Revisiting Tarsem’s The Cell 20 years after its release, there’s no denying it would be a harder sell in 2020. Bryan Fuller’s cult Hannibal series from a few years back traded in similar, if more refined, aesthetics, mixing art porn with serial killer iconography. But that was television. The likelihood a movie studio would drop $40 million on such an indulgent take on the high-concept thriller these days would be near nil.

The film’s core concept remains both goofy and brilliant. Screenwriter Mark Protosevitch had the idea of upending the homogeneity of the serial killer subgenre by adding a significant science-fiction tweak. Jennifer Lopez plays Dr. Catherine Deane, a child psychologist working with an experimental company that allows her to travel within comatose patients’ dreams. Deane’s sole patient is a young boy with a rare form of schizophrenia that caused the coma. When serial killer Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio)’s own schizophrenia puts him into a similar coma while his latest victim is stuck in one of his elaborate contraptions, FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) enlists Deane and her team to use the dream treatment to save a life.

It’s a brilliant setup in that it allows the filmmakers to leapfrog over the usual procedural crap audiences have seen a million times before. But it’s also ridiculous that the FBI would skip all the real investigative work at their disposal to send J. Lo into a serial killer’s mind palace, especially considering the film establishes a ticking clock of less than a day before the victim dies.

See, Stargher’s killing methods are absurdly idiosyncratic. He kidnaps women and places them into an airtight tank, with water automated to fill the tank over the course of a day. When they finally drown and die, he hangs himself over the tank by hooks into his body piercings to watch the footage of them dying as he climaxes from self-pleasure. It’s exactly the kind of pornographically labyrinthian methodology a procedural would spend an entire movie unpacking with a room full of navel-gazing profiler types.

Instead, within a few minutes of being inside Stargher’s dreams, we find out it’s all because his dad abused him when he was a child. The rest of the drama has to come from watching Lopez’s Deane maneuver through the maze of his mind—which of course leads to Novak having to go in to save her, because the protagonist of the film has to also be a damsel in distress. In trying to come up with a concept further-out from the genre’s other entries, Protosevitch basically re-wrote Silence of the Lambs but made Clarice an oversexualized weakling and made Hannibal the villain from Tron.

The film’s saving grace is that the studio hired music video maven and commercial director Tarsem to helm this otherwise nutso screenplay. Tarsem jettisoned the original concept of Stargher’s inner world being more action movie-like and instead uses the non-plot half of the movie as an excuse to create gripping visuals and ornate visions. The result is a movie that feels like half a bad episode of “NCIS” and half a lost installment of the Cremaster series. In today’s crime fiction for the big and small screen, there’s plenty of the former but not so much of the latter.

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