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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/20/00

The Cell
New Line Platinum Series - 2000 (2000) - New Line

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Cell: Platinum Series Film Rating: D

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A+

Specs and Features

107 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.40:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:27:24, in chapter 19), Snapper case packaging, audio commentary by director Tarsem Singh, audio commentary by the production team (director of photography Paul Laufer, production designer Tom Foden, make-up artist Michelle Burke, costume designer April Napier, special effects supervisor Kevin Haug and composer Howard Shore), 8 deleted scenes with optional commentary, Style as Substance: Reflections of Tarsem featurette, 6 special effects scenes broken down with storyboards, interviews with Kevin Haug, Michelle Burke and Richard "Dr." Bailey and behind-the-scenes footage, interactive brain map, empathy test, theatrical and international teaser trailer, cast and crew filmographies, DVD-ROM features (including script-to-screen, website access and PC game demo for Homeworld: Cataclysm), animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects and music, scene access (22 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

It's the end of the world as we know it... and I don't feel fine. In fact, I'm pretty pissed about it, thank you very much. When I first saw the trailer for The Cell, I thought, "Oh, yeah Baby! This film is gonna rock." I should have known better. Maybe I was jumping to a far-flung conclusion because New Line keeps surprising me with all of their breakout directors. David Fincher, P.T. Anderson. F. Gary Gray - these are guys that impress the hell out of me every time I see their films. They're refreshing and awe-inspiring in a myriad of ways. And now, New Line brings us the feature film debut of Tarsem Singh, a commercial and video director that first made himself known with the video for R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion.

And the story drew me in too. I mean, how could it not? Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist, who rides the cutting edge of a new technology that allows her to enter the minds of people and help them solve their problems through experimental therapy. When a serial killer/necrophile, played by the always-kooky Vincent D'Onofrio, falls into a coma due to a rare neurological virus complicated by his acute schizophrenia, the police learn that he has one last victim still out there and they must race the clock to find her. The FBI, lead by Vince Vaughn, turns to Lopez and her team, hoping she'll enter the killer's mind and pull out the information they need. The problem is, a man's mind is his castle and there's no telling what kind of world this killer has created for himself in his head. And there's an added risk - if Lopez begins to believe in his world, she might get caught inside and never find a way out. Freaky, huh?

The Cell looks wicked cool, man. This is one hot picture. This is eye candy to the highest level and it tastes goooooood. Too bad the characters are so poorly drawn. The killer is a cartoon, no matter how hard D'Onofrio tries to inject him with depth. Lopez is a blank page. And I'm sorry - just because she looks concerned, sulks around her apartment in a men's shirt and a pair of hot underwear and smokes blunts, it's not going to make me care for her as a character. Vince "You mean I have an acting gig?" Vaughn is yet again wasted, but here more that he usually is. Part of the problem lies in a poorly executed script (Protosevich is a smart guy - I was surprised at how paper-thin his characters are and how bad the dialogue between them is) and part of it lies in the direction or, better put, lack thereof. In one simple word, The Cell sucks. And it's a shame, because it could have been really cool.

So thank God for DVD. Since this is such a visually rich film, having it on a medium like DVD simply rocks. Yeah, I know... too bad the film sucks. But with this DVD, we get to the bottom of everything. Plus, we can watch the film in non-suck mode. First, let me tell you why we get to the bottom of everything. The DVD actually helps to explain away the film's suck factor. And it's kind of funny, because I don't think New Line (or even disc producers David Britten Prior and Charlie de Lauzirika) knows why this is such a brilliant special edition. They actually get Tarsem to explain why the film sucks without actually saying it in so many words. Tarsem, as you'll find on the director's commentary and in the deleted scenes, is a fountain of film references. He's got it all down. If fact, I'm actually impressed with the guy's knowledge - he knows what he's talking about and his comments are rapid fire. The problem is, Tarsem doesn't seem to understand context very well. Like WHY a scene is cool. Tarsem references films like Coma, Lost Highway and David Mamet's Homicide... but he doesn't seem to know WHY the images he steals work in the context of the original story he pulled them from. Yes, the bodies hanging from the ceiling in The Cell look like the ones in Coma, but it's certainly not freaky. The freaky factor comes in knowing that the people in Coma are being harvested. Just because he had the bio-suits designed to look like flayed bodies doesn't mean that the scene is going to set you on edge. Horror works when it is applicable and mental. Gratuitous visual stimulation is nothing but masturbation to porn - it's an empty experience.

But see, the brilliance in this disc is that David and Charlie got it all on audio tape and preserved it for us to listen to. Tarsem unknowingly condemns himself over and over again, as he spouts off his thoughts like some fan boy. He even admits that the test audiences "forced" his planned pacing of the film to change due to "uneasiness". It's all such a smack in the gut. I honestly hope that film students will pick this disc up and witness for themselves exactly why a film like this doesn't work. Trust me - it's all spelled out on the disc.

You wanna know why so many films suck these days? Because of filmmakers like Tarsem, who have incredible visual genius but a third-grader's capacity for psychology and an inability to get actors to act (as evidenced on the deleted scenes commentary, when Tarsem audibly shudders at the idea of improvisation on set). Even the featurette is brilliant, because while everyone is waxing Tarsem's ass in the interviews, we see footage of Tarsem directing the camera and frames and putting actors on their marks or showing them how to move so that it'll be cooler looking. Christ... if only I got a nickel every time I watched a filmmaker play puppeteer with talented actors. You know... for a commercial and video director, this guy really, honestly and truly IS a genius. But Tarsem needs to learn the non-visual side of his craft, and go work with actors in a theater, where he can't be so reliant on camera set-ups. The reason why I seem so angry here, is that if this guy could really direct, he'd frickin' rock. I think he has a lot to offer the cinematic world... but he's got some work to do first.

The non-suck mode thing I was referring to, by the way, is all about the isolated score feature. For anyone who complained about this film, let me just tell you this - watch the film without the dialogue. With nothing but Howard Shore's score to accompany the visuals, this film is about 75 percent better. In fact, I actually enjoyed watching the film that way. The supplements in total are very neat. Because there was just no way of making this disc cool relying on the film, David and Charlie went for the only route they could - the visuals. Besides the commentary by Tarsem, we have one with the key production members behind the film (director of photography Paul Laufer, production designer Tom Foden, make-up artist Michelle Burke, costume designer April Napier, special effects supervisor Kevin Haug and composer Howard Shore). They all have some enlightening things to say and, as this film shows, they have a lot of talent. You get deleted scenes and a featurette dedicated to Tarsem, entitled Style as Substance (hee-hee), as well as a breakdown of 6 scenes from the film with accompanying production team interviews, storyboards and behind-the-scenes footage. What's cool about this, is that you can watch the interviews, storyboards and BTS stuff all at the same time picture-in-picture style, or you can switch between them via alternate angles. It's novel, but cool. There's also the film's trailer, the international teaser trailer, a map of the brain (with explanations for everything in there), a psychology test based on your level of empathy (I'm a level one, go figure), that isolated score I mentioned (that's worth picking up the disc for all by itself) and a handful of DVD-ROM features (like script-to-screen and a demo of PC game that has nothing to do with anything).

Since this is a DVD review, I'll quickly go into the disc quality - although the words Platinum Series should automatically make you want to go out and pick up the disc. The video is presented in a beautiful anamorphic transfer at 2.40:1. The colors are stunning with deep, detailed blacks. Grain and artifacting are not to be found. The sound is also pretty sweet, really backing up the visuals wonderfully. This Dolby Digital 5.1 track is actually one of the better I've listened to, creating a nicely wide and atmospheric soundstage. Just check out Lopez's first meeting with the killer in chapter 12 - creepy. You'll also find Dolby Digital 2.0 on board as well.

The Cell sucks, no doubt about it. It's silly, needless and stupid. But, man does it look cool. And that's the problem with so many films today. Too bad Hollywood doesn't hold this film up and examine why it failed so miserably. I hope people give the DVD a chance and see it for themselves, because it's brilliant. It's a good lesson for you film students out there, and it's worth picking up for that reason alone... if for no other.

Todd Doogan
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