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THE CELL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio
Director:  Tarsem
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2000

Film ***

The Silence of the Lambs purported to take the audience inside the mind of a serial killer; The Cell literally does.  With a strong sense of style over substance (and in some cases, style as substance), director Tarsem created a visually stunning and imaginative landscape of psychosis, and plunges his audience unapologetically into the horror and sickness of a madman’s tortured brain.

The psuedo-science of the movie involves an elaborate machine that can hook minds together.  The participants wear strange body suits, have their faces covered, and are suspended in mid-air by wires.  As the film opens, we see a social worker, Catherine (Lopez), entering the mind of a comatose young boy.  The psychological world is represented as a physical one, where individuals can move around and share experiences, but where anything and everything is possible.

The dark side of the tale begins when a schizophrenic serial killer, Carl (D’Onofrio), a man who also likes to suspend himself in mid-air but via body piercings (ouch!), short circuits as an FBI team led by Agent Novak (Vaughn) infiltrates his house.  His brain fried by his disorder, he will be a vegetable for life.  The problem?  One last victim…and nobody knows where she is but him.

Carl, it turns out, had a strange obsession with making dolls out of living women.  He would put them in a glass cell for 48 hours with food and a toilet, and let running water slowly fill up around them until they drowned.  Then he would take their bodies and…you know, on second thought, I won’t go there.  You can see that part for yourself.

So one last girl waits in the cell as her time is ticking down.  How can the FBI get the non-functioning Carl to reveal her hiding place?  Exactly.  Catherine will have to enter the dark and twisted mind of a very dangerous man.  She will either succeed and come back with the answer…or become trapped in that psychological hell for all time.

I have a close friend with a masters’ degree in clinical psych, and he had nothing but praise for the film’s visual style.  I wish I could quote more of our conversation verbatim, but he explained to me in great detail about the theories of Carl Jung, which the movie draws upon, as well as how the mind of a schizophrenic works (or doesn’t, depending on your point of view).  He said that visuals like the shot of the horse being segmented, yet with all organs within still operating as normal, is a perfect indication of the way these poor souls tend to see things in a disrupted but still functioning state.

For me, too, the visuals were the best part of the film, but not necessarily because I understood the psychology of it all…it was a bonus to me to find out that the theories behind the eye candy were scientifically sound.  No, for me, the effect of the designs, colors and effects created one of the most unique and imaginative movie landscapes I’ve ever ventured into.  Each scene is a technical marvel, with minutely detailed construction, and clever juxtapositions of imagery to bring out the creepiness of each scene.  Physical laws are toyed with, including time and space and gravity, and each one disorients us and keeps us lost in this world without boundaries.

My only problem with The Cell as a film is that the story itself left something to be desired for me.  At the heart is the same kind of psychological chess match between a madman and an innocent, intelligent woman that Silence introduced to pop culture (and did better).  The characters here are of little interest and depth…the fact that they are played by likable and talented actors helps some, but there’s no disguising the lack of development in favor of the visual canvas. 

In other words, the people and the story serve only to get us into Tarsem’s fantastic playground, which is most definitely an extraordinary and worthwhile endeavor.  It’s just that films like that serve only as thrilling and unsettling spectacle, but tend to leave you a little dissatisfied in the end.

Still, The Cell merits recommendation for doing well what it set out to do, and for pushing the doors to imaginative visual filmmaking just a little more open.

Video ****

Without a doubt, this is one of the best looking DVDs I’ve ever seen.  The Cell is all about the visuals, and this Platinum Series disc from New Line doesn’t fail them.  The color schemes are wildly varied and strong, yet they always come across well balanced and contained, with no bleeding or distortions.  Images are sharply rendered throughout, with no softness, grain, or compromising artifacts.  The video will definitely test your TV or monitor’s capabilities to the extreme…this is what DVD is all about.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is equally superb!  The creepy nature of the film lends to plenty of chances for discreet channel effects, and the audio handles them all beautifully, with good clarity and dynamic range, and smooth balancing between the front and rear stages.  The .1 channel gets its share of duty with effectual low rumblings.  Crossovers in all directions are fluent and effortless…a decidedly excellent effort. 

Features ****

Platinum Series discs always mean serious packages of extras, and this one is no exception.  There are two running commentaries, one by director Tarsem and one by the production team, a collection of deleted scenes with director commentary, an original documentary on the film, special effects vignettes (very cool), talent files, two trailers, an interactive brain game and empathy test, plus some extras for your DVD ROM.  Another terrific features collection from New Line all around.

Summary:

The Cell ventures into the same disturbing territory that earlier films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven did, but with a more dramatic and visual flair.  By taking us inside the mind of a mentally deranged killer, we get to experience through visuals, psychological symbols and atmosphere the inner workings of a dangerous schizophrenic.  With this exceptional quality DVD from New Line, it’s definitely a journey worth taking…just don’t forget how to find your way back.