Call it Y2K anxiety, but the turn of the century saw a glut of reality-bending sci-fi movies, focusing on the fear of technology and how it could change our perception of the world as we know it. The Matrix is obviously the most famous, its cyberpunk vision of an alternate “true” reality leading to twenty years of think pieces, some invaluable (the transgender reading of the film), and some toxic (the gross Redpill movement). Dark City came out the year prior but is its closest cousin, an expressionist examination of what is human in the face of alienness. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ blurred reality with a video game world, its characters as players fighting for agency. Even forgotten fare like 1999’s The 13th Floor was cited as an influence by Christopher Nolan when Inception was released. Inception, now ten years old, was a way to recapture the big-budget curiosity that those films engendered. Sci-fi can survive many budgets, but there’s not quite anything like sci-fi imagination with unlimited funds.
Ten years before Inception, an unknown music video director made his opening filmmaking salvo with a twisted sci-fi pastiche. The director went only by the name of Tarsem (full name: Tarsem Singh) and had established his career making striking music videos for R.E.M. and En Vogue. The ’90s were the heyday of music video directors getting the green light from Hollywood: David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Antoine Fuqua, among others. Hollywood was clamoring for new blood just as the American independent film scene was exploding, and directors like Tarsem offered exciting new visions without the baggage of auteur status.
The Cell was a late summer programming curio in the year 2000. Too esoteric to release in the early doldrums of the year, too bombastic to release during the holidays, it got caught in the netherworld of the calendar, ironically the best place for a film about the netherworlds of the mind. The film’s trailers stressed the haunting visual elements, more so than the plot, which borrows heavily from serial killer staples The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Lurid killers were all the rage in the 90s after Buffalo Bill and John Doe reshaped the mold. Forgettable films like Copycat, The Watcher and The Bone Collector took all the wrong notes, reveling in titillation over tautness. 1999’s In Dreams was almost a prototype for The Cell, its gaudy mix of surrealism and sensationalism prepping audiences for sordid stylistics. That movie is far less successful at its theatrics and even less so at its pop psychology. The Cell attempts to top them all with a killer so sordid that the possibility of entering his mind sounds terrifying even before the idea is proposed.
Vincent D’onofrio’s Carl Stargher is a reminder that Hollywood was really pushing for nastiness in the ‘90s. This is a killer that suspends himself by hooks in his back then masturbates over the dead bodies of his victims! After the boom of Seven (and Scream), viscera was chic again. The Christploitation films at the turn and dawn of the century are evidence of that: Stigmata, Lost Souls, End of Days. What these trends exhibit is the fear of the coming Millennium, not just technology but of humans reverting to their most primitive, selfish selves. Everything felt apocalyptic, and we wanted to escape our world for something cooler or at least more thrilling. It’s strange to think that twenty years ago, Tinseltown was willing to provide violent offerings to assuage our Y2K fears.
Where The Cell excels (sorry) is in using pop psychology as a skeleton for its style. The style is the selling point—ok, and J-Lo in skimpy outfits. The plot is mostly irrelevant, more a delivery device for insane visuals, and acting as a tether for a rollercoaster ride of nightmarish imagery. The “real world” story sets a creepy backdrop, establishing our woman-kidnapping/drowning/skin bleaching/doll making serial killer as the threat and our bleary-eyed/chain-smoking/“he’s not gonna stop” G-man (Vince Vaughn) as his rival. The wild card is actually Jennifer Lopez’s Catherine, a child psychologist who is using an experimental semi-virtual reality device to enter the minds of her comatose patients in the hope of liberating them from their vegetative states. The movie actually does a decent job explaining it away while making it believable through the visuals.
The opening shots are wondrous, filmed in the deserts of Namibia. Tarsem smartly throws us into this alternate reality, enveloping us in a dreamscape where horses can turn into Chess pieces and boys can transform into weird seal creatures. It’s an overwhelming and frankly cacophonous entry point, cutting swiftly between a snorting horse, pouncing hooves, and sweeping helicopter shots—all scored to Howard Shore’s dissonant score. He teams up with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a collective of trance musicians from the mountains of Morocco who provide blaring, ancient-sounding horns, and flutes. To the Western ear, it sounds alien and terrifying. (https://www.soundtrack.net/content/article/?id=58)
Howard Shore is famous for scoring both Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. It’s probably how he got the job for The Cell. Whereas Silence’s sound thrives on emotional propulsion as if from an outside force, The Cell’s soundscape pulsates from within. We’re hearing the rattle of a damaged mind in all its booming, screeching, droning glory. There’s very little musical separation between the real world and the dream world; it’s all linked by the subconscious anxieties and traumas of its characters.
Assault on the senses seems to be Tarsem’s game. We’re rattled before we get a glimpse of the serial killer’s mind, but once Catherine “jacks in,” to borrow a phrase from The Matrix, all bets are off. Borrowing from artists like Damien Hurst, Odd Nerdrum and H.R. Giger, the production design is the film’s most striking element by far. Past mind-bending thrillers only flirted with surrealism, but The Cell feels like cinema’s first true realization of the vast recesses of the mind. German expressionist cinema may have plumbed psychology via art design, Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau certainly made absurdism into poetry, David Lynch captured the mundane terror of waking nightmares via Twin Peaks, and Peter Greenaway definitely turned formalism into high art, but for sheer big-budget gonzo surrealism—can The Cell really be topped?
It’s closest rival is less The Matrix and more 1998’s What Dreams May Come. That film pushed its technology to the limits, realizing painterly scenery made of literal paint, people unbound by gravity, and worlds that stretched into infinity. The late ‘90s was the period where all the elements of visual effects started coalescing to create worlds we could only dream of. By 2010, Inception’s brand of mind-bending meant upside down gunfights. It’s fun if different kind of rollercoaster ride, but one strangely limited in imagination.
As our conduit into this sci-fi scenario, Jennifer Lopez is required to be more model than actress here, either quivering in fear or traipsing in Eiko Ishioka’s next level costumes. Though her first music album was released a year prior, 2000 was Lopez’s last good year as just a movie star. By 2001, the success of The Wedding Planner started pushing her to the rom-com ghetto and her tabloid exploits reduced her “seriousness” as an actress. It’s unfortunate because her megawatt star charisma in Out of Sight and Selena promised a firebrand to be reckoned with in the New Millennium. The Cell was the kind of strange genre risk that a multi-hyphenate just couldn’t keep making.
Lopez makes a steely yet vulnerable heroine. When her character isn’t trying to save children, she’s smoking pot and watching Fantastic Planet. Her hippie modernism is the extent to which Catherine gets an interior life, but Lopez imbues her with a hero complex that makes her quest to uncover Stargher’s next victim a tense one. She starts off wanting to save a potential victim, then realizes she can save the killer too. Though the film’s climax is a race against time, it hinges on empathy, as Catherine tries to liberate this psycho’s literal inner child. As psychology its boilerplate, but the cutting between our cop saving the day and Catherine saving a soul is unimpeachable high quality thriller filmmaking.
The Cell still lingers like a great nightmare, one that shivers you awake then fades into the real world but leaves just enough residual imagery to tingle your spine from time to time.
The film’s final scene has Catherine “reversing the feed” for her child patient, allowing him to enter her mind rather than enter his. It’s a potent metaphor for how we would need to carry ourselves into the new Millennium: provide empathy, relinquish control, and overcome fear for a greater understanding. Unfortunately, after 9/11, the 2000s were dominated by fear, more in tune with the despairing aspects of The Cell than with its triumphant end. Tarsem wouldn’t make another film until 2008’s The Fall, a fantasy even more reliant on surreal worlds but still beholden to the idea of the wondrous as dream states and not reality. With each subsequent film, Tarsem has abandoned the surreal. By 2015’s forgettable Self/less, the most fantastical element involved body swapping.
The Cell’s impact has been minimal. As part of Jennifer Lopez’s filmography, it’s an outlier. As one of the great reality-bending thrillers, it rarely comes up in the company of The Matrix or Dark City. Post 9/11 sci-fi seemed far more concerned with time travel than with questioning reality (Donnie Darko, Primer, Deja Vu, TimeCrimes, Looper). Twenty years later, some of the film’s shocks seem leftover from the bin of edgy ‘90s visual art: creepy doll heads, medieval torture, gender-bending models. But much has endured: the billowing, endless cape of a demon God-king; a horse being dissected in real-time; a 180 degree overhead shot of a baptism from one end of a lake to the other. The Cell still lingers like a great nightmare, one that shivers you awake then fades into the real world but leaves just enough residual imagery to tingle your spine from time to time.