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Film / The Cell

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"And what world do you live in?"
Carl Stargher

The Cell is a 2000 sci-fi psychological-thriller/horror film directed by Tarsem Singh. It stars Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D'Onofrio and Vince Vaughn. It is Tarsem's feature-length film debut; he previously directed music videos such as R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."

Child psychiatrist Catherine Deane (Lopez) is pioneering a device which allows her to enter people's minds by rendering them as virtual environments. FBI Special Agent Peter Novak (Vaugn) who is hunting Carl Stargher (D'Onofrio), a serial killer with a habit of drowning his victims in an elaborate trap. Just as Carl is apprehended at his house, he falls into an irreversible coma. He cannot be questioned as to the whereabouts of his latest victim, who is due to be drowned.

Carl is wheeled to Catherine's clinic so that she can venture inside his mind and coax his inner self into spilling the girl's location. Catherine learns that Carl's mind is split between the traumatized boy he is at heart and the demon-king he is outwardly. Eventually, she becomes trapped in Carl's mind, and Novak goes in after her, as turning off the VR machine would kill her.

All this is interspersed with seemingly random imagery. None of this is given a great deal of exposition regarding what it all means. Some critics have espoused that none of it means anything and is in the movie solely to look pretty.

In 2006, Singh would go on to release the better received, but equally visually impressive film, The Fall.

An In Name Only Direct-to-DVD sequel was released in 2009. The film is also notable as the last English-language film released on Laserdisc.

This film provides examples of:

  • All Girls Like Ponies: In the opening scene in the coma patient's mind, Catherine horseback rides across the Namibian desert in a white feathered dress, dismounts, then looks back at her horse which has turned into a chess piece. In Carl's mind, Catherine is greeted by a horse standing in a room. A set of glass panes crashes down and severs the horse, sushi-style, into several neat pieces that remain suspended in mid-air within the glass, with the separated chunks of its lungs still breathing and its ears still twitching.
  • Amazon Chaser: Downplayed, but notable that the hulking, muscular blonde woman in Carl's mental dungeon is the only one allowed to move around freely to do his bidding. She also has a glamor portrait on one wall, showing his admiration for her.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The VR device. This procedure consists, in case you were wondering, of donning a red rubber suit that looks as though it's made of strawberry twizzlers, having a cloth made of computer circuitry draped over one's face and being suspended from the ceiling by wires). When the film begins, she is currently using this technology to try and coax a boy with a unique form of schizophrenia out of his coma.
  • Art Imitates Art: Many scenes in the movie are homages to various real-life works of art.
    • The scene where Peter first enters Carl's mind and is confronted by three females with open mouths to the sky was based on the painting "Dawn" by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum.
    • The scene where the horse is cut into segments suspended in glass cases was inspired by British artist Damien Hirst's "Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything".
    • The scene when Catherine is chasing Carl through a stone hallway, right before she enters the room with the horse, was based on H. R. Giger's painting "Schacht".
    • The scene of the three identical women frozen in what looks like a scream is inspired by the painting "Dawn" by Odd Nerdrum.
  • Balance Between Good and Evil: Catherine re-wires the machine to bring Carl into her mind so that she can slay the demon, but she can't kill it without killing Carl entirely.
  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: Catherine seeks to defeat the demon and put the child to rest.
  • Black Bug Room: Almost the entirety of Carl's mind; though the house where he remembers his father beating him most prominently.
  • Bondage Is Bad:
    • Carl bleaches his victims so they resemble dolls and puts collars around their necks. He then suspends himself above them via chains attached to piercings in his back and masturbates.
    • A collection of doll-like, corpse-like women inside display cases depicting scenes behind glass panels, attached to crude machinery that jerks them about in a series of grotesque, sadomasochistic, sexual poses whilst they moan and groan in pleasure/pain; including one in a dentist's chair, a ballerina, and a giant, rubbery-looking female bodybuilder with no nipples.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins and ends with the dream of Catherine in a white dress and a little boy.
  • Clean Cut: A horse is cleanly cut into a number of pieces by glass panels, which are then separated. Due to dream logic, the horse is still alive, just with spaces in between its sections.
  • Costume Porn: The dream world runs on gorgeous, intricate and highly symbolic costumes.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: In order to get his rocks off, Carl abducts young, blond women and takes them to an abandoned farm. There, he places them in a glass tank wherein over the course of a few hours a shower periodically sprays water on them briefly but then stops, but eventually starts and doesn't stop until the tank is filled and they drown.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: All 3 main characters. It's implied that Novak had the worst past, which brings to question just how bad Stargher really had it.
  • Death Seeker: Novak theorizes that Carl is becoming sloppier in an intentional ploy to be captured (and presumably executed) for his murders. Carl's adult persona later tells Catherine that she should Mercy Kill him, which she eventually does.
  • Distressed Dude: In the prologue, Catherine's attempt to re-awaken the coma patient fails, and he suddenly turns into a werewolf-like creature.
  • Dream Intro: In the opening scene the protagonist is riding a horse in a desert; the horse turns into a statue. The scene is revealed to be a child's dream which the protagonist (a child psychiatrist) has entered using a new technology.
  • Drowning Pit: The modus operandi of the killer.
  • Enemy Within: The demon king side of Carl's personality.
  • Fanservice: When Catherine bends over to root around her fridge, the camera focuses on her ass (she's wearing only a short dressing gown and thong at the time).
  • Femme Fatale: When Carl has corrupted Catherine, she becomes dressed in a black lace nightgown with a red collar, thereby evoking a black widow spider; when Novak enters Carl's mind, she distracts him with a kiss whilst Carl incapacitates him.
  • First Injury Reaction: As one of Stargher's demonic personalities tortures and mocks Peter, Catherine breaks free from Stargher's control, sneaks up behind, and stabs him in the arm with one of his surgical implements. Stargher pauses, looks at his wound with disbelief (since nothing in his dreamworld has ever fought back before), then lets loose a hellish high-pitched scream of pain and surprise.
  • Fluffy Fashion Feathers: The white dress.
  • Freudian Excuse: Carl was heavily abused by his father. We also see three doppelgangers of Carl's mother frozen, staring up at the sky and then in sequence turning to look at Novak and reciting a message about Carl before turning back to stare at the sky again.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: Carl himself considers it bullshit, and simply wants to die so as not to hurt anyone else.
  • Gunman with Three Names: A serial killer named Carl Rudolph Stargher.
  • Gutted Like a Fish: Novak being shackled down, having a hole cut in his stomach and having his intestines pulled out and spiraled around a rotisserie whilst a vulture caws nearby.
  • Helpless Window Death: Subverted in the finale; after finally tracking down Stargher's hidden base, Agent Novak arrives on the scene to find the serial killer's most recent victim in the nearly-full drowning tank, breathing through an air pocket. For a moment, it looks as though Novak's too late and he'll have to watch her drown through the glass... but then Novak draws a gun and starts blowing holes in the tank, letting out the water just in time.
  • Home Field Advantage: In the climax, Catherine remodifies the neural link machine to send Carl into her mind instead of the way around. This way she can overpower the demon aspect of Carl's psyche and give him the Mercy Kill he wants.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The demon in the serial killer's mind by Catherine.
  • The Jekyll Is a Jerk: Once Catherine starts delving into Carl Rudolph Stargher's unconscious mind, she finds that he's dominated by his schizophrenic Id, manifested as "a king of a twisted kingdom." As such, she tries to seek out the other aspects of his personality for information on Stargher's surviving captive, but though his inner child is nice enough, he can't help much... and when Catherine finally discovers Stargher's more rational adult self, it turns out that this persona is just as involved with the serial killing as the dominating Id. Not only does he refuse to help, but he quickly sicks Stargher King on her. The nearest thing to a sane thought he has is in the finale, when he suggests that Catherine should Mercy Kill him, believing that he was doing the same thing for his victims.
  • Literal Split Personality: Inside his mind, Carl is divided into three separate personas: Carl as a young boy before he committed his crimes; Carl as an adult, aware of who and what he is in the present but unable to stop; and the Demon King, a monstrous figure who dominates the other two personalities.
  • Living Doll Collector: Carl's mental world includes these, made out of his past victims.
  • Male Gaze: Near the start of the film there is a scene where Catherine is in a short dressing gown and goes to look in the fridge; here there is a gratuitous, pointless close-up shot of her arse. This is not a plot point... it literally serves no other purpose in the movie other than to be a gratuitous, pointless close-up shot of Catherine's arse.
  • Memory Palace: Carl Stargher's mind is portrayed as a dark, twisted maze. One section is a rotting house that contains memories of his abusive childhood. He also stores the memory of his first murder there.
  • Mental World: The premise is going into a serial killer's mental world to get information on his kidnapped victim.
  • Mercy Kill: Carl tells Catherine that he once drowned an injured bird so that his father wouldn't find and kill it. This is Foreshadowing to what Catherine does to symbolically the same thing to him in the end.
  • Messianic Archetype: A room resembling a Roman temple with an albino peacock, where Catherine appears dressed as the Virgin Mary and offers counsel to the 'good' side of Carl. King Stargher emerges from a pool of water, and Catherine turns into a warrior princess to battle him, and then back into the Madonna and using a baptism pool to drown the young Carl.
  • Mind Screw: Since many scenes take place inside people's minds, very evocative imagery is worked into a psychological crime drama.
  • Non Sequitur Environment: The various dream environments often lack basic logical connections: a blanket gradually transitions into the dunes of a desert; the control room is suddenly replaced by a cage; a beach ends suddenly in a doorway back into the corridors of a palace; Catherine hides in a closet, only to turn around and find that there's now a room behind her - more specifically, one where Carl Stargher is butchering his first victim.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: After stabbing Carl's evil side and brutally injuring his inner child, Catherine, dressed as a Madonna figure, carries the boy in such a manner while she baptizes/mercy kills him.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Catherine gets two: the white, feathered wedding-style one in Edward's mind, and the red one in Carl's mind.
  • Poke in the Third Eye: Catherine goes into the mind of the Serial Killer Carl Stargher to find where he hid his latest, still-living victim. The first time she goes in, Stargher is surprised to see her and angrily demands to know where she came from, having not conjured her up himself. The second time she enters his mind, it's a fake-out where Catherine thinks she's still awake until she realizes she has shrunk. In other words, now that Stargher has learned he's being kept in suspended animation he's become fully aware of his surroundings, enough to start playing mind games with Catherine.
  • Police Are Useless: Not only do the cops wait to storm Carl's home until after he's suffered the neural glitch that puts him in a comanote , but it takes a series of sci fi Mental World journeys to call their attention to a manufacturer's logo that was right there on the real-world evidence all along.
  • Purple Is Powerful: A demon-like version of Carl with two giant purple sheets of cloth attached to the rings in his back and wound around the walls of his throne room.
  • Race Against the Clock / Rising Water, Rising Tension: Stargher's last victim is held in a mechanism that will drown her after a certain period of time has elapsed, putting pressure on law enforcement to rescue her in time. The film occasionally cuts back to show rising water levels in her cell.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Carl has one, but it only appears twice (briefly), and is never really commented on. It includes medical charts, photographs, sketches and the like.
  • Scenery Porn/Gorn: All of the scenes inside people's minds are exceptionally designed, but are often quite hostile or frightening.
  • The Schizophrenia Conspiracy: Averted; the schizophrenia shown in the movie resembles an exaggerated form of catatonic schizophrenia. Even the ideas of it being caused by viruses and presenting through abnormalities have a basis in reality. Wilson's infraction is completely made up, though, as is the idea of schizophrenia presenting with intense migraines.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: The glass-enclosed "cell' is located in an underground chamber in the middle of nowhere.
  • Shirtless Scene: Vincent and Carl get a bunch of these, but unlike most examples of this trope, it's not played for fanservice.
  • Shout-Out:
    • People laying horizontally while being eerily suspended by wires when entering Carl's mind is a visual inspired by the movie adaptation of Coma.
    • Carl's victims are also found on a riverbed, dead, wrapped in plastic. And before Carl is captured, he sings "Marsie Dotes", which Leland sang in the second season.
    • At one point, Catherine gets trapped in a closet and is forced to watch Carl get abused by his father. It's shot to look almost exactly like a similar scene in Blue Velvet.
    • Catherine is shown watching Fantastic Planet before going to bed.
  • Sinister Suffocation: The Serial Killer murders his victims with a Death Trap that very, very slowly fills with water, so as to draw out their fear as much as possible. The film depicts the attempt to find his latest victim in time to save her life.
  • Slave Collar: A pervasive motif.
  • Snakes Are Evil: In the final showdown in Catherine's mind, Demon Carl manifests as a black snake swimming in a small pool before emerging as a snake-like man, with tattoos on his head and a massive cape clearly resembling scales. The white peacocks in the dream also react with terror to his presence.
  • Soap Opera Disease: Carl's split personality is part of his disease. The same thing is happening to Catherine's other patient.
  • Stealth Pun: The little boy lying in a coma in the beginning is referred to by scientists as "Mister E", because they cannot understand how to heal him.
  • Strawman Political: Notably averted. The film seems to disagree with Novak's views on the Freudian Excuse, but still treats his view (and any audience members who share this view) with respect.
  • Subhuman Surfacing Shot: When Stargher's murderous alter ego invades Catherine's mind in pursuit of his inner child during the climax, it emerges headfirst from a pool of water at the centre of her mindscape, in slow motion - the better to emphasize the monstrous features of his current avatar.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Carl gets some sympathy from Catherine after she learns about his abusive past, although the film doesn't take the easy way out by claiming that his Freudian Excuse makes up for anything. Both the child Carl and the Demon King that Catherine faces off against are integral parts of his personality and there is no "redeeming" Carl by simply destroying the latter. The rational, adult Carl persona knows he is Beyond Redemption and wants to die.
  • Thong of Shielding: The female bodybuilder in Carl's mind wears only her slave collar and a white thong. Interestingly, since she has no visible nipples it makes her almost completely naked without actually showing anything.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Jake Thomas plays a young Carl Rudolph Stargher.
  • Torture Cellar: Where Carl keeps his victims.