When the screen version of Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs beat out both JFK and Beauty and the Beast for 1992's Best Picture Oscar, it was more than just an artful trumping of Oliver Stone's adverse patriotism and Disney's 2-D schmaltz. The Academy's endless fascination with antisocial shrink-cum-cannibal Hannibal Lecter echoed the apparent evolution of a mainstream American viewership that, under the proper circumstances (during the Gulf War, for instance?), could not only stomach such a psychotically vivid passion play, but recommend it enthusiastically to friends and co-workers. (Extreme closeups of a nude corpse? Chilling! A guy's face torn clean off his skull? Thrilling!) Most were even delighted to see Anthony Hopkins's sinister sicko evade capture in the end, leaving the door wide open for a sequel's worth of his homicidal musings.
Anyway, few could fail to note the not-so-distant kinship between director Jonathan Demme's Lambs and The Cell, a more fanciful and less literate psycho thriller from Indian-born director Tarsem (who cut his teeth on award-winning TV adverts and the video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion"). Both films seed and/or feed our morbid curiosity about what makes murderous freaks tick. Both hinge on the determination of a brunette heroine hoping to decode a killer's whacked thought patterns in order to reveal the whereabouts of his latest potential victim. And, with well-earned R ratings, both feature graphic evidence of their respective villains' icky craft.
But what sets The Cell apart from its progenitor is a wealth of lavish and intensely imaginative visuals that transcend the usual grime. The plot allows for a creative palate as massive as the mind itself, centering on Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), a sci-savvy therapist who's keen on an experimental process by which she can quite literally enter the mind of a subject in order to probe the symbolic and often surreal environs therein. It's less of a leap than you'd think to accept this futurist stretch, largely because the abstract imagery and darkly seductive mood of Catherine's synaptic travels are captivating from the get-go.
Granted, we have lost count of late-20th-century flicks in which a heroic agent of some shape or other is compelled to "think like" the enemy, to get "inside the head" of a particularly nasty perpetrator in order to crack his or her m.o. But our Catherine takes this process to a new extreme by physically infiltrating the mindscape of a comatose serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio), thereby leaving the feds (Vince Vaughn et al.) unable to grill him the old-fashioned way. And from the moment she jacks into the psycho's cerebellum, it's as if she has been cast in a Marilyn Manson video (minus the schlocky pop-industrial din). Tarsem and his team of designers spare no weird whim in this deliciously creepy otherworld, engineering sets and scenarios that are gorgeous, disturbing, and memorable. They fully bring the bleary demons and unconscious preoccupations of a twisted criminal to life, translating his torment via bizarre aesthetic juxtapositions, claustrophobic motifs, beautifully ornate costumes, and the eeriest of computer-aided effects.
It's nearly enough to make you forget that what you're watching is, at its root, just another serial killer movie à la Copycat or Kiss the Girls. At its lowest points, the script reads like a second-class sci-fi comic built around simplistic laboratory melodrama, stock cop talk, and stiff exchanges between Catherine and her cohorts. Especially outside the film's brain-bending fantasy realm, the tale suffers from a severe case of "Dude, I swear I've rented this before." That said, it's encouraging to see such a high sense of style injected into such a strained genre. As David Fincher and Spike Jonze have likewise demonstrated, maybe MTV isn't such a creative dead end after all.