First the bad news. "The Cell" is the kind of film where people stand around saying things like "You can't do that -- it's too dangerous. What if something goes wrong?" And where the police don't bother tracing the source of the villain's dastardly equipment until it's almost too late. And where the slings and hooks that hold Jennifer Lopez and her patient in the air as she tries to reach inside his mind in her ridged burgundy jump-suit are barely strong enough to support a sparrow, much less the zaftig heroine.
Having said that, the film is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure in special effects and production design. But first, the plot, or what passes for one. Lopez is a child psychologist who is the lead experimenter for a procedure that lets her get inside the actual brain of her patient, and she is currently working on a comatose little boy whose virus, as I understand it, has made him catatonic. So the opening images of the film are, as we find out, the boy's own fantasies of Lopez striding through the sand dunes to find the boy in a desert oasis. Okay, I can live with that.
But then comes news of a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) whose M.O. is to kidnap young women, drown them in a specially rigged tank, and make them into dolls (don't ask). He is captured by the FBI, but there is still one victim, who only has a few hours to live before his automatic drowning machine gets her, except that no one knows where it is, and D'Onofrio isn't talking. In fact he's comatose himself now, and FBI agent Vince Vaughn says that only Lopez can get into his mind before, well, you understand.
And this is where those delicious lines I quoted above come into play. We learn that D'Onofrio had a hellish childhood, that there is a sweet little boy hiding within him today, and that before we find out where the victim is we will go on a visual tour of his mind that is actually a wonderful throwback to the kind of Alice In Wonderland, acid- and mushroom-induced trips so many of us took in the sixties.
These nostalgia trips through D'Onofrio's head are far and away the best thing in the movie, with great art direction, inventive camera work, and computer-generated morphing effects as various elements of each scene dissolve into other things. There are langorous moments in what appears to be a seraglio, interspersed with a set of frightening chases by a variety of threatening animals, and more fantasmagoria than I had time to note. Director Tarsem (he doesn't use his surname), a music-video veteran, lets it all hang out here, and I recommend that you just sit back and enjoy the trip.
Unfortunately for the film, the script is such a mechanical piece of hackwork that all of Lopez's efforts aren't allowed to solve the mystery of the missing victim. That's done through conventional, if belated, detective work by our male lead Mr. Vaughn. Is this what all the mishagoss was about?
The English actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste (the daughter in "Secrets and Lies") has the Whoopi Goldberg role here as a fellow scientist in the brain lab, and simply by virtue of her elegant diction and centered presence she dominates the few scenes she's in. We wish her better luck next time. D'Onofrio doesn't have much to say, and if he did we would ask him how he managed to get that big double row of hooks set under the skin of his back, so that he could hang himself whenever he felt upset or tense. Vaughn makes moon eyes at Lopez, but otherwise spends most of his time running into or out of frame, with either news or questions. Lopez doesn't have the answers, and I don't either. Oh, and can anyone tell me where the title came from?