The last time that John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson worked together was almost ten years ago for 1408, an adaptation of a Stephen King short story that was his version of the ‘one-night-in-a-haunted-hotel-room’ trope. Cusack was the paying guest and Jackson was the hotel manager. A concept that has been around since the 1800s needs fresh ideas to keep it relevant and if nothing else, the one final warning that Jackson gives Cusack was one of the most iconic moments in 2000s horror. They are at it again in Stephen King’s Cell, his version of a George A. Romero tale. And while this concept might not be as old, it is just as worn. And while all the fresh ideas are there, the quality of the execution is not.
Cell is a zombie apocalypse movie where the zombies haven’t risen from the grave. What turns these folk into mindless mush is the cell phone signals going through their heads. What will come to be known as ‘The Pulse’ ravages the brains of everyone who puts their ear to their mobile, turning them into weirdly intelligent creatures who can tell the difference between normal human beings and their fellow infected.
The film wastes no time in getting its apocalypse on. After an intrusive credit sequence where the titles play over big black blocks that get in the way of the establishing shots – strangely making its images look like they’ve been redacted by the NSA – we meet our hero Clay Riddell (John Cusack). We find out that he is estranged from his wife, is desperate to see his kid and he is in an airport. As soon as director Tod Williams is comfortable that we are aware of this information he rips that airport apart.
The carnage is immediate with people biting, clawing and scratching each other, using whatever is at hand to either dismember the panicking bystanders or to hold off their crazed attackers. Fleeing the carnage after getting his hands dirty, Clayton teams up with a train driver (Samuel L. Jackson) who was caught in a tunnel with no signal, saving him from Satan’s booty call. They head to Clayton’s apartment complex where they find and take care of Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman), an unfortunate teenager that was forced to kill her mother after she became a victim of the maddening airwaves.
They go on a harrowing pilgrimage to Riddell’s family home in search of his kid, whose phone never has any battery in it. Things take a turn for the surreal early on when Williams starts showing us the infected ‘Phoner’s’ (awful term) increasingly strange behaviour. They have become a hive mind, travelling in unison like birds in a flock or fish in a school. Cinematic literacy informs us that these creatures should be rife with rot and decay, however as their form of infection is unique they are peculiarly goreless which jars with expectations.
It leads me to believe that their bizarre behavioural patterns, while chilling when left to the fog of imagination when reading King’s prose, is almost comedic when given the clarity of celluloid. The Raggedy Man, the films mysterious antagonist, is another classic King device that would have been better off getting The Shining treatment and being replaced with something that works better on screen.
The trio’s adventures take them across the state where they meet all manner of odd folk who have resisted the temptation of answering their handsets. These scenes give the film its episodic feeling, which is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, it welcomes an unfavourable comparison to The Walking Dead, and secondly, none of these episodes have anywhere near enough time to develop. The script is constantly struggling to contain the personalities of individuals such as a schoolmaster played by Stacy Keach or an insomniac ‘Phoner’ hunter. Each time we see one of these characters, the plot takes us away from them soon after, leaving us with the feeling that they could have given the movie so much more were a little more time afforded to them.
The plot also leaves us wanting for answers. It might be going for ambiguous and intriguing, but what it achieves is maddening and frustrating. Never has the plot of a film more begged to be riddled with exposition or clarification. The lack of answers doesn’t fuel the imagination to create your own, it simply drives the viewer to distraction as they start counting the flaws in logic and holes in the script.
Such as, if the fall of humanity was so instant, and there are no longer methods of mass communication, how do all of these disparate groups know terms such as ‘Phoner’ or ‘The Pulse’ (every time I have to write one of these awful nicknames it feels like a dagger in my side)? How did they all agree to that without being able to talk to one another over long distances?
The whole film has a rushed quality to it. Like they’ve given a sci-fi epic the runtime of a cheesy exploitation film. One character even says it’s too early to know the rules yet, but they keep telling us what they are and following them verbatim anyway. How are they figuring all of this out? Do they all have bachelor’s degrees in communications that the script forgot to mention?
The film does have its bright spots. There is a eerie sense of dread that escalates with every scene, thanks to the superbly creepy talents of the cast. It would seem that when you take all of the people who have their mobile phones sewn to their earlobes out of society, what remains are a bunch of weirdos who suddenly feel a lot less inclined to hide their eccentricities. These tendencies have also been amplified by the carnage they have had to witness and the struggle they have had to survive. They present a fun house mirror version of humanity, where they all get under your skin and force you to keep one eye open at all times.
Unfortunately, this dread is never capitalised on, but that’s not such a bad thing either. For all of the distrust the camera places upon the humans, they aren’t the real threat in this film. This may upset purists to hear, but it is the zombies in this movie who are the real terrors, not the survivors. This is perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the whole movie. Society hasn’t completely broken down yet, so the remaining normal humans are just happy to see friendly faces. With the usual dour and depressing view of the human race these films are constantly shoving down our throats, having helpful and generous people populate the cast is a nice touch.
Taking them away from us is less so. It’s been a problem with Stephen King for a long time that he will take some of the best characters in his books and kill them off to give his works a sense of unpredictability or liven them up with a surprise. It happens here too. Some characters who provide the heart and soul of the film are taken away quickly and abruptly. What jolt of life the film experiences from their deaths if fleeting, what their deaths take away is never replaced and the film is poorer for it.
The film climaxes with one of the most bizarre endings I’ve seen in years. The choice of music is, especially for an American film, confounding and bemusing. It is certainly the part of the film where my interest and attention peaks. The sheer oddity of it almost makes me want to do a complete 180 on my opinion of the film as a whole. Then when I think about it, the ending makes no sense whatsoever and I will not be sleight-of-handed into believing that it is a better film than it clearly is. In fact, I may now think my opinion might be worse than it was before.
Cell is a lacklustre zombie tale with all of the right ideas, but it is unable translate any of them into good storytelling. It is an original take on the zombie movie that has a lot to say about the society we currently live in, but the world building leaves far too much to the imagination and the only thoughts our minds get stuck on is the inconsistencies that are dotted throughout. Unlike the creatures constantly threatening our protagonists, the film wants us to think for ourselves, but what we end up thinking is how much better other films and TV shows in this niche have been. It doesn’t even have a memorable Samuel L. Jackson moment. And really, what the hell else do you hire Samuel L. Jackson for?
Dir: Tod Williams
Prd: Michael Benaroya, Shara Kay, Richard Saperstein, Brian Witten
Scr: Adam Alleca, Stephen King
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, John Cusack
DOP: Michael Simmonds
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Run Time: 98 minutes
Cell is unleashed in cinemas TBC.