Remember that long-shelved adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell? It’s totally out now, available to rent on VOD. No marketing, no enthusiasm – all signs pointed towards an outdated, forgettable watch. Even the promotional poster on my television’s On-Demand screen was haplessly cobbled together, featuring Samuel L. Jackson’s shiny bald dome and clean-shaven face…even though he’s never seen in the film without a hat, or without facial hair. For all accounts and purposes, it seems like no one wants you to watch Cell, and after doing so myself, I’ll join that chorus of voices. There have been some phenomenal cinematic adaptations of Stephen King material – this is not one of them.
John Cusack stars as Clay Riddell, a graphic novelist who finds himself in a zombie-apocalypse situation caused by cell phone signals. You know, those devices glued to people’s hands and ears 99% of the time? You can guesstimate as to how much of the population became viciously infected by the rogue sound waves, as they now run around trying to convert people like Clay who are still human. With the help of his neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and his new friend Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), Clay just wants to see his family again – even if they might have been turned into bloodthirsty, nightmarish creatures.
Which, you know – they probably have been. But this is a reflective tale of facing your demons head-on, so the narcissistic, almost masochistic Clay Riddell keeps pushing forward despite already knowing the answer.
Despite featuring numerous personalities, Cell really only focuses on one character – Cusack’s Clay Riddell. Everyone keeps dreaming about a character Clay drew in one of his graphic novels, meaning that the signal is somehow preying on this thoughts and manipulating his fears – a strange ploy that pits Clay against the signal itself. Why Tom, Alice and others dream about Clay’s red-hoodied, Beats-headphone-wearing devil DJ is somewhat of a mystery, if only to mess with Clay and only Clay. Writer Adam Alleca doesn’t seem to care much about any other characters, so why should we?
In this fashion, Cell makes up its own rules as it goes. Some thrillers can pull off such an approach – as David Robert Mitchell wonderfully executes in It Follows – but director Tod Williams manhandles what should have been a slow leak of information. Instead, Cell kind of just flies through a post-apocalyptic scenario – complete with a tweaking martyr, a demented headmaster, and a hypnotic signal – that evolves situationally as time goes on. Confusion isn’t really the problem, it’s more that every conflicting encounter is explained simply by a survivor realizing, “Oh, so NOW the signal can do THIS!” Sigh. Blood-soaked “zombie” action scenes end up feeling far too coincidental and somewhat silly, as Williams botches his film’s delivery in the most streamlined, cop-out-ish way.
One single scene represents the letdown that is Cell, when Clay’s crew joins the before-mentioned headmaster (played by Stacy Keach) in lighting a whole football field of the inflicted on fire. Clay and Tom drive a sprayer truck filled with gasoline straight over the comatose herd (they shut down at night?), as we hear bones crunch under the weight of vehicular metal. Then, just as the survivors are far enough away, Keach’s character fires a flaming arrow into the horde, setting their crazy asses ablaze. And by “ablaze,” I mean some intern copy-and-pasted the same animated flame effect over a pile of digital corpses to create a truly numbing post-production eyesore. You have this epic, climatic moment, and all we’re given is cheap, overly-rendered, barely passable special effect? No wonder this thing is getting swept under a rug…
Don’t even bother asking if John Cusack or Samuel L. Jackson can save Williams’ cellular disaster. With such little connective attention paid to scenes, they’re merely actors fighting a busted screenplay. We get a few fun moments from Jackson – vintage “OH SHIT!” dialogue and whatnot – but Cusack is stuck playing a whiny asshole who bailed on responsibility for a creative, fulfilling live. Teenage angst, personified by a middle-age man. Isabelle Fuhrman has trouble gelling with her on-screen counterparts, other more ridiculous characters pop in for tonally jarring bit-parts (Boston accent dude who never sleeps/horny drunk cougar), and most actors struggle to keep up with this ever-shifting dystopian Hell. Performances just don’t matter, because – like most aspects of this production – no one seems to care much about quality control.
When Cell wraps up (a messy, trickster ending that’s not tricky in the least bit), you’ll realize just how trivial an endeavor this barely-fit-for-basic-cable thriller ends up being. Sure, we’ll heed its warnings of technological overtaking, but no terror or sensible horror is ever dialed-in. Points are awarded for trying, but all your fears and hesitations about Cell are sadly proven correct by one of the sillier watches of 2016 (and not in a good way, either). Just let this one go to voicemail…
Oh, so THAT'S why Cell was forgotten and pushed under the rug...