You would expect nothing less than The Cell from the feature-film debut of director Tarsem Singh. You wouldn’t expect much more, either.
The film is a relentless, domineering visual carnival. Singh, the frenetic Indian visual stylist behind REM’s “Losing My Religion” video and many others, indulges his every ocular whim here, with dozens of combinations of set design, lighting and cinematography that can’t be quantified with words.
Some accuse Singh of piracy, saying Salvador Dali and Federico Fellini are just two of the dozens of artists from whom he borrows and steals. Maybe so, but Singh is undeniably gifted; his music videos alone put him with Spike Jonze, David Fincher and the other directors who used popular music to write the complex, dizzying visual shorthand language that has taken over much of the media of our time.
All that said, movies—especially big-budget, high-priced summer films like this one—are still a narrative medium. Videos aren’t—not really. Therein lies the problem. The script in which Singh has chosen to drop his visual bombs is wholly unworthy of such pyrotechnics. Watching the film, it immediately becomes clear that Singh—not Jennifer Lopez or Vince Vaughn—is the star of the show. The Cell becomes a music-video-image sampler, a collection of scratch-your-head visuals that when strung together become a sum that has nowhere near the value of each individual part.
The story is strictly Silence of the Lambs lite. After a number of murders, two FBI agents (Vaughn and Jake Weber) manage to catch one of those insanely clever mastermind movie serial killers, a guy named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio). Trouble is, Stargher has a schizophrenic seizure that leaves him in an irreversible coma. Before he got caught, Stargher had kidnapped one last girl and left her to die in this strange Plexiglas prison that will be filled with water in about 40 hours, killing her unless Vinnie can find her and save her.
So they go to a strange behavioral science research center where a billionaire is funding an experimental mind-meld procedure to help his son, who’s in a coma. Child psychologist Catherine Deane (Lopez, hopelessly dull) thinks they can use this technology to get inside Stargher’s mind, befriend him and find out where the missing girl is.
It sounds complicated, but it’s not. We find out Stargher was abused as a child, and Singh’s visuals are supposed to be a representation of what it looks like inside a mind tainted by abuse. In reality, it appears Singh is simply determined to subvert whatever expectations his audience might have from a typical summer movie. He’s turned a serial killer thriller into a performance art gallery, and he spends the entire 107 minutes congratulating himself.
Singh’s finished product brings to mind the problems inherent in a spate of recent films like ExistenZ, the Annette Bening/Robert Downey Jr. thriller In Dreams or last year’s atrocious Stigmata. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s visual artistry in In Dreams is every bit the equal of Singh’s work here, but in all of these films the stunning images were draped around a dull, plodding script that shows absolutely none of the inventiveness or unpredictability of the images with which its story is told.
It all seems a bit of a waste, like Gayle Ruzicka wearing the latest Stella McCartney dress. Visual beauty can be mesmerizing, but there has to be something backing it. It’s a pity that Singh sees everything but that.
The Cell (R) HH Directed by Tarsem Singh. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D’Onofrio.