Rated R - Running Time: 1:47 - Released 8/18/00

One hardly knows where to begin in describing The Cell, the freshman feature film effort from both writer Mark Protosevich and director Tarsem Singh. Everyone knows it's freaky and surrealistic, and I love an acid trip as much as the next guy, but I was impressed with it from a technical standpoint as well. Singh's use of color and contrast provides a stunning visual impact which is noticeable from the very beginning, and this is subtly accented by the use of different film stocks for the "real" and "surreal" portions of the movie. The costume and visual effects people are definitely going for the awards here, as well as makeup and art direction, and Paul Laufer's cinematography is richly detailed.

Story wise, The Cell is quite effectively disturbing. Protosevich's script borrows heavily from The Silence Of The Lambs, with Singh adding the dreamlike imagery of Altered States. The plot centers around a new "neurological synaptic transfer system," a process which allows one person to enter the mind of another — kind of like the Vulcan mind meld — through a never-clearly-explained combination of drugs and electronics. And it is the way psychotherapist Catharine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) gets in the head of comatose serial killer and former child abuse victim Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio).

The process, developed by Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker), is still in the experimental stages when it becomes needed to help solve a serial murder case. Just before the FBI, led by agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), breaks into his home, Stargher goes into a coma. This helps greatly in the process of apprehending him, but there's only one problem: his latest victim (Catherine Sutherland) is still imprisoned somewhere in his secret underground fully automated water-tight glass cell which will, without any input necessary from its comatose designer, automatically begin filling with water and eventually drown her while videotaping the spectacle from several different angles. (I saw one of those at a yard sale once.) This is so that after she's dead, Stargher can dress her up as a doll and act out his perverse fantasies as usual. Peter's idea is to allow Catharine to take a trip into the dark recesses of Stargher's crippled mind and ascertain the whereabouts of the girl so that she may be saved. What no one expects is for her to get lost in there.

There is no use attempting to describe what is found on Catharine's journey; the imagery defies words and the psychology defies explanation. But it is a memorable showcase of cinematic ingenuity, at once beautiful and horrific, with D'Onofrio and Lopez playing several different versions of their characters. Howard Shore's original music is also memorable, utilizing stark chords to emphasize the unreal quality of the settings. There is no doubt that the effects are the star of this picture (the "real-world"segments at times become quite tedious in comparison to the "dream sequences"), but D'Onofrio proves that his performance as the bug-wearing-an-Edgar-suit in Men In Black was no fluke. Lopez and Vaughn are adequate in much less challenging roles.

Some may categorize The Cell as another visual effects showcase with an anemic plot, but I daresay it has enough substance to make a splash, thanks in no small part to its well-timed delivery during the August dregs. Singh and Protosevich have acquitted themselves ably in their joint debut, and D'Onofrio has added an impressive credit to his resumé. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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