The other day I was idly flicking through the channels when I spotted Jennifer Lopez judging up a storm on American Idol. Naturally I flicked away again as soon as the contestants started singing, but that brief exposure was enough to remind me how ridiculously gorgeous “J-Lo” is, and how much I used to enjoy her work as an actress, before the “Bennifer” bomb dropped. And this in turn prompted me to pick up a copy of The Cell (2000), a psychological thriller with a slight sci-fi tint to it, that I vaguely remembered watching when it first came out at the cinema. Lopez plays child psychologist ‘Catherine Deane’, who is the lynchpin of an experimental treatment for coma patients, involving a “virtual reality” device that allows her to enter their minds and attempt to coax them back to consciousness. All very noble, but that’s not really what the movie’s about. No, the “thriller” element kicks in when super-creepy serial killer Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) forgets to take his medication, and falls into a coma before the FBI can locate his latest victim… a random young woman slowly drowning to death in a custom-built cell, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And so Agent Novak (Vince Vaughn) must persuade Deane to enter Stargher’s batshit-crazy mind and discover where his death-shack is, before the ticking clock hanging over their head counts down to zero. Oh no!
Aside from the moral issues that some critics had with this movie, it also suffers from some fairly irksome plot deficiencies… the most glaring of which is that after all the suffering inflicted on Deane and Novak as they struggle to keep body and soul intact inside Stargher’s unconscious, the Big Clue they eventually dredge up is actually incredibly lame and obvious. I mean, if the detectives who were snooping around the dude’s house had actually been doing their jobs properly, they could have spotted it themselves, thus saving our hero and heroine the hassle of getting drugged up and mind-f*cked in the first place. Ah well. I think it’s pretty obvious that the director, Tarsem, was simply using the story as an excuse to throw as much mind-blowing baroque imagery at the screen as he could feasibly get away with… and on a purely visual level, it remains a pretty awesome achievement. Often grotesque and repellent… but occasionally quite beautiful and beatific too. Outside of the overwrought fantasy sequences, there is also a great deal to admire, in terms of the camera set-ups and cuts… and the performances are remarkably natural and involving, considering the ridiculous context. There’s no doubt that Tarsem is a very talented film-maker… but the DVD’s own making-of featurette is titled “Style as Substance”, and sadly I think that tells you everything you need to know about his cinematic debut.
Besides Lopez, the film also features Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Without A Trace fame) as ‘Dr. Miriam Kent’, a friend and colleague of Deane’s… and Musetta Vander as ‘Ella Baines’, the concerned mother of Deane’s current patient. Vander doesn’t have many major credits to her name, but she did appear as one of the ‘Sirens’ in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and as ‘Munitia’, a member of the Loveless posse, in Wild Wild West, while her most memorable role is probably ‘Natalie French’, the seductive substitute teacher in season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As for the men, it was nice to see Dylan Baker cast as a good guy for once, playing another of Deane’s concerned co-workers, and I thought Vaughn gave a pretty impressive performance as Novak… after seeing him in so many silly comedies, I’d forgotten he was a serious actor! D’Onofrio doesn’t get much dialogue, on either side of his character’s coma, but he does give a typically intense turn, and you have to admire his willingness to spend so much time in make-up, dragging himself through sweaty hell for his craft. The guy’s a pro!