The Cell (2000)


By Paul Varner

This Year's Feel Good Movie

Feel-good movie? Yes, this good old-fashioned serial killer/slasher flick should send everybody home feeling good about U.S. culture and about human nature. If you want to go to a movie that will affirm the popular conception of that culture’s core values, then this is a must-see flick. But let me warn you, you have to ignore all the critics who get squeamish over a little blood splattered here and there.

Of course, the blood and gore in The Cell comes after the audience is given a chance to identify with the characters. In fact, I can’t help but suspect that the film’s primary purpose is to show off the charms of current pop goddess Jennifer Lopez. She stars as Catherine Deane, a social worker peculiarly able to establish trust with patients. Because she is so gifted, Catherine is recruited for a project involving a new technology that allows her to enter the actual mind of a patient. To get the audience used to the idea, we see Deane entering the quite active mind of a comatose little boy. Opening images of vast vistas of Sahara-like sand dunes and an oasis set a calm, reassuring tone for unsuspecting filmgoers.

But, of course, writer-producer Mark Protosevich (The Imposter) needs a story, so the real plot gets underway when the film cuts to a serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio, currently starring in Steal This Movie, and almost stealing this movie, since he is the only actor who shows any psychological depth). The central dilemma is initiated when, just as the police and FBI close in on him, Carl lapses into a deep coma and leaves a last victim trapped in his torture chamber. The authorities ask Catherine to enter the serial killer’s brain in order to find this cell. And now you have the plot. Deane enters the mind and, of course, every twisted fantasy imaginable becomes real.

Grant the film all the awards you can find for stunning visuals and creative computer graphics. Other than the graphics, though, The Cell doesn’t give the filmgoer much beyond affirmations that all is right in this world. Director Tarsem Singh (who has previously directed music videos and commercials) packs in cliches from previous serial killer movies, including the stalker-victim walking through an empty parking garage and a museum of horrors with victims in showcases. All in all, it provides precious little suspense.

But when the movie ends (and I’ll let you guess the ending), we all should feel good about the current U.S. culture because here we see, once again, that all evil has a root cause. Catherine Deane discovers that the reason Carl Stargher derives such gruesome pleasure from killing is that his father abused him in the most vicious ways when he was a child: some of the film’s most disturbing scenes show this abuse in explicit detail. And where does the father find his reinforcement? Well, Stargher’s mind is not all that reliable, but he seems to attribute his father’s meanness to a lower class, fundamentalist religious upbringing. A scene that Stargher replays over and over is the day of his baptism in a creek after a revival, including praise of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost while water washes over the child Stargher. And fittingly, adult Stargher’s favorite torture involves slowly drowning young women with a video camera running so he can replay their anguish just as he replays the anguish of his baptism. Thus, we can leave the theater knowing the source of evil in our world.

We can also leave feeling good about human nature. The little boy in the coma who seems unreachable actually has a beautiful soul. If only Catherine Deane can connect with him and get him to trust her, surely she can bring his mind to consciousness and he can show the world that, indeed, he has value. As it stands, only a social worker — only this social worker — sees deeply into his primary essence as a human being and discovers value.

And what of Carl Stargher’s soul? Here is a man who enjoys stalking young girls, confining them in a glass cell, drowning them slowly, then possessing the corpses as his own literal doll collection. Once inside his mind, Catherine Deane discovers not just the psychopath who dearly would love to stalk her as his victim, but she also discovers Stargher the confused child, desperate to find meaning in his life. It is with this child that Deane must communicate, must create trust. Whether she does or not constitutes a bit of plot I won’t give away, but you can feel good knowing that the Carl Starghers of this world are not simply evil and, in fact, await sensitive soulmates such as Catherine Deane to discover their value. If we can only reach these souls in childhood before they are fully formed, we can all have a beautiful world.

You have to sit through a few dozen scenes of such things as ripping intestines out with bare hands, and hanging victims by hooks pierced through their flesh (oops! the hooks can’t hold all that weight). But, if those kinds of scenes don’t bother you much, then you will appreciate this beautifully sensitive parable about human nature and about a culture that destroys beautiful souls.

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