A scene from 'The Cell'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 107 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, August 18, 2000
Directed by Tarsem Singh

Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker, Jake Thomas, Catherine Sutherland, James Gammon & Pruitt Taylor Vince


With the overwhelming visuals diminished by the smaller screen, this movie's overwhelming narrative weaknesses will be all the more glaring.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 12.19.2000


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Unorthodox shrink jacks into serial killer's ornate mind in slick, empty, unpleasant chiller 'The Cell'

By Rob Blackwelder

"Wow, this looks expensive," was the only thought going through my head for the entirety of the supremely over-produced and equally under-achieving psychological sicko chiller "The Cell."

Taking place largely inside the inexplicably stylish mind of a serial killer, the movie's visual signature gives one the impression that the production designer went on a double-espresso design jag after waking up from a Goth-meets-Architectural Digest wet dream.

Festooned with graphic sadomasochistic imagery, dark, cavernous landscapes and ornately adorned fantasy torture chambers, the movie plays like a "director's cut" of the Nine Inch Nails video "Closer."

Ostensibly the film is about a unorthodox shrink (Jennifer Lopez) using a computer-enhanced mind-meld experiment to bungee jump into the comatose subconscious of a particularly twisted murderer (Vincent D'Onofrio). At the behest of a desperate FBI agent (Vince Vaughn in a very bad perm), she's trying to discover the location of the killer's real-life torture chamber in time to save his latest victim from being slowly drowned by an elaborately automated Chinese-water-torture contraption.

But in reality, there's not much to "The Cell" beyond for its nightmare visuals. Making his feature debut, music video director Tarsem Singh (REM's "Losing My Religion") hired costume and effects people with movies like "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Fight Club" on their resumes, and they certainly earn their keep. But the movie is so relentlessly unpleasant -- like a high-gloss "Seven" or "Silence of the Lambs," sans the depth -- and so utterly full of itself that it doesn't succeed in doing anything more than invoking a Pavlovian retch reflex.

The characters are underdeveloped and the performances uncompelling. Focusing on her sex appeal, Lopez lends her shrink zero scientific credibility, D'Onofrio coasts along in brooding creep overkill mode, and Vaughn's scruffy, obsessed FBI guy is little more than wallpaper.

Next to the tunnel-vision focus on the movie's looks, shock factor seems to be the director's paramount concern (the killer has hooks pierced through his back because he likes to hang himself from chains in his ceiling). Outside of the psycho mindscape, the story is littered with logical loopholes, and even though the film is visually captivating, the style is far from original. Gratuitous slow-motion and "Matrix"-style camera pivots abound, mysterious voices whisper, water drips everywhere and scraping-thumping-bumping sounds echo continuously.

In a movie that didn't feel so heavy, the minutiae of the computer-enhanced mind-melding process would be a unequivocal source of laughs, too. In a polished, sci-fi-futuristic laboratory, Lopez prepares to Mr.-Spock her way into D'Onofrio's gray matter by dressing up in a bodysuit recycled from "Dune," suspending herself in mid-air with wires like in "Coma," and draping a diode-imprinted silk hanky over her face so her fellow scientists can jack in and monitor her brainwaves on a multi-million dollar computer system -- which, of course, has no fail-safe mechanism to use when, inevitably, something goes horribly wrong.

Are there good cinematic and narrative ideas at the heart of "The Cell"? Sure. But the style-over-substance monster devoured the production, and as a result the only thing that keeps the movie from collapsing is the amount of money being thrown into the visuals.

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