[Screen It]

(2000) (Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: Using an experimental and controversial synaptic connection, a therapist travels into the mind of a comatose serial killer hoping to discover the location of his latest victim.
Catherine Deane (JENNIFER LOPEZ) is a psychotherapist who's been experimenting with a unique way of bringing comatose patients out of their state. With the aid of fellow scientists, Dr. Miriam Kent (MARIANNE JEAN-BAPTISTE) and Henry West (DYLAN BAKER), Catherine has been making experimental journeys into the mind of Edward Baines (COLTON JAMES), a young boy who's been in a coma for the past eighteen months.

Utilizing their neurological synaptic transfer system, Catherine enters the boy's mind where, in a bizarre, dream-like world, she tries to gain his confidence and bring him back to consciousness. Knowing full well that her body will follow and react to whatever her mind experiences, the team has equipped Catherine with a transmitter chip in her hand that, when activated, aborts the latest cerebral journey.

During this time, serial killer Carl Stargher (VINCENT D'ONOFRIO) has been busy at work, abducting more victims - all pretty young women - and making them his real-life, doll-like playthings before ultimately drowning them in a large, enclosed cell. FBI Agents Peter Novak (VINCE VAUGHN) and Gordon Ramsey (JAKE WEBER) have been working the case, and eventually get their break when evidence leads them to Stargher's home.

Unfortunately, he's slipped into a viral-based coma from which doctors don't believe he'll ever recover, meaning that the FBI doesn't know the location of his latest victim, Julia Hickson (TARA SUBKOFF). Having seen videotapes of Carl's handiwork, they realize that Julia will soon drown in his hidden, but completely automated tank system if they can't locate and then rescue her.

As such, and hearing about Catherine's work, they decide to enlist her help. Although initially reluctant, she eventually agrees and soon travels into the twisted, surrealistic and definitely nightmarish world of Carl's subconscious mind. Meeting a boyish and still innocent version of the psychopath (JAKE THOMAS), Catherine does what she can to earn his trust and discover Julia's whereabouts, all before time runs out for her and while dealing with the various and dangerous adult versions of Carl who exist within his head.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In the world of movies - and most likely real life to some degree - it's up to the cop, FBI agent or mental practitioner to get inside the mind of the deranged individuals they're pursuing, figure out what makes them tick, and then solve whatever mystery and/or crime for which those psychopaths might be responsible.

Novelist Thomas Harris and then the filmmaking team of screenwriter Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme portrayed that ever so brilliantly in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs." In fact, fledgling FBI trainee Clarice Starling got something of a two for one deal in that story, in that her venture into one killer's mind led to and exposed that of another.

With the critical (5 wins out of 7 Oscar nominations) and box office success ($130+ million) of that film, a serious spate of similarly related pictures followed for the rest of the decade with varying results. While some were successful in their own right, none lived up to the excellence exhibited by "Lambs," nor did any of them offer as complex a psychological examination of such psychopaths.

As such, what's a filmmaker to do if they decide - against all better judgment and caution - to revisit the genre? Well, such mental excursions could go one step further by literally entering the mind of the killer. That's what first time director Tarsem does with "The Cell," a visually striking and occasionally engaging picture that ultimately succumbs to the old style over substance syndrome that often afflicts directors who cut their directorial teeth on flashy music videos and TV commercials.

Working from a script by screenwriter Mark Protosevich (who similarly makes his feature film debut) that liberally borrows from the far more imaginative 1984 Dennis Quaid thriller, "Dreamscape" and even bits of "Being John Malkovich," Tarsem offers striking visuals, interesting camerawork and bizarre imagery, all designed to represent the dream/nightmare world that would exist inside an unconscious killer's noggin.

The result is a film that's certainly never boring to watch - at least from a visual standpoint. The individual efforts and resultant collective work of cinematographer Paul Laufer ("Frankie Starlight"), production designer Tom Foden (the "Psycho" remake), and costume designers April Napier ("Your Friends and Neighbors") and Eiko Ishioka ("Bram Stoker's Dracula") is often of the eye-popping variety and is occasionally reminiscent of a cross between the visuals of "What Dreams May Come" and the work of director David Lynch.

Even so, visuals will only take a film so far, and thus one hopes that Protosevich's script will carry the rest of the film's weight and/or balance out the flash and style with some substantive substance. While the basic concept of actually traveling into another person's psyche is interesting - if somewhat far-fetched in a sci-fi type way, as was the case with "Dreamscape," "In Dreams" and to a degree, "Brainstorm" - it certainly doesn't offer much in the way of imagination.

Sure, the visuals and imagery show that, but neither the heroes nor the villains (or the filmmakers, for that matter) are very imaginative or innovative when it comes to the way in which they act and react to each other. The beauty of a film like this - at least in concept - is that anything goes once the characters are wading through another's unconscious state.

Since physical rules don't apply in there, any number of scenarios, monsters and weapons, etc. could be utilized by either side, resulting in a true nightmare. While the filmmakers bring up the old "if you die in your dream, you'll die in real life" concept, it's certainly not played out as well as in "Brainstorm" "Nightmare on Elm Street" or even the more recent "The Matrix."

Tarsem and company also drop the ball on the "fake out the audience" element often found in such films, where what looks real to the audience - and the involved characters - turns out to be just a dream, and/or vice-versa. The one scene in which this occurs is too easy to spot, and the fact that there aren't more of them hurts the film, at least in my opinion.

Protosevich's script also suffers from other elements that are too obviously introduced, thus allowing for the viewer to be way ahead of the story and its characters. When the researchers indicate that they stopped simultaneously sending in two therapists into a patient's mind sometime in the past, we instantly know that someone will join Catherine on her trip. The same holds true for a comment about having the subject enter her mind (instead of the normal, other way around) being too dangerous and unproven. Gee, do you think that will happen toward the end of the movie?

As far as the performances are concerned, they're generally okay despite none of the characters being terribly interesting. Jennifer Lopez ("Out of Sight," "Selena") looks as dazzling as ever, and she does manage to make the viewer believe she's truly concerned for the children she encounters during several trips into others' minds. Yet, the script doesn't give her much to work with beyond that. As a result, many will probably feel somewhat indifferent toward her character and the ensuing potential harm she faces.

Although he initially seems completely out of place in the role of the determined FBI agent, Vince Vaughn (the "Psycho" remake, "Return to Paradise") manages to make his character credible, at least to some degree, but the lackluster plot similarly encumbers his subsequent efforts. Vincent D'Onofrio ("Men in Black," "Full Metal Jacket") makes for a believable serial killer, but once his character is rendered catatonic, he's relegated to playing "dress up" in his character's various unconscious visualizations of himself.

Supporting performances from the likes of Marianne Jean-Baptiste ("28 Days," "Secrets & Lies"), Jake Weber ("U-571," "Meet Joe Black") and Dylan Baker ("Happiness," "Random Hearts") are decent, but aren't given enough time or substance to make much of an impact beyond serving as character/body filler.

Neither as brilliant as "Silence of the Lambs" or as much hokey fun as "Dreamscape," this film combines elements of both into a moderately compelling picture, but never manages to be as good as it might have been. Most of that fault lies directly with Tarsem, who, -- like many of his fellow music video and TV commercial directors who've moved on to the big screen -- hasn't quite figured out how to make a well-balanced, full length feature.

Despite pulling out all of the stops to make the film visually arresting, the novice auteur has probably now realized that it's a bit more difficult to fill up ninety or more minutes rather than the usual three to four in a video and/or thirty seconds in a commercial. While the overall picture isn't bad by any means, its abundant flash and style - while acceptable considering the subject matter -- certainly ends up masking the lack of any great depth among the characters or the story. As such, "The Cell" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 15, 2000 / Posted August 18, 2000

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