The Cell: Director's Cut (2000)

Directed by Tarsem Singh

Produced by Julio Caro & Eric McLeod

Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker

The Cell

Nearly twenty years ago (my, doesn't time fly?) the whole "dream reality" notion was just kicking off in grandiose style. Douglas Trumball offered up the idea of recording the subconscious imprint of an individual in "Brainstorm" (1983), Wes Craven's gave us the ultimate serial killer in "A Nightmare On Elm Street" (1984) and Joseph Ruben proposed dreams as government weapons in "Dreamscape" (1984). When the idea was first initiated way back then, it seemed fresh and new, but once "rubber reality" became the new flesh of genre cinema it quickly outlived its use by date, saturating the market and swiftly becoming passe. Two decades on the idea of resurrecting the formula for modern audiences seems decidedly old hat. Afterall, we've seen it all before, right? Could the advances in special effects technology really offer anything new for the medium, now that this particular avenue of the genre has been flogged deader than the proverbial horse? In one simple and direct word…no.

OOh, do I have to run out the plot? Okay, it generally goes a lot like this: Carl Stargher (D'Onofrio) is a serial killer whose modus operandi is truly perverse (by Hollywood standards). He kidnaps women, imprisons them in a glass cell, gradually drowning them in water over the course of forty hours while videotaping the exercise for his later viewing delight. FBI agent Peter Novak (Vaughn…possibly sounding the death-knell for his career with this after his woeful turn as Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's godawful "Psycho" remake) has tracked Stargher, finally catching his man the moment a rare cerebral condition known as "Waylon's Infraction" sets in (with Stargher, not Novak). But the now comatose Stargher still has one captive victim hidden away, leaving Novak to turn his attention to an obscure psychological institute, and the beautiful Catherine Deane (Lopez) to infiltrate the killer's subconscious so as to glean his victim's hiding place before it is too late for her. From there it's every "dream reality" film you've ever seen, peppered with the visual flourish of Jodorowsky, with a hint of Salvador Dali.

For genre fans, Tarsem Singh's visual feast is nothing you haven't seen before, albeit undoubtedly done far better before. Some commercial/video directors make the transition to the big screen with consummate ease, and then some are given far too much money and creative freedom to indulge their own self-important ends. Mainstream viewers will undoubtedly be "blown away" by Singh's visuals, but after half a dozen nods to the body piercing subculture and overblown surrealistic setpieces genre fans might just find themselves desiring a bit more substance over style, not vice versa. Or yawning a lot, as I did.

Visual junkie that I am, I found this one completely self-indulgent wholly obsessed with filling the screen with eye candy while neglecting what could have been both an entertaining and disturbing addition to the serial killer genre. Instead I was lavished with something as piss-awful as "The Sixth Sense" given the acid-laced head trip treatment. Cutesy kids in horror cinema raise my ire, and this has not one but two! And the idea of defeating Stargher by drowning his "inner child" was indeed the stupidest thing I have seen in mainstream genre cinema. Possibly the stupidest thing I have seen in my entire film-going life (and that's a good twenty five years). I don't know whom New Line and Tarsem were targeting with this picture, but it certainly wasn't people like me. Maybe it was the "Ooh, look at the pretty pictures" brigade, I don't know. "The Matrix meets Silence Of The Lambs"? What an insult to two decent films…

What's the old saying about DVD? Ah, that's right…a lousy movie usually gets the red carpet treatment when it's time for its disc release. Thus, Singh's overblown Ruben-wannabe looks and sounds nothing short of immaculate. The image is always crisp, detailed and drenched in radiant colour, as well as letterboxed at its correct aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced for optimum clarity. Audio is present in either room-enveloping Dolby 5.1 or the Pro-logic option of standard Dolby surround, adding directional space to an otherwise vacuous production. Sorry guys, but sounding great and looking like fine digital art do not disguise the fact that this is a completely empty affair. Guess my previously touted "looking and sounding great" aspersion has been proven drastically awry in this instance. Oh well, it had to happen one day, didn't it?

Once I started the equally painful exploration of the extras, I began to understand exactly why this ludicrous exercise turned out exactly the way it did. The moment Tarsem Singh says in the audio commentary words to the effect of (explaining motivation to D'Onofrio) "this is NOT a horror film! It's OPERA!" I understood where New Line had gone wrong wholeheartedly. They had employed a visionary with absolutely NO respect for the genre to helm a horror film. Singh's commentary is irritating in the extreme, often pointing to the "ridiculous" and "unbelievable" aspects of Mark Protosevich's script, as well as heartily laughing at the absurd visuals he threw in to put "genre fans" off the scent. Most amusing is his notation with a couple of sequences that he "really fucked that up" (!). Guess what Mr. Singh? You completely fucked the whole thing up! It was one thing to watch this travesty; it was a secondary insult to listen to Tarsem's smarmy condescension of the genre fans his production was intended for. My advice is this: if you didn't want to make a "genre film", piss off and hand the director's chair to somebody that does. I'm sure serious fans wouldn't have minded in the slightest, in fact I would have applauded the move. Before anyone takes me to task on this, I realise that Singh's commentary is meant to be fairly light, but there's an old saying about words spoken in jest…

Anyway, I'm starting to get annoyed at wasting over two hours of my life with this drivel, so let's wind things up succinctly. There's an Isolated Score that allows Howard Shore's striking work to shine without the hindrance of lame dialogue and Tarsem's "creative freedom". Chuck in a 12 minute behind the scenes documentary called "Style as substance" (that should read "Style OVER substance") where everyone involved sings Tarsem's praise. Eight deleted scenes straight off the digital editor, looking as shoddy as you'd expect of that description augmented by optional commentary by Singh (don't ask me, I'd given up by this point). Six VFX multi-angle vignettes, which were one of the few things worth investigating. A plethora of Cast & Crew filmographies, two theatrical trailers, and a pair of brain-themed "Interactivities" (including an "empathy test" for fuck's sake!) round out this profoundly disappointing "Director's Cut" Special Edition. Here, I'll save you the money and give away the MAJOR addition to this "uncensored" version: D'Onofrio suspended by body piercings having a wank over one of the dead girls while watching her final moments on video replay. Pity that Singh did the same with his audience. Nope, I didn't like this film one little bit. I'd rather watch any of Jodorowsky's films again that have my intelligence insulted like this again.

Review by M.C.Thomason

Released by Village Roadshow Home Entertainment
Classified R(18+) - Region 4
Running time - 109m
Ratio - Widescreen 2.35 (16:9)
Audio - Dolby digital 5.1, Dolby surround 2.0
Extras :
Audio commentary by Tarsem Singh, Isolated Score, Deleted Scenes with optional commentary, Behind The Scenes documentary, Theatrical trailers, Interactivities: Empathy Test & Brain Map, Visual Effects Vignettes (Multi-angle), Filmographies