CELL (2016) review
written by: Stephen King and Adam Alleca
produced by: Richard Saperstein, Michael Benaroya, Brian Witten & Shara Kay
directed by: Tod Williams
rated: R (for disturbing violent content, terror, brief sexuality and language)
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: June 10, 2106 (VOD/ITunes) and July 8, 2016 (limited)
“Cell” is based on a Stephen King book of the same name and if you’re at all familiar with the veteran author known primarily for his horror/thriller novels, then you’re aware that some of his books start out great and end with a fizzle. Cell is one such book and this movie is definitely a loyal adaptation in that sense. It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller directed by Tod Williams (who knows a few things about horror flicks “Paranormal Activity 2” and book adaptations “The Door in the Floor” and thought he could do the same here) that should’ve been released in the late 90s or early 00s, because at least then a story about the overuse of cell phones would be timely and it’s possible that a shared billing of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson would’ve meant a theatrical release. But then again, a movie this mediocre would’ve flatlined with audiences regardless of how it was released.
I mentioned the opening here is good and that’s being generous and even though its heavy-handed and exuded obviousness in every frame, it’s still the best part of the movie. So, it opens in Boston airport and as far as we know it’s present-day, but every where cinematographer Michael Simmons (who also lensed “Paranormal Activity 2” for the director) point his camera we see people talking on their cell phones. No way. Who does that? That’s so ten years ago, maybe longer. It’s clear what’s being communicated here albeit heavy-handedly, but I look around my urban surroundings and I rarely see anyone talking on their phone. It’s all either texting, FaceTime (or some variation) and hands-free communication. So, based on that alone, here’s a movie that is trying to “say something” but is clearly outdated.
Once the filmmakers have established that everyone is yammering on their cell phones, they’re then ready to introduce the mysterious occurrence that propels the movie’s entire story. But first we have to witness this through the eyes of a protagonist, an onlooker who is understandably confused by what’s about to happen and that’s when aspiring graphic novelist, Clay Riddel (Cusack) shows up. His phone conversation with his estranged ex-wife, Sharon (Clark Sarullo) and his young son, Johnny (Ethan Andrew Casto) is cut short when his cell runs out of juice and since everyone is using nearby electrical outlets to charge their phones, he uses a pay phone in the airport.
Wait – WHAT? Since when do airports still have pay phones? Since when do people still carry around pocket change for pay phones? Yet again, this movie – written by King himself (with help from Adam Alloca) – is determined to show its age.
It’s right around now when the occurrence happens. I don’t know what else to call it, but what Clay witnesses is everyone around him suddenly writhing and screeching from a piercing electromagnetic pulse that’s being emitting from every single cell phone. It scrambles everyone’s brains and makes them go crazy and viciously attacking anyone not effected, like crazed extras from “28 Days Later”. Clay forgoes baggage claim and runs for his life, barely escaping as an airplane careens into the terminal he’s trying to survive in.
Now look, this is a low-budget, direct-to-VOD/iTunes release that maybe/possibly/might see one theater – so, this was frenzied and delirious opening was good when you consider those elements. And considering the low expectations I had going in and how for years this movie was rumored as “in-production”, “Cell” has an opening that does a good job conveying a sense of utter confusion as well as a real threat.
The problem is that everything else that comes after this opening falls into the typical conventions one finds in a zombie-type apocalypse. This is a neutered version of “The Walking Dead” (instead of “walkers” they’re called “phoners” and yes, I know this 2006 novel was released before the hit AMC show which first aired in 2010, but the Robert Kirkman comic the show is based on has been running since 2003) with a dash of “The Road”, despite trying to offer a new twist on the subgenre. As Clay goes from one location to another trying to escape dire situations, he meets certain characters who are also trying to survive, one of which is middle-aged subway train conductor, Tom McCourt (a no-nonsense Jackson, played with a knowing wink), who becomes Clay’s wingman in the apocalypse. Clay shares that his goal is now to make his way to his son in his hometown of Kent Pond, Maine (obviously since it’s a King story) regardless of whether or not they boy’s has been effected by the pulse.
Clay and Tom agree to stick together – because: why not? – and pick up a few strays that still have their marbles intact, like Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman), Clay’s young neighbor and the duo becomes a trio. Once they pillage a gun freak’s abandoned home, they are now ready and able to take on whatever gets in their way. They come across a prep school at night as they avoid the mayhem and find one remaining headmaster, Charles Ardai (Stacy Keach) and one surviving student, Jordan (Owen Teague), who take Clay, Tom and Alice to the school’s soccer field where they find the entire field full of phoners laying alongside each other in a catatonic state, emitting an audible hum. Ardai explains they’ve learned the phoners “switch off” at night, as if downloading in their hive mind state. Using this behavior to their advantage, the five of them take the school’s propane tankers, spray the crowd and light them up.
Of course, this results in the accidental death of Keach’s character, because in a movie like this, the number of survivors must dwindle (the old guy has to go) in order to remind us of danger, stakes and predictability. From here on out, we watch as….well, not much happens. We learn that all four survivors have been having nightmares starring the same ugly, long-haired white dude in a red hoodie (Joshua Mikel) – in the book they name him “The Raggedy Man”, but no name is given here (not even “Freddy Krueger”) to a character who is clearly supposed to be the antagonist. We never find out why he’s an antagonist, nor do we learn what the endgame is of these violent phone zombies who function very similar to the pod people from 1978’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
The quartet carry on, taking back roads and wooden paths north to a location called Kashwak, which many signs have promoted as a “no-fo zone”, which they explain/assume means there’s no phones there. None of them have seen zombie/post-apocalyptic movies apparently, because any time signs along the road promote a certain location as a sort of haven – well, it winds up being the opposite. While in the woods, they stumble upon a couple, Ray (Anthony Reynolds) and Denise (Erin Elizabeth Burns) who are living in an old ice cream truck. The erratic Ray states he hasn’t slept in four or five days in order to remain vigilant – not a good idea for an armed paranoid man – and hands Clay a phone with a cell phone number attached to it, telling him to dial the number “when the time is right”. Obviously, the number will be dialed during the inevitable standoff between Clay and the Red Hoodie Dude in the movie’s ridiculous, convoluted ending.
I’m not going to touch on the subplot that suggests the Red Hooded Dude originated in Clay’s drawings nor do I have much to say about how Jackson’s character mentions “my boyfriend” under his breath – mainly because there’s nothing to touch on. Both of these elements played more prominently in King’s book and were more developed, as they often are in books. This screenplay doesn’t know what to do or care to incorporate any of these plot points or characterizations. King and Alloca are focused more on a streamlined version of his book, one that be easily marketed to fans of the subgenre.
The ending of “Cell” isn’t the only convoluted aspect of it. It’s history is also a convoluted mess movie that was doomed from the start. Ten years ago, director Eli Roth announced how excited he was about adapting King’s novel with Dimension Films. That didn’t happen (which he announced on his MySpace – remember that?) and Tod Willaims eventually took the helm as they shot in 2014 over 25 days in Atlanta, Georgia (so New England). After several studios had passed on U.S. distribution, the movie was picked up and dropped like a hot potato by Clarion Entertainment (now called Aviron Pictures) and was then rescued by Saban Films (a studio where guys like Chuck Russell and Renny Harlin disappear to), who made a deal to release “Cell” on VOD/iTunes in June before its one-theater release plan in July. No wonder you won’t see Cusack or Jackson working the talk shows to promote their work in this quagmire.
Speaking of Cusack and Jackson, those in the know will catch on that this is their second Stephen King film adaptation and those of you aren’t aware, check out the paranormal thriller “1408”, based on a King short. If you want to be thorough, this is technically Cusack’s third King adaptation, considering his appearance in “Stand By Me”. In this movie, Cusack is showing more life than he has in the VOD roles he’s taken in recent years, but not by much. He comes across like a sad and lonely Lloyd Dobbler, shrouded in an overcoat and skull cap. Despite his sublime turn in 2014’s “Love & Mercy”, Cusack has been sucked into the same VOD vortex that Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis have embraced. Last year, he had somewhat of a ridiculous role in Spike Lee’s preachy satire “Chiraq”, reprised his role in the unnecessary sequel “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” and also appeared in a samurai action/adventure co-starring Jackie Chan and Adrien Brody. He’s an actor I want to see get a good role, but lately most of them feel like paycheck roles.
Jackson, however, is at least having some fun here. In the novel, Tom McCourt was a gay white guy and the hooded Raggedy Man was a black dude – can you imagine how that would translate to the big-screen? It’s a good thing this was changed for the movie, since Jackson has a record for bringing something interesting to his character actor roles. At one point, I wished that the movie’s focus would solely follow his character, but unless your Denzel Washington or (maybe) Will Smith, there’s no chance a studio is going to pick up a horror flick that’s not led by a white guy.
This is the rare case where I’ve read the book before I’ve seen the movie. In fact, I read the book a while ago and, as I mentioned earlier, was disappointed with its fizzled ending. “Cell” is a movie that will probably only be seen by those who’ve read the book and are curious as to how an adaptation plays out or those who are somehow lured at the prospect of a “1408” reunion. No one in either of those camps will be thoroughly satisfied and in the end “Cell” will find an audience in the form of those late-night Netflix scrollers.