Director: Tod Williams
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Owen Teague, Clark Sarullo, Ethan Andrew Casto, Stacy Keach, Anthony Reynolds, Erin Elizabeth Burns, Joshua Mikel
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent content, terror, brief sexuality and language)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 7/8/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 7, 2016
When Stephen King's Cell was published in 2006, the smartphone was not yet a common accessory and most certainly not the necessity it has become (The release of one company's revolutionary device, which for a period became synonymous with "smartphone," was still over a year away). Our cellphones still existed primarily to make phone calls. A top-of-the-line model flipped open and closed. Their screens weren't constantly consuming our attention in the way they do now.
It was a simpler world back then, and King's novel was an entertaining piece of Luddite fear-mongering that, perhaps unintentionally, turned out to be prophetic. The hook of the novel was that a mysterious signal, which turned people into zombie-like beings, was sent through the world's cellular networks. Since pretty much everyone, in King's get-off-my-lawn view, was always on the damn phone, a significant segment of the population turned into brain-dead monsters that were literally controlled by technology. Only luck or a decided distrust of technology saved people from the transformation.
A decade after the book, we get a movie version, with a screenplay co-written by King himself (along with Adam Alleca). Among its multiple problems, perhaps the most significant, from a pure storytelling perspective, is the movie's pre-smartphone mindset. The world has changed in such a way that the novel's concerns about technology—especially a certain device—overtaking our lives are more relevant than when it was released (Even the meaning of the phrase "on the phone" has changed). Cell, the movie adaptation, doesn't take advantage of the shift. It's stuck in the old days, and as a result, the movie's potential for examining and criticizing our current technological landscape is never fulfilled.
It's also, well, pretty silly—and not necessarily in the way one might imagine an outdated piece of technophobic claptrap could be silly. The silliness is not in the basic premise but in the execution.
This is a movie that opens with the mass transformation of people into murderous zombies at an airport, and right off the bat, it's painfully apparent that director Tod Williams doesn't have a grasp on how to convince us of the threat of these formerly human creatures. Part of that is because they still exist on a metaphorical level, but most of it is a matter of staging. Also, in what might be a far-too on-the-nose bit of irony, the movie's own technology—namely, its visual effects—betrays it.
Caught in the middle of the chaos at the airport is Clay Riddell (John Cusack), a graphic novel artist whose cellphone battery dies just before the signal is emitted. As almost everyone around him begins killing each other with whatever is available, Clay runs from (Cusack has a—how to put this charitably—distinct gait that undermines some of the tension) and dodges the attacks, flailing his arms in a particularly comical fashion.
As for the consistent ineffectiveness of the movie's effects, one need only observe a plane that collides in midair and then plummets into the tarmac. It's not the only time a theoretically horrific scene is undone by effects. Later, there's also mass burning of a group of sleeping "phoners," as they're called (It's always curious how the survivors of these apocalyptic events seem to universally agree on terminology), and it also looks too cheap to have the appropriate impact.
Clay eventually joins up with Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson), a train conductor, and Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), Clay's upstairs neighbor. The trio makes their way from Boston across New England, hoping to find Clay's wife (Clark Sarullo) and son (Ethan Andrew Casto), as well as some answers to the cellular zombification of humanity.
The characters exist, then, simply to state the rules of this epidemic (Even before and still after one character says it's too early to determine the rules) in between bouts of running from and shooting at hordes of categorically not-scary phoners. Along the way, they meet an assortment of characters who essentially do the same things—speculate about and fight off the problem—or become zombies themselves, leading to yet more speculation and shooting. One gets the sense that Williams' work is mostly checking off budgetary line items: They have the firearm and makeup allotments, so they might as well use them. One can sense the tedium.
There is a muddled mythology that goes partway to explaining what has happened (something to do with one of Clay's artistic creations), but by the time Cell gets around to offering any—undeniably useless—clarification in the climax, the movie's repetitive nature and on-the-cheap production have offered little to no reason to care. As for that finale, a zombie sing-along turns out to be the least ridiculous part.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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