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Mind games

Cell weds eye-popping images with plotline cliches

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There's an undeniable value to being succinct. Describing the look of the psychotropic thriller The Cell, you can trace the influence of S&M couture, or note how the artwork of Damian Hirst inspired the surreal scene in which a horse is sliced into living, vertical cross-sections. But that loses the directness of a simple remark like "That shit's fucked up."

There's no shortage of twisted, freaked-out imagery in The Cell, which is by far the most visually voluptuous film of the year. But imaginative window dressing is all the film has to offer. Otherwise, it's merely the umpteenth variation of the serial killer genre, less worthy of Jungian dissertations than splatterpunk novels you'd find at a grocery store.

The pretext for the film's dreamlike sequences is, unsurprisingly, virtual reality (30 years ago it would have been hallucinogens). The film begins with Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) wandering desert dunes in a white, feathered gown, trying to win the confidence of a skittish young boy. It turns out that Deane is a doctor and the boy is comatose, but they can make contact through some kind of mental interface in a high-tech lab, run by Dylan Baker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste of Secrets and Lies. The film doesn't justify why the participants have to wear Spiderman suits and hang from wires, a la the movie Coma.

Through an astounding coincidence, Lopez's lab is in convenient proximity to the territory of serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), whose modus includes drowning young women in computer-controlled cells (hence the title), bleaching the bodies and performing unspeakable acts on them and himself. But just as he's about to be nabbed by FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), the neurological illness causing Stargher's dementia gives him a seizure, leaving him little better than brain-dead. And the clock's running for his latest victim, stashed in an unknown location.

With no other recourse, the FBI asks Deane to poke inside Carl's cerebellum and see if he gives up the girl's whereabouts within a matter of hours. The Cell thus echoes the plot of Silence of the Lambs, with a difference: Instead of Clarice Starling getting figuratively inside Hannibal Lecter's head to find a murderer's hostage, Deane literally goes inside Carl's mind.

The Cell is directed by Tarsem Singh, who helmed R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video, so not surprisingly most of the mental landscapes look like the stuff Trent Reznor probably sees in his sleep. We see gowned women swimming weightlessly in huge galleries, the killer's victims performing like objects in a depraved music box and a full immersion Baptism, shown upside down and underwater. Carl appears in two distinct personalities, an innocent youngster and a demented regent, like a cross between a Restoration fop and David Bowie in the 1970s.

The film offers both eye candy involving cherry blossoms and Egyptian-style sets, as well as what could be called "eye ipecac," including revolting depictions of torture and female corpses. When Novak, against all logic, is sent to rescue Deane from Stargher's influence, the cop gets caught and sees his intestines unraveled on a spit.

But there's plenty of prettiness, too. Those who keep an account of what Lopez wears will delight to see her tricked out as everything from baroque courtesan to warrior princess to Virgin of Guadalupe. If only she could inhabit a character as fully as she inhabits her outfits.

The Cell could have been a truly groundbreaking fantasy if its narrative were the equal of its imagery. But though it's impeccably well-composed and photographed, its also dramatically slack and contrived. Singh proves much better at loving, slow-motion shots of helicopters than directing his actors, and the detective work scenes come across as strangely slack and foreign.

Vaughn's investigator is predictably "on the edge," but he seems less like a driven professional than someone who's cranky and needs a nap. Novak takes a break to relate a crucial incident from his past, but we don't see it come up during the subsequent mind games, or know how it effects his behavior. At least D'Onofrio seems to know what he's doing, conveying Stargher's monstrousness and misery, but in switching between so many different aspects of his personality, it's hard to keep a fix on his performance.

From DreamScape to "The X-Files" to Russell Crowe's Virtuousity, dramatizations about mental hook-ups invariably involved crazed killers or other aspects of abnormal psychology. Certainly the mind of a madman gives directors and designers license to indulge themselves, and The Cell puts a lot of imagination on the screen. But doesn't it seem as though the thoughts and dreams of "normal" people could be revealed to be even more complicated and unsettling in such a premise? That, however, would require a lot more insight and brainpower than movies like The Cell can muster.