I’m fairly sure that I’ve brought up this point before – many times, probably – but sometimes it’s virtually impossible to translate Stephen King’s more batshit concepts into three dimensions on the cinema screen. If I have mentioned it before, then it shows an ironic lack of creativity in my writings when it comes to the powerhouse of ideas that horror’s greatest living writer still manages pumps out at a dizzying rate, but it’s still a point worth mentioning nonetheless.
From the laughable, reality eating Pac-Men of The Langoliers to pretty much everything in Dreamcatcher, sometimes less is more in order to steer the outlandish away from the absurd and sometimes not even King himself can pull it off.
Something else, Maine’s favorite son is particularly adept as it taking well worn concepts and giving them a fresh new facelift for a jaded audience and it’s with these two points in mind that we shuffle our way into the path of King’s attempt at a zombie apocalypse with the noticably grey (in both colour pallet and tone), Cell.
We join Clay Riddell, graphic artist and confirmed technophobe, as he kills time at a Boston airport before he can hop on a plane to visit the wife and child he abandoned in order to realise his dream job; but before you can say “morally compromised male lead” a mysterious pulse travels through the mobile phones of everyone holding one to their ear which has an decidedly unfortunate effect.
You see, the pulse rewrites the brains of anyone who hears it and soon a sizable amount of the population have been reduced to violent, murderous, animals who, while not technically being zombies, certainly sport very similar characteristics. However, in the chaos no one thinks to call them “Non-bies” and dubs them “Phoners” (missed opportunity, gang) and Clay, finally feeling the pangs of his parental responsibilities, opts to make his way out of Boston in order to try and protect his son – although, better late than never feels a little lame in the face of a full on zombie apocalypse… Hooking up with world weary subway driver and his teenage neighbour, Clay cuts a path to his kid’s house through a ruined New England but as the motley group gets closer to their goal they start to notice peculiar habits forming in the maniacal creatures that used to be rational human beings. They flock in groups, at night they “reboot” in communal mass gatherings and, most bizarre of all, they seem to be getting “updates” during their downtime that causes music to eminate from their mouths like some grotesque biological radios. What caused the signal, will Clay and co. manage to find his son and why are the survivors all starting to have the same dream about a Phoner who’s been dubbed “The President Of The Internet”?
Cell ironically has the odd problem of being obviously timely and yet hideously outdated, with it’s heavy handed message of tech turning us into zombies hardly being as edgy as the filmmakers thinks it is, which very well might be a side effect due to how long it took the film to emerge from development hell – adter all, a freakin’ decade might as well be 50 years when you’re talking about technology.
Outdated phone plan aside, Cell also falls prey with that Stephen King-centric problem I mentioned about where the very details that makes the story stand out are the very things that are toughest to realise without drawing unintentional giggles or just coming across as plain old stupid. Sadly, King himself is partly to blame as he co-wrote the oddly uninspired script and director Tod Williams turns in a movie flatter than the latest I-Phone as the film seemingly has no idea to visualise ANY of it’s contents and is content to funnel any original ideas it has through the prism of every other bleak, colourless, standard zombie flick you’ve ever seen.
The leads prove to be greyer than the backgrounds with John Cusack sleepwalking through his character to such a degree I’m truly amazed he doesn’t snore his lines. It also doesn’t help that with his long black coat and scraggly hairdo/wig, Cusack looks like he’s cosplaying as Nicolas Cage – that is until he puts a beanie on and then he looks like Paul Reubens cosplaying as Nicholas Cage. Also his character’s redemptive arc goes nowhere fast with his non-performance meaning that his tireless trek to find his son simply feeling less like a desperate rescue mission and more like a depressing need for the character to simply confirm whether or not his kid is either dead or a mindless goon with the golden oldie radio show blasting past his gums. He elicits not a single shed of empathy which certainly isn’t helped him openly mulling over his pacifist views while pointing how ironic it is that he wants a gun; or the fact that during the entire film he doesn’t grow so much as a single folical of facial hair (if you can’t grow a beard during the apocalypse, when can you grow one?).
What’s even more telling is that if Cusack is sleepwalking, Samuel L. Jackson is practically comatose and looks like he’d rather be anywhere but on this set – odd considering this is actually his second go round with Cusack in a Stephen King joint after ghost movie 1407. If Samuel L. Jackson can’t be bothered, why should we?
Similarly, the “zombies” also underperform and would surely have been far creepier if it had gone more down the route of George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) and having the victims of the pulse be less typical hissing ghouls of the World War Z variety and be more human making the pulse more about bestial mind control than simply turning people into monsters.
Despite being a 5G conspiracy nut’s wet dream, there’s not much else here to recommend Cell to the anyone but the most devout zombie or King fan… and even then… but as much as it’s a cliche, Cell’s left-field premise probably would have benefited more from a series on a streaming platform which would have dedicated vital time needed to establish both the rules of the Phoners more cleanly and maybe make the protagonists more than a clutch of gloomy ciphers.
By the time the movie ambles to it’s awkward climax, changed from the book undoubtedly in an attempt to try and out-Mist The Mist in the down-beat stakes (yeah, good luck with that), it’s obvious that Cell is trying to upgrade it’s contract by ways of the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but thanks to half-hearted performances, a droning plot and questionable visuals (the explosions look like giant yellow marshmallows and crowd scenes look grainy as mud), this is one phone based frightener that’s marred by both kinds of poor reception.