Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: director Tarsem Singh shows us the terrible things that can happen when two personalities are stuffed into one brain in Self/less. In this, he is merely returning to his roots.

When it was new, The Cell was at the center of controversy about its content: is there something wrong and wicked about how this movie used absolutely breathtaking images to depict horrible, violent acts, stripping them of their real-world gravity. How innocent a controversy it was! Back in 2000, when this movie came out, we hadn't even seen Saw yet (a film through which you can draw a surprisingly straight line from The Cell), and we didn't know just how pornographic violence could get. I don't know about you, but if I get to choose between a film that might be fetishising violence and is also gorgeous, and a film that definitely is fetishising violence and looks like it was shot on film stock made of dog turds, I'm not going to have to think very long.

But even that's begging the question. To be clear, no, I don't think that The Cell is a fetish object for anything, outside of perhaps the impossible fantasy costumes (Eiko Isihioka and April Napier share costuming duty; I'm going to assume without any real evidence that Napier is responsible for the clothing that looks like what human beings wear, while Isioka's contribution were all of the gilded parade floats with space for people's legs at the bottom). In fact, of all director Tarsem Singh's movies - this was his first - it strikes me as the one where style is most clearly used as a function of the needs of the story and the rather horrible psychological depths that story plumbs (his sophomore effort, The Fall, strikes me more as a story built more to facilitate style than the other way 'round; not that I feel for The Fall anything less than total love).

That said, style is still a very, very important thing; style muscles its way to our eyeballs right from the opening, while the story is still deliberately keeping itself hidden. In the beginning there is desert: shattering orange sand and glowing blue skies, the undiluted colors of the very concept of The Desert of legends and myth (this sequence was shot in Namibia, which would, 15 years later, provide the same uncompromising primary colors to Mad Max: Fury Road). In the desert is a woman all in beautiful, flowing, feathered white, looking like a dove come down from heaven - we don't know her yet, but she's Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), a psychologist. And we don't know this yet, either, but this desert is all in the mind of Edward Baines (Colton James), a boy of about 10. Deane is a member of a team working on an extraordinary technology to treat extraordinary mental disorders: she can literally enter another person's headspace and interact with their consciousness directly. Edward is suffering from a coma triggered by psychological trauma, and his well-to-do parents have sponsored the development of this extraordinary technology under the hands of Drs. Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Cooperman (Becker).

I'm in awe of this opening for reasons that have nothing to do with its literally awe-inspiring scenery and the exquisite costuming. By the ten-minute mark of The Cell, Tarsem and screenwriter Mark Protosevich have told us exactly what their movie is going to be and how to watch it: there will be beautiful tableaux, framed with a sense of painterly composition by music video veteran Tarsem and music video cinematographer Paul Laufer (who shot only one other movie in his career) that is far more attuned to the rules of graphical art than traditional narrative cinema, and is meant to be read accordingly. These images are the expression of moods, and the moods moreover of very specific individuals: tell a sullen 10-year-old to think of a "desert", and it is very much the desert that we get in the opening scene that he'll probably have in mind. So the first thing we learn is to read the images as essential concepts, and not as narrative spaces. The second thing we learn is that we're either on-board with a device that lets a psychologist mind-meld with comatose patients suffering from transparently made-up mental conditions, or we are not. And the film makes its technology as unreasonable as it can: the rig is some kind of fantastic open space where the participants are suspended in mid-air on many fine wires, while wearing suits that make it look rather like they've been skinned alive, which cannot possibly be an accident given the film's eventual fixation on torture and murder. Basically, I mean to say, the opening ten minutes find the movie putting everything on the table: if we aren't on its side, we never will be, and I greatly admire a film that certain of itself.

The plot pretty clearly situates The Cell at the end of the big wave of film's cribbing from The Silence of the Lambs: there's a serial killer, see, who drowns women in an implausible elaborate automated drowning cube (the glassy set for which vividly predicts Saw and its sequels and their theatrical murder boxes), and then bleaches and paints them to resemble porcelain dolls. Catching this repugnant creature has become the fixation of FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in what is by an enormously exaggerated margin my favorite of his performances), who has finally scraped enough evidence together to catch the killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), right in his house. The problem is, Stargher's kill factory isn't in his house. And Stargher is currently suffering from another made-up psychological coma, meaning that Novak and his team only have about 40 hours to find, based on no leads at all, where the killer's present victim has been imprisoned, before she drowns. And there follows the one piece of contrived screenwriting that I can't bring myself to overlook, out of the whole lacework of contrivances that makes up the first third of The Cell: Novak is somehow aware of the experimental dream-sharing machine, and he wants Deane to go hunting in the hideous reaches of Stargher's subconscious to find any scrap of evidence for where he might leave his victims while they die.

The thing that The Cell transforms into at this point is damned near impossible to describe - certainly, even attempting a verbal sketch of the imagery is pointlessness itself. Tarsem, along with Ishioka and Napier, production designer Tom Foden, set decorator Tessa Posnansky, and art director Geoff Hubbard, create mental worlds in this film, both Stargher's and eventually Deane's, that are without specific precedent, nor can I offhand name anything that has copied them since. A few points along the way, though: the film is not quite as straightforward as "the inside of a serial killer's mind is like this" symbolism, though that's enough to get by. Beyond that, it's a synthesis of imagery from European and at least South Asian artistic traditions, as well as American pop culture, and what this suggests within the film itself is not just "let's make the most horrifying hellscapes possible by drawing on multiple sources". Instead, it suggests that Stargher is himself making the same synthesis that the filmmakers do, pulling together fragments of remembered images to construct a worldview. Setting aside its applications to the film's deep wells of horror, this is a tremendously effective way of cinematically visualising the process of how human personalities are built out of piece of memory, whether from personal experience or appropriations of fantasies, stories, and the background radiation of culture. And of course, since this is horror, the personality we need to be chiefly concerned with is one dominated by suffering, directed inward and directed outward and even freestanding representations of pain and death that simply exist, independent of who caused the pain or who receives it.

Importantly, this all applies not just to Stargher, but to Deane herself (at which point I think it deserves saying: Lopez is better in this role than she gets credit for, a placidly calm presence whose relatively simple and straightforward way of presenting the character's beatific sensibilities starts paying considerable dividends when that simplicity runs into the dense imagery), who defines her inner life with signifiers of goodness as soft and generically calming as Stargher's are specific and increasingly draining to watch. The design is no less striking, for being less cruel; Deane's get-up like a cherry blossom that became a nun is among the film's boldest costumes. This is not about reducing the film to a Manichean good/bad framework, though the implication is certainly that Deane thinks in those terms. What it's about is providing a counterpoint to the inside of Stargher's head, while making the same point: we mentally visualise the world in terms of broad signifiers which we then decorate with our own reference points, and that process is called "having a personality". A variation on it is called "consuming art, up to and including the movie titled The Cell", and that's maybe the most cunning thing about the film: it contains within its own structure the expectation that we will be effected by what we're watching. If we are healthy and know that's what we're doing, we can leave the movie having broken down its enormously memorable visual setpieces into our own personal library of reference points. If we are not healthy, well, the movie has some very imaginative ideas about what happens to people whose personality-construction goes awry. The point being, though, that the film is one of the boldest depictions of how external stimuli are transformed into internal narrative, for good or otherwise, that I know the movies to have attempted, and that's rewarding even beyond the shockingly bold images that almost exclusively make up the film's final hour and change.