The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'The Cell' is
both beautiful
and grotesque

August 24, 2000
By Franklin Harris

Viewing both "The Cell" and "Godzilla 2000" during the same weekend can give you the moviegoing equivalent of whiplash. It's hard to imagine two more different movies. One is a stylish and often disturbing thriller, while the other is a big, dumb mutt begging you to love it. You can guess which is which.

"The Cell" is proving to be a polarizing movie. There are a few critics who love it, and then there are legions who think it is not only a bad movie but a dangerous one, too.

Frankly, I'm having a difficult time working up much passion for "The Cell" one way or the other.

Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of a killer in ''The Cell.''
Courtesy Photo © Copyright New Line Cinema
Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of a killer in "The Cell."
Jennifer Lopez plays child psychologist Catharine Deane, who is part of a pharmaceutical company's experimental program to allow psychiatrists to literally enter the minds of catatonic patients.

Deane's patient, the son of the company's owner, is trapped in a mental dessert wasteland, held hostage by his own fears, which manifest themselves as a literal boogeyman. But the boy takes back seat when the FBI calls in Deane to enter the mind of a serial killer.

Vincent D'Onofrio had made a career out of playing psychopaths, but Carl Stargher is by far his most disturbed character yet.

Stargher kidnaps young women and locks them in an automated, bulletproof-glass cell. He leaves them there alone for a few days, cameras videotaping their suffering, until, finally, a timer goes off, and the cell fills with water, drowning its occupant.

What Stargher does to the bodies is probably the most disturbing part of the film, and I won't recount his ghoulish practices here.

Fortunately, the FBI is closing in on Stargher, and they find him within the first few minutes of the film. Unfortunately, they don't find him until after he has kidnapped one last victim, who is locked in the cell and is only hours away from drowning. And to make matters worse, by the time the FBI finds Stargher, he has had a seizure that has rendered him irreversibly catatonic.

So, it's up to Deane to enter Stargher's mind and, with the help of FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), get Stargher's subconscious mind to confess the girl's location.

But Stargher's mind is both a beautiful and grotesque place, ruled by an even more twisted and monstrous version of Stargher, who is given to dressing like Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." (This is no coincidence; both films have the same costume designer.) And if Deane and Novak start to believe Stargher's horrific unreality is real, they will become trapped in it forever.

The buzz on "The Cell" is that it is "The Silence of the Lambs" meets "The Matrix." But the idea of decent people having to enter the minds of killers has become something of a cliché, and the film's virtual-reality special effects are more reminiscent of "What Dreams May Come" than of "The Matrix."

Ultimately, "The Cell" is that hardest of movies to review: the muddle. Most of the acting is passable. Lopez and Vaughn don't embarrass themselves, but you can't help but imagine that there must have been someone better for the parts, especially in Lopez's case. D'Onofrio, meanwhile, is excellent, as he should be given that he has so much experience with these kinds of roles.

The story, which dares us to have sympathy for the devil, is compelling, but only up to a point. It can't quite fill nearly two hours of running time.

But what finally makes "The Cell" more of a hit than a miss is the sheer beauty of it. It is a stunning and disturbing film to watch. And director Tarsem Singh does an excellent job for one whose experience is limited mostly to directing music videos. That MTV style usually results in incomprehensible messes like "Armageddon."

''Bring me the head of Roland Emmerich!''
Courtesy Photo © Copyright TriStar Pictures Inc.
"Bring me the head of Roland Emmerich!"
I much preferred "The Cell" to "Godzilla 2000," which managed to do the one thing I least expected of it. It bored me.

Granted, "Godzilla 2000" is better than Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich's 1998 American version, but I'm damning it with faint praise.

This time around, Godzilla tangles with a UFO, which gets to the heart of the film's problem. The UFO, and the creature it spawns late in the film, simply aren't compelling monsters. There was a time when Godzilla battled monsters that had personality: Mothra, Rodan, Monster Zero and so on. But the nameless UFO creature of "Godzilla 2000," like the monsters of the last few Japanese-produced Godzilla films, is just plain dull. And, come to think of it, Godzilla is a bit stiff, too.

"Godzilla 2000" is for die-hard Godzilla fans only, which may explain why even the audience of pre-adolescents with whom I saw it was largely unimpressed.

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