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Cell (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 23, 2020



CELL (2016)

Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach, Clark Sarullo, Owen Teague, Ethan Andrew Casto, Anthony Reynolds, Erin Elizabeth Burns, Joshua Mikel, Jeffrey Hallman, Mark Ashworth, Wilbur Fitzgerald, Catherine Dyer, E. Roger Mitchell and Alex ter Avest.

Screenplay by Stephen King and Adam Alleca.

Directed by Tod Williams.

Distributed by Saban Films.  98 minutes.  Rated R.

This is the second time in less than a decade that John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson have teamed to film a lesser-known Stephen King work. In 2007, the actors teamed up to work on the surprisingly good and spooky ghost story 1408, which loosely based on a King short story of the same name which was only available on an audio book. (It was eventually released in print in his 2002 short story collection Everything’s Eventual.) That film took a story of just 53 pages and pumped in up into a scary and surreal fever nightmare.

Now they are taking on a much longer and more detailed source – one of King’s novels. Too bad that Cell is decidedly one of King’s more inessential books. It wasn’t a horrible book, but it was not a particularly good one either. Essentially it was King’s version of a zombie movie – with a bit of his old novel The Stand mixed in for good effect. The problem is, in general zombie movies are pretty boring and pretty ridiculous, and Cell ends up feeling this same way all too often.

As you may have guessed by the title, the source of the contagion is a common feature of modern life. Suddenly one day, everyone who happens to be using a cell phone at a certain moment are turned into brain-dead, bloodthirsty living zombies.

It’s not exactly a subtle social commentary, but it does have a certain panache as a variation on a tired genre.

Still Cell had some really chances to be a pretty good. Beyond the good cast who had a history in King’s work, this is one of the rare occasions in which the novelist actually wrote (or in this case co-wrote) the screenplay.

Sadly, it ends up not quite working, but Cell does have some effective moments as a thriller.

Smartly, King changes significant chunks of the storyline, but frankly it has the same problem that most film adaptations of King’s novels: his books are just too layered to be able to cram into 90 minutes. Cell rushes the story way too much, at the expense of  one-dimensional characterizations and fuzzy plot clarity.

As mentioned above, the zombie apocalypse is triggered by good old technology. One day a weird drone which hits all cell phones in the world turns everyone who happened to be using one at that moment into a raving lunatic, who violently and wildly attack the people who were not on phones at the time. (Honestly, John Cusack’s hero picks up on the cell phone connection way too quickly.)

Therefore, a graphic novelist (Cusack), a transit worker (Johnson), an emo chick (Fuhrman) and a young student (Teague) take to the road, trying to find Cusack’s estranged wife and son. As they go on, they learn more about the zombies' ways, including the fact they tend to move in packs and hibernate together at night. (Again, the heroes pick up on these little quirks way too quickly.)

However, as the killers tend to change and mutate, they find there is one life-force that seems to be controlling the whole throng. This entity – a red-hoodied man with a ripped face who starts appearing in the survivor’s dreams – seems to be trying to keep the survivors from going to a rustic camp in New England. Or is it all a big trap?

Luckily, Cell: The Movie does not repeat the disappointing and unsatisfying surprise ending of Cell: The Novel. Unfortunately, the movie’s climax is not all that much of an improvement – a bit more realistic perhaps, but not much more rewarding.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: August 25, 2016.

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