The UnPopular Opinion: The Cell
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
I love a good serial killer movie but they are often drab, gray, and devoid of color. The genre is, almost by definition, cold and brooding. Some of the best contemporary examples of serial killer movies give us a cop or investigator hunting the most profane killers imaginable and we only get a glimpse into the mind of the villain. Movies like THE CELL take us deep into the psyche of a murderer and psychopath in a way that is both disturbing and beautiful. It is because of that reason that this ranks as one of the best movies, horror or otherwise, in the last fifteen years.
THE CELL is best described as a twisted, adult version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. The visuals from director Tarsem Singh's feature debut are absolutely astounding in ways rarely rivaled since the film hit theaters but often imitated. Taking inspiration from modern and classic art, Tarsem creates a phantasmagoria that is the mindscape of Carl Rudolph Stargher. There are moments in THE CELL that are beyond disturbing and the film is bound to stick with you long after you view it, but they are also quite beautiful. The ornate costumes and set design are cavernous, gothic, and above all original while also paying homage to the artists who inspired the film. Tarsem's later films, especially THE FALL and even MIRROR MIRROR, also share similar visual cues.
I would be remiss if I didn't address the detractors of THE CELL. For the most part, those who hate this movie say it has no plot, no logic, and no story. Instead, they describe THE CELL as a visual film with no depth to it and I could not disagree more. There is clearly a plot and one that makes total sense: a serial killer falls into a coma and an experimental technology allows a child psychologist to enter his subconscious in an effort to find the remaining victim before she dies. In fact, THE CELL has ample plot to fill two movies. On one hand, you have Vince Vaughn's FBI agent tracking down clues in the real world to find the missing girl. This chase film feels like any number of serial killer movies released over the years, full of stock characters like Jake Weber and BREAKING BAD's Dean Norris as investigators. The real world scientists portrayed by Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Baker feel like the characters you would find in any SILENCE OF THE LAMBS clone, but they bring the expected performances and do not once feel out of place.
Where THE CELL shines is the horror aspect of the movie. Not since A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET has the world of bad dreams been so expertly portrayed on screen. Vincent D'Onofrio is, without a doubt, one of the most terrifying boogeyman in movie history. The film allows you moments of sympathy for him but never lets you forget this is one of the worst elements of humanity and his death does not even come close to paying for his crimes. Critics complain that THE CELL is rife with misogynistic influences, but what the hell else would you expect inside the mind of a serial killer? What is disturbing is the idea that no matter how twisted the filmmakers were here, it likely doesn't rival what would be in a real killer's dreams. THE CELL gives us a haunting look at what could be and it is scary as hell.
I am typically not one to laud a performance by Jennifer Lopez but I enjoy her work in THE CELL quite a bit. She is understated and innocent, almost too much so for an educated doctor, but she is approachable and realistic and feels like an adult Alice as she falls through the looking glass. Just as her career was kicking into high gear on the big screen, Lopez portrays Catherine Deane as a scientist who gets dragged into an investigation she wanted no part of. Vince Vaughn, on the other hand, portrays FBI agent Peter Novak as an intense detective whose investigation gets drawn into the scientific mumbo-jumbo of dreamscapes that he wants no part of. Like any good big screen odd couple, Lopez and Vaughn have chemistry that helps both of their characters solve the mystery.
What critics view as the shortcomings of THE CELL are actually it's greatest strengths. There are whole sections of the movie, including the majority of the third act, that are very sparse in dialogue and yet we are glued to the screen in anticipation of what will come next. There is virtually nothing in THE CELL that we can expect or anticipate. The real-world side of the tale has a traditional beginning, middle, and end, but once inside the subconscious realm we are at the mercy of the concoctions of writer Mark Protosevich and director Tarsem. With a movie like THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, you have empathy for Hannibal Lecter, even if you don't like him. With THE CELL, you are terrified of the innocent boy that Stargher was and lament what he has become.
THE CELL is a movie that looks as good fifteen years after it's theatrical release as it did when it debuted and that is a testament to the cinematography and various designers of the film. It is so enthralling that if you stumble across it on cable, you are sucked in and cannot look away. THE CELL is a movie that everyone always remembers as "that movie" but it deserves to be so much more. Roger Ebert named it as one of the ten best films of 2000 and it absolutely was. It now deserves to be remembered as one of the best of the decade and beyond.
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