Written by: Stephen King (novel & screenplay)
Directed by: Tod Williams
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When everyone is connected, no one is safe.
When Stephen King wrote Cell back in 2006, the world was on a precipice with its relationship to technology. Smart phones and similar gadgets were still a year away from release, and still even further away from the mass adoption we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. So when it took over a decade for it to make it to the screen, the novel only grew more prescient and relevant. I mean, it’s not hard to see the potential for some poignant social commentary in a story where cell phone technology has essentially turned everyone into an undead hive-mind. Imagine how a particularly inspired take on this material could take jabs at the toxicity of social media or decimated attention spans. Imagine an enterprising filmmaker taking the basis of King’s novel and twisting it into a sharp movie that could reinvigorate the zombie genre with the author’s distinct mythos. Unfortunately, you have to keep imagining that, as this adaptation of Cell is mostly just the same old zombie junk recycled for the umpteenth time, and it bears precious little of King’s stamp.
That, of course, is the downside to waiting so long to adapt this one: in 2006, a zombie movie might not have seen so tired, but in 2016? Oof. What’s worse, the film doesn’t do much to separate itself from that very crowded pack, save perhaps for its impressive cast. John Cusack headlines as Clay Riddell, a graphic novelist stuck in a Boston airport, where he’s looking to fly home and make amends to an estranged wife and son. Before he can do so, however, a strange epidemic breaks out that turns everyone around him into a vicious, ravenous horde. His first instinct is to head toward a stalled subway, which proves to be beneficial since a group of bewildered survivors is huddled within. Soon, though, the subway conductor (Samuel L. Jackson) informs them that they’ll have to venture out since it won’t be safe to remain down below. Only Clay and one other among the group heeds to the warning, and the trio head out to brave the apocalyptic hellscape unfolding around them.
If Cell sounds like just about every other zombie-related thing you’ve come across during the past ten years, you’re not too far off. For the most part, it follows the standard template, with Cusack and Jackson roaming the northeast (they eventually settle on seeking out Clay’s family to see if they’ve survived), meeting various other survivors along the way to add to their group (among the survivors: Isabelle Fuhrman from Orphan!). Some splatter is obviously part of the formula, though it must be noted that the opening, gore-soaked outbreak sequence in the airport represents the high point in this regards (there’s so much blood and guts being casually sprayed about that even Lloyd Kaufman’s cameo doesn’t feel out of place). From that point on, it mostly relies on the typical shotgun blasts to the head and whatnot as it settles into a more reserved, sometimes contemplative mode.
Along the way, King’s mythos adds some wrinkle to this well-worn formula. Based on their experiences, the survivors surmise that some kind of rogue signal is responsible for turning its victims into an undead pack that’s somehow connected as a single unit. As such, if one zombie spots a survivor, they all come swarming, a conceit that adds a decent amount of urgency and suspense to the proceedings. Likewise, the zombies have a curious habit of essentially logging off overnight by going into a sleep mode that allows them to “reboot” and upgrade. Even though this particular concept is vaguely defined, it allows the undead to obtain new abilities to shake up the routine and introduce random danger (for example, a roadside sanctuary turns out to be anything but when the zombies suddenly begin to “recruit”).
As cool as it is, though, it’s still not enough to make Cell feel particularly vital. Despite boasting a co-writing credit from King himself, the film rarely feels distinctive, as these stock, underwritten characters trudge through anonymous locales, often engaging in familiar interactions with strangers before bailing in the face of a zombie swarm. It’s so routine, though I will note that I enjoy the generally amiable vibe about the interactions, as King wisely avoids the typical strife that arises between survivors in a zombie movie. As an optimist, I like to believe this is out it would play out: with everyone banding together with a dogged sense of camaraderie. The middle stretch of Cell works well enough precisely because of this, as Cusack and Jackson make for fantastic leads, even if these roles don’t offer much for either to chew on. The former is essaying his typically good-hearted, hound dog persona, while the latter is a little more low-key and muted than usual (there’s even a delightful scene where a slightly tipsy Jackson sings).
However, a lot of the good will here is inherent in these performers rather than their on-screen characters. That’s sort of emblematic of Cell as a whole: it’s a decent, pertinent story from an author beyond reproach, so you’re inclined to be naturally interested. I just wish the film held up its end of the bargain and bothered to meet the enthusiasm halfway; instead, it feels resigned to disappoint since it’s such an obviously low-budget production. It particularly belongs to that subset of direct-to-video films starring big name stars that wind up cluttering video store shelves (yes, they’re still out there!). Most of the budget seems to go towards securing these stars, leaving precious little else to spread around, so the final product ends up feeling terminally cheap. Obviously, that becomes an issue when attempting to envision a zombie apocalypse, and Cell is a dreary, drab affair that ultimately packs all the urgency of a group of friends walking to a gas station.
Then again, it doesn’t help that the script dissolves into a muddled mess anyway. One of King’s cooler wrinkles involves the survivors sharing nightmarish visions involving one of Clay’s creations, only this thread is hopelessly lost in the nonsensical third act (and the less said about the “ambiguous” climax the better—suffice it to say that in trying to unsettle, the film only needlessly frustrates ). Whatever chance Cell had to rise above the mass of disappointing King adaptations from the past decade (holy shit, what a drought) is all but forgotten by the end—in fact, I feel like you could drop the entire nightmare subplot without losing much of anything. Again, it’s a prime example where you can imagine some cool possibilities, but, for whatever reason, Cell is too content to take the most obvious path. Even if that prevents it from feeling like an outright disaster, it’s not exactly an admirable approach to take with the work of a horror master—especially when said master had a hand in it himself.
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