Director: Tod Williams
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach, Owen Teague, Joshua Mikel
Runtime: 1 hr 38 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Violence)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 7 July 2016
Synopsis: On October 1, artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) calls his estranged wife, Sharon, from the airport in Boston with some good news: he has just sold video game rights to his graphic novel and wants to come home to her and their young son, Johnny, in New Hampshire. Be- fore she can answer, their call is disconnected. A mysterious pulse begins transmitting across cellular networks, sending everyone who uses a cell phone into a homicidal rage. Chased into the subway by phone-crazies, Clay joins up with the train’s conductor, Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson). Together, they make their way out of the city through the subway tunnels, finally reaching Clay’s apartment, where they encounter another survivor: 17-year-old Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman). As Boston burns, the trio decides to head north in search of Clay’s family. Each step along the way, they must defend themselves from the so-called “phoners,” which con- tinue to evolve at an alarming rate. Finally, the group reaches Clay's house, only to discover that Johnny has been lured into a Phoner trap, and Clay will have to risk everything to save his son.
‘Cell’ imagines a post-apocalyptic world brought about the transmission of an electromagnetic pulse through the ubiquitous cellphone, which turns its user into a rampaging ‘phoner’ (aka zombie). Lest you dismiss it as yet another technophobic horror, let it be known that the 2006 Stephen King novel was adapted for the big screen by no less than the horror auteur himself, which inevitably raises expectations that his latest print-to-screen may be more promising than say ‘Dreamcatcher’ or ‘1408’. Alas, this parable about our dependence on the mobile device and concomitant ‘horde’ culture in the digital age is unfortunately lost in a by-the-numbers horror thriller that not even the name cast of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson can redeem, not least because they too – for the lack of a better word – seem content to be phoning it in.
No matter that Cusack executive produces this long-delayed movie, the once Hollywood indie darling and most recent DTV champion looks utterly uninterested in the role of Clay Riddell, a graphic novelist who happens to be at Boston’s Logan Airport when the ‘Pulse’ strikes. Before his cell phone dies (and therefore sparing him from the epidemic that follows), Clay tries to reconnect with his estranged wife and teenage son in Kent Pond – and it is a no-brainer that he will spend the rest of the movie trying to get to them to make sure that they are safe. On his way, Clay will join forces with MBTA subway driver Tom McCourt (Jackson) whom he meets while escaping from the airport, as well as an upstairs neighbour Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrmann) whom Clay and Tom meet while holed up in the former’s apartment immediately after.
For what is meant to be the emotional arc of the story, Tom’s search for the wife and son is oddly alienating. King and his co-scripter Adam Alleca (who wrote the remake of ‘The Last House on the Left’) neglect to develop the familial bond between husband and wife or father and son, and worse still leave Tom and his companions to navigate the phoner-infested wasteland without much urgency. Not only does it reduce what should be a race-against-time into a tedious plod, that apathy also infects Cusack’s performance, who doesn’t even seem bothered to convey what should be his character’s anxiety, frustration and eventual despair. Likewise, Jackson looks bored pretty much most of the time, and one can hardly blame him given how his character has nothing to do except follow Tom around.
And yet, for that matter, Jackson needn’t be upset about the state of his character; in fact, the movie itself doesn’t quite know where it wants to go or what it intends to do with the ideas it puts out. One moment we learn that the ‘phoners’ are linked to one another as though they share a singular hivemind, the next we learn that the line they share goes dead at night and makes them go into a deep slumber. One moment we see a Freddy Kreuger-like character in a red-hooded sweatshirt as the author of the catastrophe, the next we are told by Tom that the guy is in fact the same person in Clay’s graphic novel. Neither of these narrative threads go anywhere, and a confusing finale that King had apparently changed from the novel due to fan displeasure just reinforces how frustratingly inconsequential the proceedings have been.
To top it off, ‘Cell’ is utterly humourless, which only makes its stupidity even more obvious. Though we’ll never find out if Eli Roth’s twisted sense of humour might have made a better adaptation, there is no doubt that director Tod Williams (best known for ‘Paranormal Activity 2’) cannot quite appreciate the cheesiness of the premise, struggling too to inject suspense and excitement in the few scenes where he gets to unleash some ‘zombie’ madness. Given how joyless, thrill-less and pointless the entire affair is, it is no wonder that ‘Cell’ is probably one of the worst Stephen King adaptations to date, further substantiating earlier decisions to postpone or even shelve its release altogether. There is no chance this one goes viral, especially since it cannot even get you on the line in the first place.
(No matter that it is adapted by the horror maestro himself, Stephen King’s ‘Cell’ is a joyless, thrill-less and pointless exercise in technophobic horror that deserves to be switched off)
Review by Gabriel Chong