On hive minds, genre filmmaking, and outdated premises in the Stephen King adaptation, Cell
Cell Saban Films
Director: Tod Williams
Screenplay: Stephen King and Adam Alleca, based on the novel by King
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Owen Teague, Clark Sarullo, Ethan Andrew Casto and Stacy Keach
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Credit where it's due. Of all the utterly incompetent movies I've seen over the years, Cell is the one with the most wildly ambitious conceptual finale. That's not nothing. All at once, and all of a sudden, its varied ingredients - the plots and subplots and themes and visual motifs - kind of ... detach, and congeal into this lumpy, pseudo-surreal blob of a resolution.
It is not a good ending, but it does suggest a good ending, which is a higher compliment than I can pay the rest of the film. The rest of the film feels like it's been made out of nothing more than obligation. Hey, has anybody made a movie where cell phones spontaneously turn people into zombies? OK, let's get on that ASAP. The characters stroll through a hastily unfolding story like they're just trying to get it over with - as if the movie is in a terrible rush, keenly aware that it's playing catch-up with a concept that seems like it would have been made a decade ago. If there's one thing this generation of moviegoers is really missing out on, it's the barrage of bad thrillers that used to accompany the advent of every new technological advancement or social trend or political threat. Maybe those movies are all going direct-to-video these days. But Cell fits right in.
You've got your cautionary tales - which always seem silly in retrospect; movies like The Net or Outbreak or Red Dawn or Enemy of the State - and then you've got your allegories, which explore the ostensible "premise" primarily in broader, existential terms (and generally hold up a bit better over time). Cell is, technically speaking, of the latter variety. But it has no interest in exploring its subject's relationship to the human condition - nor, crucially, does it show any inclination toward actual horror, or camp, or anything idiosyncratic or inquisitive or fun. I don't really know what this movie is. I just know that it's bad. Very, very bad.
Director Tod Williams has no understanding of, or interest in, the genre elements he's dealing with, so there's never the sense that the movie knows what it's doing, or why. There is one - and exactly one - great horror-movie shot, but in the context of the rest of the filmmaking, it seems like a happy accident. By that point it has conclusively proven it has no idea how to be a horror movie.
But beyond that, Cell is so completely behind its own idea, it's somehow foundationally built on the precondition that people, in 2016, use their phones primarily for voice conversations. Which, for anyone alive in 2016, is absurd. So what we get is an opening sequence that casts its eye on an airport full of people talking on their phones. Not texting, not tweeting, not Snapchatting, not checking the news or emails or anything else we actually use our phones for on a minute-by-minute basis ... but just regular old talking on the phone. If the scene were set at an airport full of your grandparents, then I suppose I could let it slide. But alas, there everyone is, sitting at their gates or in the security checkout lines chatting away. Until a sudden metaphysical rupture transforms them all into flesh-eating zombies, lurching the entire world into disconnected, incommunicable chaos. It's just good luck that our hero Clay Riddell (John Cusack), a graphic novelist, ran out of battery life just before the event struck. Now he can only hope that his estranged wife and son were off their phones, too.
That the fateful signal is transmitted exclusively through cell phones' audio receivers is kind of a cheat, though - aside from being based on an outmoded premise. The way the film has it, characters are still able to use their phones for other means - not all that often, but whenever the script really needs it - just as long as they don't put them to their ears and try to call someone. But that's just the thing - everyone seems to figure out the rules (what they can do, what they can't; what the zombies are and how they work) so quickly that there's little to really latch onto, and it devolves into your run-of-the-mill zombie movie. The one wrinkle separating these zombies from all other zombies is that they communicate with each other like a hive - or, more appropriately, like a network, with each signal amplifying all the rest. But neither Williams nor screenwriters Adam Alleca and Stephen King (co-adapting his own novel) find much to do with the concept. The idea of people as conduits for a sinister techno-viral outbreak is interesting, but Cell never gets beyond very basic, and dull, scenarios, never pushing the envelope of its ideas.
So we're left with a pretty standard postapocalyptic road movie, with Clay, aside his new pal Tom (Samuel L. Jackson, in a quietly strong performance that is more than the movie deserves), trying to get back to his family, crossing paths along the way with his teenage neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), the headmaster (Stacy Keach) of a local school that's been converted into a blocked-off refuge for survivors, and a pair of loners, Ray and Denise, surviving out of an old ice-cream truck. It's all sub-Walking Dead banality, until it ultimately coalesces into its conceptual climax that collects everything - the zombies, the cellular hive mind, Clay's search for his son, his recurring visions of a foreboding character from his own graphic novel - into one surreal, fantastical climax that it has neither the focus nor the special-effects budget to actually pull off. (Again, it's an admirable ending, but an unsuccessful one.)
Over the last decade or so, Williams has gone from mediocre John Irving adaptations coated in unearned prestige (The Door in the Floor) to abysmal Stephen King adaptations buried on the VOD circuit. Even in bad King adaptations - or, for that matter, the weaker entries of his own published work - there is always, at the very least, a sense of pulpy, loopy enjoyment to them. They are, at their worst, bad in an entertaining way. Cell is the rare exception. It accomplishes the rare feat of making King ineffectual and humorless.