DVDregs: The Cell

I was quite embarrassed when I pulled this one from my shelf and realized that this is another one of the DVDs that I have never watched. What made this realization even worse was when I saw that the movie came out in 2000, and I remember buying this DVD from the used CD store not long after it came out. So for almost 10 years, this has been a dust collector.

Needless to say, when I fired up this movie, I could barely remember anything about it. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise.

Let’s start with the positive. This movie is visually glorious. That was why I bought the DVD in the first place. First, this was one of the early examples of how CGI was revolutionizing the medium, pushing back the boundaries of “real” in far more believable ways than any of its predecessors. Yes, some of the special effects look dated or obvious now, but they don’t look as obvious as, say, the stop motion animation of the ED-209 in RoboCop. Also, they are used sparingly, which makes all the difference in the world. It irritates me to no end how movies today abandon any decent form of storytelling for the big nerdgasm-inducing frenzy of bigger-than-life special effects. A little goes so much further than too much.

Of course, some of the CGI imagery felt somehow very familiar to me, particularly the “cube” in which Jennifer Lopez’s character finds herself trapped (and which appears in its more familiar spinning form in a later scene). Then it dawned on me. Someone, whether it was director Tarsem Singh or someone on his crew, drew a lot of inspiration from what I consider to be one of the greatest music videos of the 90s, Madonna’s “Bedtime Story.”

This video was released a full 6 years before The Cell. I’ll refrain from now going off on a Madonna tangent about how there was a time when she led the pack in so many ways and now she’s a trend-following popstar who doesn’t seem to know when to put her ass away.

Besides CGI trickery, however, the visual style of this movie is award-worthy. There are some moments within this movie that caught me so by surprise with their beauty and/or uniqueness that I found myself holding my breath several times throughout my initial viewing. Rich, vibrant colors, unusual camera angles and shot compositions, stunning costumes and makeup, gorgeously disturbing and surreal imagery…this movie is a feast for visual fetishists.

Why these mind-blowing visuals were wasted on such a ridiculous story is beyond me. The plot, though freshened up by an intriguing sci-fi twist, is well-worn and predictable as well as unrepentant torture porn at times, mild by today’s standards, but obviously a precursor to movies such as Saw, Hostel, Untraceable, and I Know Who Killed Me. I’m by no means prudish when it comes to violence or gore in my movies. Horror movies compose a large chunk of my DVD collection. But this movie is oftentimes guilty of gore solely as a means of shocking viewers rather than contributing to a cohesive plot. Implications are more often so much more powerful than full-frontal vulgarity. Singh should take that under advisement.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich hasn’t written much for Hollywood, but what he has written falls within the category of movies that I’ve seen once…and never want to see again: I Am Legend and Poseidon. I Am Legend was particularly upsetting for me as it’s based on a wonderful Richard Matheson novella. All my positive feelings toward Matheson are perfectly reflected in my negative feelings toward the latest movie telling of his classic vampire tale.

Protosevich is listed as writing the screenplay for the upcoming Thor movie and the American remake of Old Boy. I’m a bit nervous for both movies.

Then there’s Jennifer Lopez. I’m sure she’s a lovely actress, but in this movie she was definitely not a strong link in the chain. I simply never believed her in this role. Vince Vaughn, however, was money, as he usually is, and Vincent D’Onofrio was freakishly over-the-top, which was precisely what he needed to be for this role. Rounding out the recognizable cast was a solid though disappointingly small supporting role for Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a quick visit to the office of Pruitt Taylor Vince and his nystagmus, and a minor appearance by Dylan Baker. Unfortunately, all I think of now whenever I see Baker is his role in Todd Solondz’s 1998 movie Happiness, which continues to reign as the worst movie I have ever seen. Needless to say, thinking about Happiness makes me anything but happy.

There’s also a character in this movie played by Musetta Vander. I only mention her name because she could pass as Melinda Clarke’s twin sister. Even stranger is the fact that both actresses played characters on Xena: Warrior Princess (Vander was Ilainus in the episode “Amphipolis Under Siege,” and Clarke played the evil Amazon Velasca) and for the longest time, I thought Clarke had played both roles. I’d love to see Vander and Clarke cast in a movie together. It’d be like Playing By Heart, which cast Ellen Burstyn and Gena Rowlands together. For some reason, I always confuse those two actresses, so seeing them together in scenes was quite trippy.

DVD Special Features: This is another fine example of “more bang for your buck” from a DVD. This film comes with two DVD commentaries, one from director Singh and the second from the production team.

Honestly, they could have totally left Singh’s commentary on the cutting room floor. Along with all his whinging. This is the type of commentary that I’ve always feared finding on one of my DVDs. Singh provides limited information of any interest, instead spending an unhealthy portion of the commentary discussing the depths of his anger toward the actress cast to play Carl Stargher’s latest kidnap victim. Apparently, the actress lied to him about her ability to swim, and Singh decides that the commentary is the perfect time to vent the vitriol he’s been carrying around inside ever since. Nice. That’s exactly what I want to listen to instead of talk about all the beautiful shots and awesome camera angles. Oh, and let’s not forget about how often Singh talks about how many times he was stopped from doing something that he thought would have been awesome…but someone got too squeamish or someone wouldn’t give him the money to make it happen.

Yawn.

If you do have a couple of extra hours to waste, I would recommend the second commentary track. Pieced together from recorded commentaries from director of photography Paul Laufer, production designer Tom Foden, makeup supervisor Michèle Burke, costume designer April Napier, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and composer Howard Shore, this is the commentary that this movie deserves. Each of these production team players brings plenty of insight into the many layers that went into giving this movie the gorgeous and unique look it maintains throughout. There’s lots of technical talk (perhaps a little more than many people want to know, but it’s still very interesting), plus the commentary track has lulls here and there where no one had anything of importance to say. I’d much rather have silence that inane filler (again, see Singh’s commentary for that).

Also included were several deleted scenes, with optional commentary from Singh; an isolated score track; two behind-the-scenes documentaries, “Style as Substance: Reflections on Tarsem,” and “Visual Effects Vignettes”; a section called “Interactivities” broken into “Empathy Test” and “Brain Map” (both of these were somewhat silly, but the information provided in the Brain Map section was interesting); a trailer and a demo version of the first level for a video game called Home World, which was named 2000’s game of the year by PC Gamer, but looks so dated 10 years later; and the domestic and international movie trailers. Meh to the deleted scenes. Nine times out of 10, there was a very good reason they were deleted in the first place, and Singh’s commentary didn’t make them any more interesting.

All in all, though, this DVD contains an amazing variety of special features, which makes it all the more disappointing that the movie simply doesn’t merit so much fanfare and focus, in my humble opinion.

Final Verdict: Time for this DVD to move along and collect dust on someone else’s shelf. As gorgeous as the cinematography is, the movie itself is subpar. And that’s a shame, because I think the visuals are so very worth seeing. The movie? Not so much. Poor Marianne Jean-Baptiste, though. This is the second movie with her in it to hit the chopping block (the first being 28 Days), and it’s the second to fail. Maybe 2000 was just a really bad year for her cinematically…