Sunday, April 15, 2012

Part Three of Jennifer Lopez's Hat Trick, Tarsem's The Cell Disappoints

The Good: Imagery, Moments of concept.
The Bad: Lack of character, Mediocre performances
The Basics: While Catherine Deane runs around inside the head of a killer, the audience becomes acclimated to the horror and wonders why she does not.

There was a moment when the world completely opened up to Jennifer Lopez. When she began her music career, she had a weekend that she had the distinct honor of having the #1 album in the nation (On The 6), the #1 single in the U.S. ("If You Had My Love") and the #1 movie with The Cell. The Cell is a fairly derivative movie directed by Tarsem, the man who directed the R.E.M. video "Losing My Religion." For his feature film debut, he essentially uses the same techniques and imagery that made that music video one of the more memorable ones.

Catherine Deane is a psychotherapist whose unconventional technique to help a traumatized boy is to journey into his mind to help him work through his trauma from the safety of his own imagination. Near to where Deane is doing her breakthrough work, the FBI is hot on the heels of a serial killer, Stargher. Stargher's fetish/modus operandi is to capture a woman and place her in a glass cell. After 40 hours, the prison is filled with water, essentially becoming an aquarium, and the woman he has in there drowns. Unfortunately for the FBI, when he is found, he is comatose, so agent Novak brings Stargher to Deane and she enters his mind to find where his latest victim is being held before her time runs out.

It seems to me, ever since Jacob's Ladder (reviewed here!), Hollywood has been looking for another film that is essentially a nightmare on celluloid. The relative success of Jacob's Ladder proved to some that one could essentially string together a whole bunch of terrifying images with the barest plot and sell it as a movie. The Cell seems like the natural successor in that history. Unlike a movie like What Dreams May Come, The Cell takes little time to develop the protagonists in a compelling way and resorts for the most part to the twisted imagery of the killer's mind to define Stargher.

Even so, the box-office success of The Cell is no real surprise. It was sold on Jennifer Lopez and the advertisements featuring Lopez dressed in various outfits no doubt brought the crowds in. It certainly was not the themes or plot of the movie that made this a load of dough, as it was far too conceptual and abstract for most people. This is essentially a science fiction crossover into the psychological horror.

The superlative aspect of The Cell, however, is not Jennifer Lopez, it is the direction and imagery from director Tarsem. Tarsem was an excellent choice to direct this visual-intensive film because he has an eye for metaphor, a great sense of lighting and a rich understanding of the use of color. So, for example, when Catherine's world is presented, the color contrast is richly different from the inside of Stargher's mind. Tarsem very effectively shows the statement he is trying to make without having to have characters speak about it.

And even though Tarsem utilizes some of the same imagery in this film that he used in the R.E.M. video he directed, he pulls it off well, making it feel new and different enough that it's easy to watch.

Tarsem's visual sense heightens the horror of The Cell, as his sense of what will be most disturbing is timed to have maximum impact. So, for example, early in Catherine's trip into Stargher's mind, a horse is vivisected by glass panels and spread apart where it appears to continue living (though it's not goin' out for any gallops anymore!). While this is widely regarded as a reference to the artwork of Damien Hirst, the image is effect, gross and powerful. Somewhere, there is still a woman beating her fella' senseless for dragging her to The Cell on a date.

The problem is not in Tarsem's direction or his sense of visual style, which creates some genuinely intriguing moments. The problem with The Cell is that effect is only one aspect of a movie. Unlike Requiem For A Dream, which had characters who were loathsome and descending into a metaphorical nightmare, The Cell features largely unremarkable characters living through a literal nightmare in the mind of Stargher.

Writer Mark Protosevich does not create characters that are empathetic, much less sympathetic or interesting. Sure, there are moment that the audience, like Catherine, manages to feel sorry for Carl, the boy Stargher once was. But whatever emotional connection the viewer has with the humanity of Carl is mortgaged by the way the film journeys into the nonsensical. Catherine becomes trapped within Stargher's mind, but it's unclear what keeps her trapped. Indeed, when Novak joins her in the mind of the killer, it's only when he starts shouting out personal information that she snaps out of the stupor she's in. But by that point, the character does not make sense. Catherine is strong, we're led to believe, but she becomes virtually hypnotized such that nothing has an effect on her, including watching Novak being tortured. IT's hard to believe that someone as empathetic as Catherine, who works so hard to help Edward (the boy) would not respond to a colleague being tortured.

Moreover, it seems very cheap that the person who has the most experience with this technique needs to be reminded that it's all unreal. My point here is that the characters are all flat and make no real sense. Novak adapts far too quickly to the nightmarish world he finds himself in (now if it was Mulder from The X-Files, it would be different . . .) and Catherine becomes victimized in a way that makes too little sense. Indeed, Stargher adapts pretty quickly and rationally to having other people running around in his head for someone who is supposed to be completely insane.

As it is, though Stargher is the best-developed character in the film and he is also played the best. Vincent D'Onofrio portrays Stargher and through all the weird outfits, hairstyles and beastly permutations Stargher takes on, D'Onofrio maintains menace and a strength of presence that makes it easy to believe his character is utterly insane.

Ultimately, though, it's not enough. Protosevich and Tarsem take the cheap, Hollywood, way out to resolve the movie, much like the way all of the last Star Trek movies degenerated into a "kill-the-villain" situation. Unlike the far superior The City Of Lost Children (reviewed here!) that has essentially the same plot - and precedes this by a couple of years - The Cell resorts to the big, Hollywood tough-woman-through-violence routine. It's cheap. The City Of Lost Children resolved its conflict in a far more compelling way and it worked with the characters, whereas it's hard to buy a psychologist slipping as far as Deane does.

What pushes the movie up into average territory is that it did not insult my intelligence by trying the cheapest trick in a movie like this. At the beginning, there are tests Deane is given as she comes out of the experience that establish that she is all together and she is herself. I waited for an end where there would be the cheap reversal of Stargher taking over Deane and being loose in the world in her body, but I was pleased to see neither Protosevich nor Tarsem were so unoriginal.

As it is, the images are interesting and disturbing, but not enough to recommend this movie. What Dreams May Come and The City Of Lost Children provide better opportunities to explore a visual marvel and a similar plot.

For other films where dreams are an essential aspect of the film, be sure to check out my reviews of:
A Nightmare On Elm Street


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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