Dallas, TX – TOM SIME: All the imagination a mainstream movie can muster is lavished on the new thriller, "The Cell." But ninety per cent of the Hollywood imagination is visual, and there's not much to stimulate the other senses. Even the music and sound effects in "The Cell" have a recycled feel. Not to mention the script, a minor variation on the serial-killer formula. But the visuals are enough to keep the movie interesting, if not memorable. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Carl Stargher, your typical diabolical-genius mass murderer with high-tech resources at his disposal. Carl has built a watertight cell in which he imprisons and drowns beautiful young women. Then he bleaches and mutilates their bodies for vaguely necrophiliac purposes.
One of the twists on the mass-murder movie formula is that the cops nab the killer early on. But just as he's cornered by Vince Vaughn, who plays FBI agent Peter Novak, Stargher collapses and goes into a coma. Novak knows there's another victim still alive and hidden away somewhere, and to find her, he must penetrate Stargher's comatose brain. So he turns to Jennifer Lopez, who plays a research psychologist with a device called the Neurological Cartography and Synaptic Transfer System, that allows her to enter the minds of her patients as if playing a virtual video game. Novak convinces her to hook herself up to Stargher and seek out clues to the missing woman's location.
Psychologist: "I feel for this girl, I do. But Stargher may no longer know the truth. For severe schizophrenics there's no discerning between fantasy and reality."
Novak: "Is it possible?"
Psychologist: "If he came to trust me, yes. But it takes months to earn that kind of trust."
Novak (whispering): "Is it possible?"
SIME: Here, at last, we get to break out of the formula. Once Lopez gets into Stargher's mind - where Vaughn must follow to rescue her, naturally - director Tarsem Singh, a newcomer to the big screen with a background in commercials and music video, can tap into his real gift: madly elaborate visuals. Stargher's psyche is a chamber of horrors of infinite proportions, where gravity and logic have no application. Trite psychology still abounds, but the cliches are buried in such amazing vistas and effects that it's easy to forget that you've been there before and enjoy the wild ride at Six Flags Over Schizophrenia.
Of course, we eventually have to withdraw from the theme park to get back to the racing helicopters and gunplay that will get the cops vs. killer storyline resolved. It's too bad, because the journey into the psyche is far more interesting. Still, it's a little disturbing that even in this movie about the human mind, the characters are little more than action figures, conceivably playable by any number of stars. The special abilities of Lopez, Vaughn and D'Onofrio are buried by the gifts of computer technicians and costume designers. Remember Hitchcock's "Spellbound," a cinematic predecessor to the "The Cell?" It also featured elaborate, special effects laden dream scenes, but what one remembers is the faces of the stars, which said so much more about the mysteries of the mind. In "The Cell," the windows to the soul aren't through the eyes, but through Microsoft.