In the early days of MTV, any reference to a film's music-video-like qualities almost invariably constituted criticism, and not without reason. Early music videos created an audience for a flash-and-cut visual style that, when implemented in feature films, suggested a desperate privileging of spectacle over all other considerations. Prime offenders included Flashdance and Highlander, which indiscriminately abused tricky camera work and almost subliminally rapid editing that today make them look as dated as an episode of The Monkees. But a funny thing happened over the last decade, as a generation of filmmakers who grew up watching videos or cut their teeth in the music-video world entered filmmaking: Some, like David Fincher and Alison Maclean, found ways of using music-video techniques as a means of artistic expression, not a means of suffocating it. Consider The Cell a throwback to the spirit of '84. A feast of visuals and a famine in nearly every other respect, the feature debut of video director Tarsem Singh (R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion") stars Jennifer Lopez as a child psychologist who participates in an experimental form of therapy that involves using skintight body suits to enter the mind of a comatose child. After a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who holds women captive in a glass cage timed to drown them in less than two days enters a coma before revealing the location of his latest victim, Lopez is called in to work beside FBI agent Vince Vaughn. Naturally, she's sent into the mind of the killer, leading to a series of dreamlike vignettes. It's in these sequences that The Cell distinguishes itself, essentially turning the film over to a handful of dark-hearted experimental shorts, challenging in their abundance of ideas and the frequent extremity of their images, but challenging to endure because both aspects are in the service of a callous exploitation film with avant-garde pretensions. Not content with the murder and desecration of women, The Cell also throws in generous scenes of child abuse, in the process raising issues it lacks the brains or temperament to handle. Almost worth seeing because there's nothing else like it, it's also easy to wish there never will be again.
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