Here's a movie that, for better or worse, feels like the future instead of a made-for-cable past; it picks up where The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and Three Kings left off last year, embracing cinema's limitless possibilities instead of its moribund so-whats. It's the first film of the summer that makes you hold your breath, stokes the imagination, satisfies the filmgoer's desire to be transported -- no, transplanted -- to a dizzying, lavish and ultimately horrific place he or she has never even considered visiting. In this place, a comatose serial killer (Carl Stargher, played by Vincent D'Onofrio) sets up his own "very twisted kingdom" -- a claustrophobic crawl space populated by stop-motion cut-and-paste demons, human dolls fashioned out of female flesh and junkyard detritus, and memories that become tangible enough to kill anyone who dares enter such a grisly sanctuary.
Such a task is left to Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), a psychologist who uses transcendental technology that allows her to enter the broken minds of children who hide from bogeymen by completely withdrawing from reality. In the real world, Catherine and her patients hang from the ceiling in bodysuits that look as though they're made of sinew; in the dream world, Catherine interacts with her patients, providing therapy against brilliant, breathtaking backdrops -- a sun-bleached desert, a luminous life-sized snow globe. Her work is enough to drive anyone mad, and Catherine is a breath away from her own insanity: She can't help but take her work home with her.
When FBI Special Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, looking puffy and haggard) asks her to enter Stargher's mind in order to locate his still-living victims (he kidnaps random women, keeps them in a glass case, then drowns them slowly before turning them into "dolls"), it doesn't take her long to agree. Catherine, we can tell, almost gets off on visiting the minds of the unhinged; trespassing is her kick. She and Carl are nearly kindred spirits: Just as she conducts her therapy while dangling from the ceiling, so does Carl conduct his macabre experiments while being held aloft -- from a dozen steel rings implanted in his back, no less, which he connects to chains that suspend him over his creations. That the image is familiar, a rip from Hellraiser, makes it no less terrifying.
But director Tarsem Singh, best known as the man who lensed R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video, is less a visionary than a brilliant junk collector. Carl's mind looks like a Nine Inch Nails video gone awry, or the short stop-motion films of twin brothers Timothy and Stephen Quay, who used grotesque puppets instead of actors. It doesn't take long before Lopez and D'Onofrio become marionettes: We're so engrossed by the monstrous background that, soon enough, they fade into it.
Forget X-Men, which never transcends its aspirations to be more than a superhero story: The Cell is the cinematic comic book, a movie in which the fantastic and implausible become second nature. It owes its existence not to The Matrix or The Silence of the Lambs, two films with which it will no doubt be compared, but to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, in which a pale, leather-clad character named Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, flits between the world of the conscious and unconscious until there's no distinguishing the tangible from the intangible. In such a narrative, "there is no solid status quo, only a series of relative realities," Hellraiser author Clive Barker writes in the introduction to one Sandman collection, The Doll's House. "Anything is possible, because the tales occur within the teller's skull."
In this case, the teller's skull is a dank, rusty, bloody basement filled with water and the rotting corpses of women soaked in bleach until their skin turns a whiter shade of pale. Carl is indeed king of his dementia, with a crown of jewels resting atop his bald, battered head. He's also a devil, complete with horns, a snake and, most intriguingly, a repressed, innocent 10-year-old child (played by Jake Thomas). It's the last accoutrement that disappoints most: Carl's evil is too easily explained away, a pat answer to a difficult question. At the end, first-time screenwriter Mark Protosevich and Singh tease us with the fantastic before finally delivering the mundane.
The Cell only hints at greatness, copping out when it ought to be diving in. The filmmakers suffer from a bad case of cinema interruptus, yanking us out of Carl's head at those moments when we want to see more. They set up grand possibilities (it's likely FBI Agent Novak also suffered child abuse) without letting them pay off. And they solve their mystery in such hack fashion it seems like an afterthought or an unaired episode of Profiler. The Cell is disappointing only because its best moments are transcendent; its worst moments, sadly, are just so ordinary.