Thursday, April 19, 2012
Review: The Cell
Version I Watched: Standard definition DVD.
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, and Vincent D'Onofrio
History: An original story written by Mark Protosevich (Poseiden, I Am Legend, Thor) and directed by Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Immortals, Mirror Mirror). The film was released on August 18th 2000 and was met with mixed reviews by critics. The film was a box office success by earning 104 million at the box office, over triple the original budget of 33 million.
My Personal History: I saw this back in the summer of 2007 when it was recommended to me by a high school friend. I remember loving it so much at the time which brought me into it on this viewing with some raised expectations as I didn't remember a lot about it other than some key elements. All I remember was its style, how violent it was, that Jennifer Lopez actually did a really good job, and that I felt it was really underrated in response to the mixed reviews it received when first released.
Review: There are many different types of directors. Some have material the jump up and down in quality. Some are very consistent whether it's good or bad. Then there are some who peak early or take a while to gain their style and their films get progressively better. The Cell director, Tarsem Singh is one of those directors who falls into the more unique of these categories where they breakout in a great high note but then their follow ups don't quite live up to their early work. It reminds me a bit of Rob Zombie or M. Night Shamalamadingdong. Those two had a pretty good or great first film. Then their follow up was excellent! But each film they followed up with after that just didn't live up to par. In fact they kept getting worse. Tarsem Singh hasn't made enough to properly judge this way but as a lead in I have a mixed bag of feelings for all his films. Immortals was fun at parts but had a lot of room for improvement, The Fall was amazing despite the plot leaving something more to be desired, and I haven't seen Mirror Mirror but that's not quite my cup of tea of film. And The Cell... Well you'll find out...
The film opens not in the real world. Catherine (Jennifer Lopez) is riding through a desert on a horse in an elaborate dress reminiscent of bird feathers. She meets up with a young boy whom she has a close and personal relationship with, almost motherly. She asks him if they are going boating together. Suddenly an old, worn out ship appears next to them, which will not work. Then a small toy boat appears and Catherine tells him it'll work perfectly. Suddenly as she approaches the toy boat the young boy vanishes. An overwhelming sense of something is not right comes over the scene. Catherine presses the space between her thumb and forefinger and that's when she "wakes up." This is when the films reveals that the last scene took place, as I said, not in the real world. It took place in the young boy's mind. Catherine is this young boy's therapist. She uses a very advanced technology to reach him. Not through regular talk on a long couch but by actually going into his mind.
Starting the film in that world is a great setup giving its audience a preview of what's to come. Not only do the most important parts of the film take place outside the real world, but the best parts take place there, too.
The technology is really unique as is, or at least the design concept behind it. The participants are suspended in the air, on their backs, by thin wires. They are also dressed in a red suit that look as if they're made out of muscles. They enter the "mind world" by draping a cloth filled with circuitry over their face. Lastly, to exit the "mind world" the user uses an implant embedded into their hand, the spot between the forefinger and thumb as mentioned previously. This is a concept that I believe was created out of the visual feel of it rather than the tech reasoning. I say that mostly because it never goes very in depth how the tech works, nor is it absolutely necessary. There are still a few things that bugged me about it. I can see how the suit could be filled with pulses pushes onto the user giving a very real sense of where they are in the other person's mind. I must ask how the cloth works. Does it put the individual to sleep? Does it cause a hallucination of some kind to their vision? Also why is it the live body hardly moves at all except when they press the escape button? Suddenly their arm is way up in the air.
By the way, only one mind is entered at a time as expected. There is one host and visitor(s). Only the visitor(s) have the ability to exit upon command if they feel it is necessary.
After this particular session the boy's parents step in because they felt there's been little progress with their son's therapy using this unorthodox method to help with his schizophrenia. The clinic battles to continue the therapy and they are allowed 6 more months with him before they put him into a traditional hospital. Thank the Lord this isn't what the film is about primarily. Otherwise we'd be looking at another feel good movie about the battle for a young child's health filled with boring and predictable cliches. Instead what we get is a lot more sadistic.
Parallel to Catherine's story is one of a serial killer. Initially very little is known about the killer. He captures young women, drowns them, bleaches them so their bodies are nearly pure white, and then disposes of the body but not before getting off sexually in his own unique way. He suspends himself, face down from hooks he has embedded into his back. To put the wonderful finishing touches on things he has a haircut Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men would be proud of. Before the plot kicks in we see our wonderful antagonist, named Carl (Vincent D'Onofrio) claim two lives. One upon his introduction where we see his introduction and the second shortly thereafter. He claims his victim in a hidden underground basement underneath a deserted barn inside a giant tank.
The first on screen victim is found by FBI agent Peter (Vince Vaughn) down by a shallow river. The second victim is only briefly shown but never brought up again the rest of the film... not sure why... could have caused unnecessary repetition. After the body was found they get cracking on the case. It didn't take long before they find his home to bust him. An entire swat team is outside his home locked and loaded which felt a bit excessive since they're getting just one guy. It could have easily been half as many men to bring him in. It was pretty convenient that at the same time he is taking a bath so he is very defenseless. This is when it's presented to us that Carl has these very intense headaches which has given him an addiction to aspirin. Again, conveniently for the fuzz, Carl has run out of aspirin so his intense headaches hits harder than usual presented in a very demonic sense as if he is possessed. He stumbles about right before S.W.A.T. breaks in to apprehend him somehow missing him passed out on the floor when they first break in.
Carl's brain has been deeply penetrated with an extreme case of schizophrenia and has now essentially become a vegetable. Great! Got the bad guy! But wait... he has a victim that will die in less than two days unless they find out where she is...
This is when the film REALLY kicks into gear. The only way to find out where the latest victim is hidden is to go into Carl's mind. Catherine is the only person who can get in there to find out the answer.
The "mind world" as I have been calling it is where, as I've stated multiple times before, the film comes alive, it's the best parts, and they look great. The film's director Tarsem Singh is great at making his films look great if nothing else. Really this man should be a concept artists or a cinematographer. This is where he thrives.
Carl's mind is a twisted kingdom filled with his victims where as expected anything is possible. His victims are present in a bizarre S&M binding dolled up to feed his sexual desires. Carl is also represented in his mind as a King to his Kingdom. This makes perfect sense because who else but the owner of the mind would be the King? After a lot of difficulty Catherine is eventually succumb to Carl's power within his own mind where she enters a state believing what she is experiencing is real. Peter has to go in after her (Which gives even more proof how Inception is NOT as original as internet trolls lead you to believe) which eventually leads to the films thrilling conclusion.
Beneath the films main story is the theme of water and drowning. In many scenes are elements of both. At the most basic level we see Carl kill his victims from drowning. Most obvious. Carl is taking a bath immediately before passing out right before he is taken in. During Carl's full body baptism he went into a seizure and nearly drowned when he was a young boy (Not a baby). And he also drowned a small animal to save it from his abusive father. They do all come together in a consistent way but don't really add a lot to the film overall. If a different element was implemented it would have worked almost the same way minus how specific scenes are executed. Say fire. Carl could have burned his victims alive, could have been burned throughout parts of his body whether by his abusive father or a house fire of some kind, could have killed the small animal by burning it in a bon-fire, etc, etc, etc, and it could have turned out similar.
While on topic with his abusive father... Carl had a very abusive father physically and mentally. A common trope in serial killer stores. His father was the type to blow up at the smallest things, like accidentally breaking a dinner plate. That deserves a mouth full topped with a smack to the head. He constantly reminded Carl his mother walked out on them leaving him the belief she doesn't love him. She probably didn't and his father clearly doesn't so it's easy to see why he turned out the way he did. There is also a brief moment where we see Carl playing with dolls to which his butch father would OBVIOUSLY hate. Carl's father reacts by beating Carl with his belt screaming, "I didn't raise no faggot!" What's conflicting about elements of this presented for serial killer stores is it gives sympathy to the killer. How is that supposed to make the audience feel? The screenwriter may as well be saying, "He's just misunderstood. Don't blame him for the murders. Blame his father." While I do prefer mystery to the evils in film this was nice to add some depth to Carl. If it weren't for the revelations present in his mind he would just be a run of the mill serial killer who looks and acts creepy.
One thing I did like on a personality level was Catherine. She is a very sweet and soft spoken person who has a huge heart. I know some people who are very motherly even if they aren't actually mothers. She comes off as so reserved that in a moment when she smokes pot and swears it felt very out of character. She didn't come off as the type of person who would do either of those things. She does contribute to the conflicting feelings about the serial killer. In Carl's mind we're treated to three versions of Carl. The real world Carl, as I like to call it the "Demon" Carl (And in one scene he is presented as nearly the devil himself with horns made out of his hair), and childhood Carl. Catherine seems to feel the need to protect childhood Carl even though he is only a memory. I question exactly what it is she is trying to accomplish by protecting him the way she does.
The performances weren't anything terrible. It was mostly what would be expected either by these characters or actors. The only one that did stand out for me was Jennifer Lopez. It's partially because of the perception going into it knowing what I know about her. I know the first time I saw this back in 2007 I was hesitant because of who it starred. I had seen a couple of her movies so it didn't appeal to me in that element. It was recommended by the opinion of someone I trust so I went for it. So in the end it really is a case of getting more out of it than you'd expect. It isn't just that. I did get more than I expected. So it isn't just lowered expectations, then? No. J-Lo played the role really well. Very sweet, enduring, and very brave in character. The rest of the performances were fine. Vincent D'Onofrio played the creepy killer the way you'd expect. It was very textbook and didn't bring anything too special to the table. Then there's Vince Vaughn in one of his pre-comedic roles who still makes sure to sport his signature look where you'd think he just crapped his pants and is hoping nobody will notice the smell.
I didn't love this as much as I did on my first viewing. Being away from it for 5 years gave it a real first time feel. As cookie cut as some of the elements are it's still crazy entertaining. The mind diving sequences makes the audience wonder what could possibly happen next. So really this is a film I would still highly suggest. It's still very well put together and most of all very creative in its visuals. I can imagine there are many who could get turned off to some of the harsh violence and dark, dark imagery and elements... whateves. This is a great film.