counterpart, The Fall, but it’s really not. It’s a lackluster film about yet ANOTHER serial killer that features mind-bending art direction and an eye for aesthetics. I could have done without it, but now with the excellent visuals, I may never forget it. Oh, well. I give The Cell 6 1/2 shameful Pepsi commercials out of 10.

Tomorrow I am going to watch Alphaville, and if you’re tired of my Godard fetish, I’ll fight you where you stand, good sir! Another Godard film it is!




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