The Cell's R2 DVD cover could hardly have looked more discouraging. Worryingly big text is splashed over a picture of Jennifer Lopez trying to look sultry in a daft fetish outfit. You know the kind of big text I'm talking about. The kind that's all over the covers of cheap magazines for morons. "Jennifer Lopez SIZZLES! in a Silence of the Lambs style psychological THRILLER." "No.1 U.S. Box Office Hit." "Enter the mind of a killer." However my favourite is: "This is 'Seven' meets 'Seven' for the post-'Seven' generation!" What the hell does that mean? Presumably someone thought they were being clever. Dear God above.
In fact I ended up quite enjoying the movie. It's nowhere near as formulaic as those blurbs make it sound, to the point where I sometimes had no idea where the film was going. The story's a bit of a mess, but The Cell is all about its fantasy-land visuals and they're abso-friggin'-lutely amazing. Seriously, the fantasy scenes here are like performance art. They're like what Salvador Dali might have produced if his chosen medium had been film instead of paint. They're like Jean Rollin but with talent. Forget narrative or characterisation; The Cell is conclusive proof that Robert McKee-style storytelling isn't the be-all and end-all of movies. These are pure visuals, to be wallowed in as if you'd gone to a dance show or an art gallery. In fact some of the images are lifted from the work of proper artists, e.g. Odd Nerdrum, Damien Hirst. Tarsem Singh has gone to town in directing sequences that aren't quite hallucinogenic, nightmarish or symbolic. They're cool!
And if you're not into that, at least you can admire all the good-looking actresses on display. I'm not as enamoured with Jennifer Lopez as some others appear to be, but some of her co-stars are simply beautiful. They're rarely shown at their best (drowned, half-drowned, screaming in terror, dead, etc.) but I appreciated the effort.
The Cell opens interestingly, with a shot that appears to be from Lawrence of Arabia. I hadn't expected that! We then realise that it's a dream sequence... or is it that simple? Soon the action switches to the perverted misadventures of a really sick bastard, who's not just a serial killer but imaginative with it. Oh dear. A serial killer. Like we haven't seen a gazillion of those in the movies... but in fact this one is far more interesting than most. The Cell is about psychological exploration and healing trauma, so its psycho gets many more dimensions than the usual one. That was cool.
Jennifer Lopez's acting is adequate, but her primary function is to be the curvaceous centrepiece of a succession of surreal images. She's decorative enough to do that nicely. And to be fair, the script isn't an afterthought as it is when Rollin or Franco attempt this kind of thing. There's a victim to be saved, earnest detectives, redemption and lots more good stuff. It's just that the fantasy visuals are so overwhelming that everything else, plot included, is relegated to second place. To a certain extent this isn't entirely a bad thing. I liked the greater-than-usual unpredictability of a plot that for once isn't bulldozing everything else in sight.
The Cell also gets one thing right, in that it manages to have anything-might-happen fantasy scenes that nevertheless don't feel pointless and time-wasting. Such sequences usually kill a film stone dead, but astonishingly that never happens here. I'm seriously impressed. Of course it helps that these sequences are only part of the film, and carefully separated from each other.
I'm glad I saw The Cell, but I'm also glad I didn't pay any money to do so. It's not a horror movie. It's not even much of a detective movie. On one level it's a passable psychological thriller, while on another it's a cheap excuse for wild imagery. Probably mind-blowing if watched while stoned.