"The Cell"

This visual explosion could have been a radically great film -- then the director found out it's all about the Jennifer.

Published March 12, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Cell"
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vince Vaughn
New Line Home Video; anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director and production crew commentary tracks, deleted scenes with director's commentary, making-of documentary, special effects documentary, more

From the moment you delve into the multiple commentaries on "The Cell," it's clear that the cast and crew meant to make a bold film. The director, Tarsem Singh, ruminates about how the money people, his producers and the studio pushed for moderation in all things, and how he learned one of the biggest truths in showbiz: It's about the Jennifer, stupid. It's probably unintentional, but the extras on this DVD add up to an indictment of Hollywood more cutting than any of the jabs made in movies like "The Player" or books like Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust."

And that's unfortunate, because the extras also show that Tarsem and his team were after something like pure cinema: sound and images that sublimate plot and characterization to their whims. He got away with plenty in the finished film, but it's clear that so many pieces of the puzzle were left out that the complete picture was never fully realized. Tarsem admits as much in his commentary and in the "Style as Substance" documentary included on the DVD. He says that the film's subject matter wasn't interesting to him, yet it offered him the chance to make an operatic movie. And as he points out, there's "no such thing as a subtle opera."

Tarsem comes across as an eccentric savant dedicated to pushing his film into oblivion. By the time he gets to describing the Pierre et Gilles-inspired climax he says, "If you haven't bitten the pill by now" you're lost. It's exactly that rambunctious, "So, there!" attitude that makes the film such a lush visual experience. It's also probably the root of its failure, along with a dismal sense of plot and characterization and a refusal to choose whether he was making a feature-length audiovisual experience or something with greater thematic ambitions.

The plot isn't nonexistent, but it's mostly just a vehicle to get you into the next visual sequence. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a psychotherapist who works by entering the dream world of her patients -- here a young boy trapped in a coma. Her biggest challenge is that the project's financiers don't believe that she's making any progress. Then an FBI team, led by Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), appears at her dream institute with a catatonic serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio). Just as Novak was about to capture him, Stargher dropped into a coma. The catch is that one victim is still hidden in an automated killing machine, a cell that slowly fills with water until the victim drowns. Novak and the FBI have only 48 hours to find and save Stargher's last victim. Deane is their last hope, and she reluctantly agrees to enter Stargher's dream world. From there, we set off on a grotesque journey into the mind of a serial killer.

Stargher's dream state is a baroque world that riffs off every contemporary influence on the surreal -- from David Lynch and David Cronenberg to grim photographer Joel-Peter Witkin to contemporary artist Damien Hirst. It's a wild ride, enjoyable simply because the dream world contains visuals we've never seen before, images that allow a surprising level of storytelling nuance.

The film stumbles when it veers away from being completely visual. When it splits, it turns into a Gerber-baby-formula Hollywood film, with a tease of romance and a race-against-the-clock conclusion. Among the deleted scenes, there's an alternate credit sequence that would have ended the film. It's a three-and-a-half-minute pan across a few feet of wall space, covered with a collage of the killer's cut-up creations of women and biological systems. It's a surprisingly contemplative moment that belongs to a different movie, one that really took a shot at examining motivations and faced up to the responsibility of staring into the heart of something as incomprehensible as a serial killer. Tarsem says he cut it because it was too dark and that the studio wanted a happy ending. That theme of acquiescing without providing an explanation of a greater goal reoccurs constantly throughout the commentaries. You're left with the thought that Tarsem had no idea of what to do with his ambition.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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