The what’s-real-and-what-isn’t psychedelia of dream-state activity is a turn-on for music-video makers, who, to the detriment of their feature debuts, love to noodle around unencumbered by strictures of narrative. In The Cell — the first feature from commercial and music-video director Tarsem Singh — a serial killer with the serial killer-esque name of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) videotapes his automated torture of young female victims caged and flooded in a subterranean glass box. Obsessed with stopping Carl before the next lamb is silenced, FBI agent Peter Novak (a haggard Vince Vaughn) enlists the aid of Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez, playing Virgin-Mary-as-supermodel). She’s a psychologist so moist her hair floats in tendrils, and so post-Freudian she has discovered a way to burrow directly into the motivations of her patients without listening to a word they say.
Working with a team of scientists (trained, apparently, at Matrix University), Catherine and her subjects lie attached to wires and tubes; thus gizmo’d, the psychologist is able to directly experience the psyche of whoever is next to her. She’s telepathically empathizing with a little boy when Peter persuades her to jack into a much more dangerous landscape: Carl has been captured but he lies locked in a psychotic coma while his latest victim shrieks, water steadily filling her hidden, see-through coffin. If Catherine can successfully surf his unconscious, she may be able to save the desperate girl.
There are, then, multiple cells at play in this visually arresting, dramatically arrested sci-fi thriller, including the baroquely sinister prison Carl has constructed for his prey and the weird compartmental chambers of the human mind. But for the director (who goes by the single-celled name of Tarsem), The Cell is foremost about singular imagery, a succession of still pictures strung together frame by frame. Each is beautiful enough; none interlocks with another enough to shape a character or suggest an intention.
In her young patient’s transcendental world, Catherine resembles no one so much as Jennifer Lopez, mannequin, leading a glossy black horse across a vast desert — the perfect setting for a Perrier, Polaroid, or Isuzu commercial (Tarsem has directed ads for all three). For Carl’s world, the director and cinematographer Paul Laufer sample from Seven and Joseph Cornell collage boxes, the Russian films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and the costume fantasies of Japanese artist Eiko Ishioka.
Yet the best motivation the director and debut screenwriter Mark Protosevich can come up with for the killer is that his scarred childhood includes an abusive father, and a traumatic religious baptism in which little Carl was drowning. In other words, for the artist who directed R.E.M.’s MTV award-winning ”Losing My Religion” video, Christian ritual has created yet another monster. How old-fashioned of the art of the future. C+