I did have the opportunity to read Stephen King’s “Cell” while I was on vacation in Hawaii. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it was an entertaining read as it delved into our increasing obsession and dependence on technology, in particular cell phones. When the novel was released in 2006, cell phones still had a bit of a ways to go to get to where they are today; devices that can do just about everything and anything in our daily lives except make coffee. But now it’s 2016 and we have long since reached that point where we can’t bear to live without our cell phones and are a slave to them.
A movie adaptation of “Cell” had been in the works for years and Eli Roth was originally going to direct it, but that didn’t work out. Now it has finally arrived in theaters and can be quickly added to the garbage heap of terrible Stephen King adaptations like “Maximum Overdrive” and “The Mangler.” While its subject matter is still timely, “Cell” quickly devolves into just another zombie movie where the clichés are rampant to where we know exactly what to expect to where any suspenseful moments it hoped to have are rendered moot. In short, it is an uninspired retread of “28 Days Later,” a movie this one can only dream of being as terrifying as.
“Cell” opens up on Clayton Riddell (John Cusack) getting off his flight which has brought him back home, and he is eager to reconnect with his wife and son, both of whom he has been estranged from for too long. But it doesn’t take all that long for all the fellow travelers around him to start losing their minds and convulse to where they start attacking everyone and everything in sight. Clayton manages to escape the airport and teams up with subway worker Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman) to find a safe haven away from those infected with the cell phone virus that controls the actions of everyone infected by it.
The movie gives us sights and sounds we have seen endlessly in one apocalyptic movie after another. We see scenes of cities in utter ruins, cars turned over, survivors travelling through empty roads and fields, etc. All this does is remind me of other movies that are far scarier and more unnerving to where it’s tempting to turn off “Cell” and watch them instead. There’s almost nothing to separate this film from others of its genre, and it becomes a glum and languid bore of a motion picture that feels too long even at 98 minutes.
Watching John Cusack here made me feel sorry for him. After suffering through a number of bad movies these past few years, he delivered a truly great performance as the elder Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy” which proved he still has much to give to the world of acting. But here in “Cell,” Cusack just looks bored and barely interested to be a part of this particular Stephen King adaptation. His character is just another father trying to get to his child to ensure his safety, and the actor just goes through the motions with little to show for it.
Samuel L. Jackson fares a little better here as Tom McCourt as he gives a performance that is subtle instead of bombastic. The “Pulp Fiction” actor effortlessly turns his character into an everyman who has seen far too much in this lifetime to where this apocalyptic situation is no different to him than being a soldier in a foreign land. Jackson has been in countless movies over the years, many of them flat out bad, but there is no doubt that he will survive this critical catastrophe to give us great performances in the future.
What’s especially galling is that both Cusack and Jackson starred in another Stephen King cinematic adaptation almost ten years ago, “1408,” and that proved to be a scary time at the movies. Why they couldn’t bring the same enthusiasm they clearly had on that one to “Cell” almost feels like a mystery.
But then again, we shouldn’t be blaming the two stars as much as we should be blaming the director of this uninspired mess, Tod Williams. Back in 2004 he gave us the blistering drama “The Door in the Floor” which starred Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as a couple forever torn apart emotionally by the death of their sons. It was a breakthrough feature for Williams as he got some of the best performances out of Bridges’ and Basinger’s careers, and he dug deep into the lives of unlikable characters whose psychological wounds were too deep for us to look away from. A few years later he directed “Paranormal Activity 2,” a sequel which proved to be as terrifying as the original. And considering how terrifying the original was, that’s saying a lot.
Those two movies show Williams to be a huge talent behind the camera, so it is very hard to understand why he couldn’t make “Cell” the least bit scary or unnerving. King’s novel dealt with material that was familiar to him, but the writer made “Cell” more than just another exploration into the end of civilization as we know it. Williams doesn’t bother to do that here as he simply throws out one tired cliché after another at us, and some scenes are so badly lit to where it’s impossible to figure out what is going on. This is also not to mention the horrible CGI effects on display which illustrate how this low budget horror movie had an even lower budget than others.
This all leads to a climax which is not at all satisfying, and an ending that is unforgivably confusing. King’s conclusion to “Cell” was a bit anticlimactic and too ambiguous for many readers, but it was still a haunting conclusion that Williams doesn’t bother to include here.
Adapting Stephen King novels to the silver screen has always been tricky as filmmakers have to balance out their attention to both the gory aspects of his stories and the characters which inhabit them. Perhaps Williams tried to do both here, but he’s not able to shock us or care about the protagonists at the center of “Cell.” What we get instead is a very below average genre movie that isn’t worth anyone’s money or time. That should more than explain the studio’s decision to dump it in a handful of theaters this past weekend for a limited release. Do audiences even know “Cell” is out in theaters this weekend? Well, even if they do, I can’t blame them for not caring.
* out of * * * *
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016. All Rights Reserved.