Tarsem Singh's directorial debut, The Cell, contains more style than substance, and is weighed down with it's special effects and a side-story that should have been left on the cutting room floor. At the same time, elaborate costuming and great shots that turn the most desolate sand dunes into beautiful landscapes, present a great director in the making and enough story to keep the audience along for the ride.
Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a psychotherapist who has been working with a comatose child by getting inside his mind via a virtual reality styled setup that includes a breast accentuating suit, suspension from wires, and a face covering towel that looks like a computer circuit-board. Meanwhile, there's a killer on the loose and the FBI hopes that Catherine can get inside the killer's mind to find his latest victim before it's too late.
It's difficult to discuss The Cell, without mentioning Tarsem's 2006 film The Fall. Because everything Tarsem did wrong in The Cell he did right in The Fall. The Cell was a learning experience for Tarsem, and he learned his lessons well. The Cell is set up like a coin, there are two sides that come together to make one movie, unfortunately one side of the coin is more polished than the other. In this case the polished side is Tarsem's non-CGI visuals, many of which are influenced by great paintings, but the CGI effects are in overload throughout many parts of the film and it's distracting. There are several moments within The Cell that hearken to David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-1991), which stands to reason as both, Tarsem and Lynch, are visual directors.
Catherine's story line with the killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), is interesting and provides many great visuals. The parallel crime drama storyline, however, is lame, even by C.S.I. standards. Vince Vaughn is passable as Peter Novak, the FBI agent who has a past of his own to overcome, but the character is uninspired. Any actor could have played Peter Novak and it wouldn't have made a difference.
Jennifer Lopez's performance improves with the increasing bizarreness of her costumes, which both come to a peak in the third act. Vincent D'Onofrio is good as the killer, whose fetishes would give Jeffrey Dahmer a run for his money. Although D'Onofrio executed the part well, I can't help but wonder what Philip Seymour Hoffman would have done with the role.
Despite it's flaws, The Cell doesn't leave you empty handed, and it shows a first time director learning his strengths and weaknesses, which payed off six years later when he directed The Fall.