Imagine, if you will, a time and place where there was no hotter actress than Jennifer Lopez, a leading man no more charming than Vince Vaughn, and an actor no more fear-inducing than Vincent D’Onofrio. The time, ladies and gentlemen, was the year 2000, and the place was, well, movie world, I guess? Planet earth? Regardless, the cast of The Cell had it poised to become an enormous hit full of groundbreaking visuals cooked up in the mind of Tarsem Singh. I saw this film in theaters when it came out and some sequences really disturbed me, but since I hadn’t seen it since then, and it was on HBO Go, I decided to see how the film held up. Note: if you remember this movie being good, I do not recommend questioning that perception by watching it in 2017.
Not pictured is the scene where J. Lo arbitrarily smoked weed in her apartment wearing a thong and you kind of see her butt when she opens the refrigerator. Even more popular in 2000 than J. Lo was the mere concept of her big ol’ butt.
Catherine (Lopez) is a psychologist who uses cutting edge technology that allows a manifestation of herself to enter the mental landscape of her patients, allowing her to interact with them in a way like no other. When authorities realize that a serial killer, known for capturing and torturing his victims for days, has selected his next victim, Peter Novak (Vaughn) begins his hunt for Stargher (D’Onofrio). A seizure leaves the killer in a coma, so Novak taps Catherine to enter his mind in hopes of gaining information about where his next victim is being held. Entering the mind of a serial killer obviously results in some horrifying landscapes, which Catherine ultimately falls victim to. Novak must enter Stargher’s mind to recover Catherine and the two aim to turn the tables on Stargher before it’s too late for his victim. Will they do it? Probably! Does it matter? Not at all!
“Hey, Vince, we know you’re wearing a garish gold outfit, but we’re nervous that your performance might be a little too subtle.”
I’ve complained about other films that are “psychological thrillers” that ultimately take place in one character’s mind and how that makes the whole film feel like there’s no actual stakes. Luckily for The Cell, the entire conceit of the film isn’t the physical dangers that the characters are faced with, but rather focuses on the mental impact, so this film doesn’t suffer the fate of other shitty “it was all in my head!” movies. Another advantage this film has is that, instead of something like Identity which is about imagined characters turning on one another at a motel, some of Singh’s set pieces are truly breathtaking, both with their surrealism and their originality. Multiple shots and sequences are gorgeous and I would have gladly watched some of those sequences without dialogue. Singh’s imagination is on full display in The Cell and it’s obvious why he would go on to tackle incredibly imaginative films after this one.
This is totally a thing a person would do if they were weird.
Sadly, that’s where the film’s strengths basically end. Although some of the set pieces are astounding, many sequences feel like they were cut from a Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails video. Granted, in the early to mid-’90s, those two musicians gave us some incredibly disturbing pieces, but it makes The Cell sometimes feel too little, too late. Lopez and Vaughn mostly just exist in the film, walking and talking and saying their lines, but there’s not much chemistry between them. I should point out that little is done to establish a romantic relationship between the two characters, so it’s good to see the film avoid those cinematic tropes, but it also makes you less invested in either character. D’Onofrio’s terrifying at times, laughable at other times. He will thoroughly convince you that he is a “weird guy,” thanks to a scene where he is suspended from hooks connected to piercings in his back that allow him to hang over his victims and jerk off onto them, but as if reading what I just wrote didn’t make it clear, the film had a tendency to go a little too obvious. By the time we see him in his third garish outfit and delivering contrived dialogue, we very much get that he’s supposed to be a weird guy. Despite the quality of the film not holding up from how you remember it to be, there’s still some decent ideas in there and I wish we got to see Tarsem go even further with his visuals, but perhaps a reinterpretation of the source material at some point in the future could capitalize more effectively on that potential.
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