The Cell [DVD]
Screenplay : Mark Protosevich
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Jennifer Lopez (Catherine Deane), Vince Vaughn (FBI Agent Peter Novak), Vincent D'Onofrio (Carl Stargher), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Dr. Miriam Kent), Jake Weber (FBI Agent Gordon Ramsey), Dylan Baker (Henry West)
"The Cell" takes an old science fiction trope--what if we could somehow enter into another person's subconscious--and uses it to explore that unique horror of the machine age: serial killing. And, as flashy and visually inventive as the film is, its greater importance lies in the way it explores the duality of serial killers in a way most films won't dare.
The narrative imagines the human mind as a great landscape that others can, via an experimental procedure involving virtual reality suits and computers, enter and walk around like explorers. When the film opens, a social worker named Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is exploring the mind of a young child who has entered a coma-like state. While the boy's body is motionless and does not respond to stimuli, his mind is still active, and it is envisioned as a great desert in which the boy hides, afraid of an imagined boogey man.
The research company for which Catherine works is asked by the FBI to explore the mind of a recently captured serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio). Carl, who suffers from a rare form of schizophrenia, had a seizure just before his capture and went into a coma from which he will probably never awake. Unfortunately, he has recently kidnapped a young woman, and the FBI knows that she is locked away somewhere in a glass room that will, in less than two days, fill with water and drown her (this is Carl's particularly sadistic form of torture/murder). FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), who relentlessly tracked and captured Carl, wants Catherine to enter Carl's mind and try to convince him to divulge where the kidnapped girl is being held.
When Catherine enters Carl's mind, it is like walking into a nightmare painting by Francis Bacon. Films of all kinds have tried to capture the essence of dreaming on-screen, but I'm hard-pressed to remember one that so effectively conveys the hard edges and insane logic of a nightmare as this one. "The Cell" imagines Carl's mind as a sort of freaked-out medieval kingdom, where a young, frightened Carl as an abused child hides from the demonic presence of Carl's inflated adult imagination of himself as a killer. Serial killers have a penchant for playing out fantasy roles, and Carl's fantasy of himself has taken over most of his mind.
While on one level "The Cell" is an effective suspense thriller, it is also very much about the duality of serial killers. While one character states quite firmly that he believes the opposite, the film takes very seriously the notion that serial killers are not born, but rather created through physical abuse, psychological torture, and sickness of the mind. In this way, it stands apart from most serial killers films ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Seven") that position serial killers as the machine-like embodiment of ultimate evil. They may be charming and intriguing as characters, but they are always constructed as beings that were simply born evil. "The Cell," on the other hand, takes a different approach, even becoming sentimental toward Carl, as Catherine becomes obsessed with trying to heal his damaged mind by reaching out to the scared child that hides within.
But, at the same time, the film doesn't shy away from the atrocities Carl commits. In fact, it shows in squirm-inducing detail the results of his work, which involves soaking his victims' bodies in bleach and turning their corpses into giant dolls. Carl's sickness also extends to himself, where he puts his own body through ritualistic torture by suspending himself by metal rings that he has inserted in the skin on his back. Yet, by entering Carl's tortured subconscious and realizing it as a three-dimensional world, the film constantly reinforces his past as well as his present. The demonic Carl who rules his mindscape is a direct result of the child who is beaten by an abusive father who catches him playing with dolls.
Unlike most science fiction and horror films, the screenplay for "The Cell" (by first-time writer Mark Protosevich) doesn't spend much time establishing rules for its world. In fact, there is little explanation at all about how the concept of entering another person's mind really works. The only bit that is given is the idea that, if Catherine begins to believe that Carl's mind is, in fact, a three-dimensional reality, then her body might begin to react as well. In other words, if something physically damaging happens to her while she is inside Carl's mind, her body might react as if it were real and she might die.
First-time director Tarsem Singh is an Indian-born filmmaker who got his start in music videos (one scene in "The Cell" seems to have been filmed on the same stage used for his video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion"). He is an inventive visual stylist who knows how to get a reaction. His camera is constantly roaming, and, once inside the mindscape, it drops all pretenses of expected movement, swirling and rising, sometimes going upside down, other times jerking and cutting quickly, zooming out too fast in order to induce a sense of panic and loss of control. Other times, he sets the camera back and takes in wide vistas that create a sense of unreality with their hallucinatory expansiveness.
"The Cell" is an undoubtedly bizarre film, a truly unique experience that is as much a nightmare itself as it is about nightmares. Its imagery is strange and disjointed, but eerily logical. The mindscapes are an amalgam of the futuristic and the medieval, and it is later shown that much of Carl's world is influenced by pictures he has around his house. In its own way, the film seems to be arguing that we are influenced by the pictures we see, both still and moving images.
Yet, if there is lasting importance to "The Cell," it is in the way it rethinks typical cinematic representations of serial killers. Carl is extended sympathy for his sickness, but not excused for his actions, much in the way the child murderer in Fritz Lang's masterful thriller "M" (1931) is shown as a pitiable man whose mental disease makes it impossible for him to stop what he does. We are not asked to forget or necessarily forgive what Carl does, but we are asked to understand why he does it.
|The Cell: Platinum Series DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Tarsem Singh|
Audio commentary by members of the production team
Eight deleted scenes with optional director's commentary
Featurette: "Style as Substance: Reflections on Tarsem"
Visual effects vignettes: Behind-the-scenes on six special-effects sequences
Interactive brain map and empathy test
International teaser trailer
Cast and crew filmographies
Isolated music track
Script-to-Screen screenplay analysis (DVD-ROM)
Original theatrical web site (DVD-ROM)
|Distributor||New Line Cinema|
|The widescreen anamorphic transfer in the film's original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio is gorgeous. The image is razor sharp with extremely vibrant color saturation, perfect black levels, and great detail. The image quality appears to change during certain parts of the film, but this is a purposeful aspect of the film's visual scheme. So, during some of the dream-like mind sequences, the image becomes noticeably softer and less film-like, not like bad video, but like a painting with thicker brush strokes. "The Cell" is one of the most visually extravagant films I've seen in quite a while, and this transfer does it justice in every possible way.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is crystal clear, with aggressive and creative use of imaging and directionality. The mind sequences are filled with all kinds of strange background noises, and the soundtrack takes typical scenes like a helicopter flying and aurally puts you in the middle of the rotating blades. The low-end is deep and heavy without distortion, and Howard Shore's Moroccan-inflected musical score (it reminds me a great deal of Peter Gabriel's work on Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"), which makes strong use of the high end, sounds fantastic. The musical score can also be played on an isolated track.|
| New Line has done an excellent job of packing this single-disc Platinum Series release with a wide-range of excellent supplements. First of all, the disc contains not one, but two audio commentaries. The first is by director Tarsem Singh, who speaks very rapidly and with a great deal of enthusiasm about making the film. His energy is infectious, and his commentary shows him to be an intelligent, thoughtful, but realistic director who doesn't mind pointing out what he wishes he could have done differently. The second audio commentary, which covers just about every facet of the filmmaking process, is by a half-dozen members of the production team: director of photography Paul Lauffer, production designer Tom Foden, make-up supervisor Michelle Burke, costume designer April Napier, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and composer Howard Shore. |
Eight deleted scenes are included with optional director commentary. Actually, only five of them are deleted scenes that never appeared anywhere in the film, including one that was originally intended to end the film and serve as the background behind the final credits. The other three are alternate, longer edits of sequences already included.
"Style as Substance: Reflections on Tarsem" is a 12-minute featurette that focuses primarily on first-time feature director Tarsem Singh. It includes interviews with the principal cast members, as well a numerous members of the production crew and Tarsem himself. The featurette is somewhat lightweight, and there isn't any information in it that isn't better discussed in the audio commentaries.
The most intriguing supplement on the disc is the visual effects vignettes section, which explores six major special-effects sequences using the DVD's multi-angle function. While listening to interviews with visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, make-up supervisor Michelle Burke, and digital animator Richard "Dr." Baily, you can switch between three "angles": the interview, behind-the-scenes and on-set footage, and original storyboards (while watching the interview footage, the right-hand side of the screen shows the other two "angles" in small window boxes so you can actually watch all three at once). These vignettes offer extensive information about the collaborative effort that was required to bring "The Cell" to life, and it makes great use of a little-employed DVD function.
Also included on the disc is an empathy test (where you can answer questions to find out how well you can empathize with others) and a brain map, which offers about as much information on the human brain as any non-doctor would ever want to know. The disc features the original theatrical trailer and an international teaser trailer (both in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen and 5.1 surround), cast and crew filmographies, and a nice set of DVD-ROM supplements, including a Script-to-Screen analysis of the entire screenplay and the movie's entire web site (PC's only; sorry Mac owners).
Lastly, it should be noted that New Line has made everything on the disc anamorphic, which is a major plus.
©2000 James Kendrick