Arizona Daily Wildcat
Boundless beauty balances boorish blockbuster "The Cell"
The explosion in popularity of VCRs and home movie rentals during the 1980s changed the film industry irrevocably, from the way that films are conceived and marketed to the manner in which they are shot and edited. The disparity between the proportions of a theater screen and a television screen - and the huge amounts of money to be made from a successful video release - have caused many directors and cinematographers to rethink their craft.
By limiting camera movement, increasing close-ups and composing simpler, less adventurous shots, filmmakers have moved away from film's early experimental nature to a more accessible aesthetic - in short, movies are being shot more like TV shows.
However, there are occasionally films released that are visually complex and challenging that are made without TV in mind. One of the most visually accomplished of these quasi-experimental films is from a former music video director- Tarsem Singh's (REM's "Losing My Religion") "The Cell."
The story ostensibly concerns serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), who keeps women captive in a glass torture chamber designed to drown them over a period of two days. After he is captured and falls into an irreversible coma, an experimental therapist (Puff Daddy "collaborator" Jennifer Lopez) and an FBI agent (Vince Vaughn) must enter Stargher's mind - courtesy of some wonky science and form-fitting bodysuits - and root around in his psyche until they discover the location of his latest captive.
The plot is really just an elaborate framing device, an excuse to turn the film over to a series of hallucinatory episodes set in Stargher's warped mind. It is in these scenes where the film really gains momentum - and where Singh's MTV pedigree becomes apparent.
These sequences are among the most beautiful and disturbing scenes in recent film memory, borrowing heavily from the work of photographer Joel-Peter Whitkin and Tim Burton's darker side. Shifting between ornate beauty and nightmarish images of torture and abuse, the scenes are visually spectacular, unparalleled in their vividness and imagination.
They are, however, in service of a film just as peerless in its stupidity and wrong-headedness. The film raises complex issues of child abuse (complete with horrifying depictions of various types of abuse), then glosses over them, merely paying lip service to the myriad ways in which abuse can affect people. Dangerous in its ignorance and callousness (to women, children and the mentally ill), "The Cell" is just not smart enough to deal with the many disturbing issues it raises.
In many technical aspects, however, this is an accomplished, well-executed film. The actors all give good performances, particularly D'Onofrio. In a tripartite role - Stargher as a human and as the good and evil embodiments of his psyche - that could have disappeared in a vapor of psycho-babble and serial-killer clichˇs, D'Onofrio makes Stargher a layered, almost sympathetic character.
The actor's best efforts and Singh's breathtaking visuals cannot save the film from its inherent stupidity, though. With a deeper understanding of human nature - or at least a less dismissive, more humane screenplay - Singh could make artistically complete films. Equally easy to love - for its eye candy - and hate for almost everything else, "The Cell" is nothing more than a thin veneer of art and beauty over an empty, emotionally stunted core.