The Cell is an underrated science fiction horror-thiller directed by Tarsem Singh (or simply “Tarsem” as he was known back then). Originally a director of adverts, this was his directorial debut. The Cell is about a psychologist called Catherine Deane (played by Jennifer Lopez) who can enter the subconscious of those in a coma thanks to pioneering cerebral science. The film opens in an expansive desert where we see a feathered-dressed Lopez riding a horse and we discover that this is the subconscious of a patient. The superb foreboding middle eastern-inspired score by Howard Shore adds not only to the distinctive opener but the entire film. The Cell resembles a music video or a perfume ad, and at first glance, you may assume that’s because Tarsem worked as a commercial director (Nike’s “Good Vs. Evil”) and as a music video director (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”). You can see the similarities between these videos and this movie but unlike Hype Williams’ Belly or David Fincher’s Alien3, this flick has a reason to look stylised or “arty”, it isn’t because this short-form director has trouble transcending to feature-length Hollywood. The premise of The Cell poses the question: “what would the mind of a serial killer look like?” and Tarsem answered “like this”…
The film stars singer-slash-dancer-turned-actor Jennifer Lopez; she’s not quite Cher (a great actor) but she’s not Madonna either (a bad actor) she’s somewhere in-between, both likeable and believable as the sensitive character she’s playing. The Cell also stars Vincent D’Onofrio as serial killer Carl Stargher and Vince Vaughn as cop Peter Novak. No matter how memorable D’Onofrio is, the rest of the cast are not exactly giving Oscar-worthy performances. The reason this movie is notable is because of the direction, as well as set and costume design.
All of the subconscious sequences are brilliantly constructed and beautiful to look at. When Catherine glances back at her horse in the opening credit scene, it’s suddenly a statue, and along with the changing of scale in the scene where she walks toward the circuit breaker, this kind of nonsensical and abstract goings on accurately translate dreams, nightmares, and thoughts to the screen (someone please tell Christopher Nolan and his Nolanites).
The distinctive and impressive visuals are the main reason to watch this film, without them, this would arguably be a derivative serial killer thriller. And sure, there’s some obvious Se7en influences (the FBI raid and the empty desert locale of a missing body) and an influence from The Matrix (the helicopter dropping-off the comatose killer at the Campbell Center). The red sleep suits look like medical illustrations of muscles, something David Cronenberg would have come up with or almost identical to the costume in Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola. The choice to suspend these suits from the ceiling makes those scenes look very much like Michael Crichton’s Coma.
All the dream (or nightmare) sequences are so unique however, at least to cinema, that they don’t resemble anybody else’s work. These sequences also give a reasoning to the killer’s fetishes. Unlike many serial killer movies where the audience isn’t told much more than “he’s into cross dressing because he’s a pervert”, here, thanks to the delving into Stargher’s childhood, there’s detailed methodology; from his beatings to his baptism, his warped introduction to sex and anatomy, it all leads to the creation of a psychopath who likes getting suspended from his piercings, bleaching bodies and making human dolls, and who has an albino dog. The audience is also told via Dr. Reid (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince) about Stargher suffering from Weyland’s Infraction or Whalen’s Infraction (or possibly Infarction) which is the invented disease that causes Schizophrenia via a virus in utero. Made-up or not, these elements all go toward building a believable backstory.
Having said all this, this script isn’t a stereotypically liberal excuse for the creation of and sympathy for serial killers. Peter Novak alludes to being mentally, physically, and sexually abused as a child and not turning into a murderer. A very unique addition to the genre.
The only problem I have with the film is its lack of thrills. The clock is supposed to be ticking, we need to find where Stargher’s latest victim is trapped, but the pacing and editing is the one flaw The Cell has; given the plot it should be a lot more gripping. That being said, the visuals and music easily makes up for any shortcomings.
Speaking of music, there have been a fair-few Hip-Hop music and musicians influenced by this movie over the years. Bill $aber’s horn hair-do was undoubtedly influenced by Vincent D’Onofrio’s character, the chain suspension was in a 6ix9ne video, getting stoned and watching Fantastic Planet (as Jennifer Lopez’ character does) is probably how The Flatbush Zombies composed “Don’t Do Drugs Kids”, and let’s not forget that Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On” music video directed by Dave Meyers was a pastiche of the film. I don’t know why this film was referenced in Missy’s song, maybe it was the casually racist connection to Timbaland’s production which contained South Asian sounds…
The Cell contains numerous fine art influences given that Tasem is a graduate of ArtCenter College of Design or possibly because someone thought art has a kinship with our inner-most desires and fetishes. The Martyrdom Of Saint Erasmus (1628) by Nicolas Poussin is referenced when Vince’s entrails are wound, certain scenes such as the three swimming-capped women are a recreation of Dawn (1989) by Odd Nerdrum, the dissected horse looks very much like Some Comfort Gained From The Acceptance Of The Inherent Lies In Everything (1997) by Damien Hirst and possibly H.R. Giger’s arched tunnels and M.C. Escher’s endless steps are also incorporated. There’s probably lots more, but I guess that’s for someone who didn’t almost flunk Art History class.
In The Making Of The Cell, we’re told that the set designers, costume designers etc. were constantly told to push the envelope and it’s evident. This is what happens when a producer or studio isn’t breathing down the necks of the creatives. The slow motion dog covered in blood, the muscular woman, the very CGI purple velvet cloak, the cherry tree blossomed Mother Mary-esque garden, the golden king with tiny teeth, the entrails unwinding, the growing and decaying flower frame, it’s all so memorable and distinctive thanks to everybody involved in the creative process.
Back to the direction, even when not set in the mind, The Cell showed that Singh could direct regular scenarios, making certain scenes look cool and impressive. The airport/runway scene was well shot, as too were the aforementioned helicopter landing and police raid scenes which showed his potential as an action movie or action thriller director. So what happened to this once impressive and extremely unique director? Self/less didn’t even look like a Tarsem Singh film. But I digress.
As I’ve already said, The Cell is extremely underrated. I watched this film in the cinema in the year 2000 back to back with Shaft, and both movies seem to have been underappreciated, possibly because moviemakers of Asian and African decent were still seen as somehow “beneath” their Caucasian peers. Had these films been made and released today, the fake-woke critic cabal would be white-jizzing all over them. Given the initial ignorance from the critics and the public, there has never been a Criterion-level release of this film. There’s a blu-ray of The Cell but the transfer isn’t great; it’s not the sharpest or the clearest picture. This is vexing because a film which is primarily about visuals and which looks this good deserves a pristine 4K restoration, not to mention a bigger fanbase.
Sell Cell Sell.