Visual effects have become such a hallmark of film in the last decade that it seems like every director feels the need to invoke some sort of computer animation or artificial imagery. The result has been needless, banal excess. For every groundbreaking movie like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Jurassic Park," there have been a dozen movies that needlessly dress themselves up in effects when they would have been much better off with a stripped-down, real-deal approach. "The Cell" (IMDb listing) is much different because the movie's plot requires this imagery.
Here's how it goes: a new technology has been developed that allows a child psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) to enter into the subconscious mind of a comatose child, whose parents are apparently very wealthy. The idea is that the child suffered a kind of emotional trauma, and that doctors can provide therapy to the child through the experimental device and coax the child out of catatonia.
The story then cuts to the pursuit of a serial killer Carl Stargher, played by the frequently underrated Vincent D'Onofrio, who drowns young women in a large tank that runs on an automated timer. Just before the FBI catches Stargher, he falls into an unconscious state caused by an acute mental illness, leaving authorities less than two days to find his latest victim before she drowns.
With no clues, the FBI turns to the experimental technology. Lopez, being the most experienced with the invention, becomes the reluctant volunteer to enter Stargher's warped mind and find some hint of where the girl is being held. An FBI agent, played by Vince Vaughn, later joins Lopez inside Stargher's unconscious mind, where the killer has idealized himself as a king or god. The visuals are what you might expect an interpretation of a nightmare to be. But director Tarsem Singh goes beyond just effects and constructs with elaborate costumes and sets and fabulous camera movement and angles.
Now about those visualsthey're exhilarating. There's an excellent moment in the movie when Lopez enters Stargher's mind for a second time, and finds herself in what looks like a small glass box atop a tower and a seemingly bottomless pit. She opens the lid on the top of the box and falls headfirst as the screen abruptly reverses itself and down becomes up. All these moments build on the film's story; Singh hypnotizes the audience with a maze of fascinating images that keenly evokes Stargher's character. At the same time, the visuals are abstract enough to leave something to the imagination. There's not a lot of action in the movie, and there doesn't need to be. Just watching the images that Singh lays out are exciting enough, because they're not just wallflowersthey are vital to the plot.
I'd compare the visual effects in the "The Cell" to the classic "2001: A Space Oddessy." But I've heard a lot of people say "The Cell" is all flash and no substance, a criticism I frequently tag on a lot of films. My advice to someone who hasn't seen the movie is to pay attention to the visualsduring the "dream" sequences and outside as well. They speak to the audience, so pay attention to them.
Another reason I enjoyed this movie and rated it so high is that it had a lot of original elements and avoided potentially fatal clichés. For example, there's a lot of talk in the movie about how serial killers are often abused as children. While all the "dream" sequences give insight into Stargher's character, Singh doesn't give the audience a straightforward impression of his villain and refrains from making Stargher a sympathetic character even when his past is brought to light. In fact, Stargher is absolutely repelling throughout the entire movie. There are a couple scenes in the film that are truly gruesome, one of which might lead viewers to leave their seats and not return. But the movie stops short of cliche, a move that's absolutely brilliant. I won't give the surprise away, but I will say that it's one of many twists, surprises, and bait-and-switch moves in the film.
There are only a few flaws in the movie. Although the acting is strong, Lopez and Vaughn's characters were underdeveloped. Stronger character's would have put more stock in the suspense and made the film more memorable. And the science in the plotthe mind-sharing invention, Stargher's mental illness, etc.went largely unexplained, unfortunately. Still, this is one hell of a first film, and Singh is one talent you should keep your eye on. "The Cell" is an original thriller, the best this year so far.
Filmfodder Grade: A-