By James Kenney (revised version of article published at whatchareading.com in 2016
Long delayed (filming ended in early 2014), Tod Williams’ adaptation of Stephen King’s 2006 novel CELL isn’t a catastrophe, nor is it a disentombed gem. It re-teams the stars of the pretty decent 1408 (theatrical cut only, the fashionably nihilistic “director’s cut” is best sidestepped) in another Stephen King adaptation that suffers because of the very reason it exists: King. The justifiably legendary King has certainly done better work than this rehash, providing a thankfully fast-paced script (co-written by Adam Alleca) that nevertheless doesn’t offer anything truly fresh. Luckily, capable director Williams, best known commercially for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 and artistically for the well-received Jeff Bridges drama DOOR IN THE FLOOR, does a pretty solid job of keeping things moving, so that CELL ultimately proves an up-to-code if perhaps unnecessary 90 minutes of horror.
Talented artists curiously can get hung up repeating their worst ideas. Walter Hill returned after a ten-year layoff with the weary BULLET IN THE HEAD, which was an annoying rehash of his Schwarzenegger/Jim Belushi vehicle RED HEAT, of all things, certainly one of his worst films (which itself was an unfortunate rehash of the fine 48 HRS, which Hill later rehashed with the ridiculous ANOTHER 48. HRS). King wrote and directed one film about mankind’s inventions turning against him, the amusingly bizarre but mostly godawful MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, which featured an evil ice cream truck (CELL features an ice cream truck too, but this one is working for the good guys). CELL involves cell phones turning one fateful morning against humanity , transforming all using them (the majority of the population) into foaming-mouth WALKING DEAD-type zombies who get signals from phone towers and hibernate at night. This allows the few survivors, John Cusack and Samuel Jackson among them, to strategize and travel (although they never come up with much of a strategy, and the group all-too-readily consents to Cusack’s personal quest to locate his wife and son who are likely dead or zombified like the rest of the population.)
While the film claims a New York filming tax credit in its lengthy end credits, it takes place in Boston and according to the internet, was shot in Atlanta, Georgia. For those who don’t watch WALKING DEAD weekly (I’m among them) the film offers enough gore and eerie imagery of entranced zombies to keep audiences involved for the better part of its running time. Whether or not it offers anything special enough to engage those who have gorged on zombie fiction for the better part of the 21st century is a question, as after the creepy opening sequence of Boston-Gone-Wild there are mostly scenes of humans huddled down in various locales ruminating and planning. The cast is sound, with every few minutes some new character actors adding spice, especially Erin Elizabeth Burns and Anthony Reynolds as humorously exaggerated New Englanders, working their vowels to witty effect (although not much is done with their characters after an amusing introduction). King downsizes his epic novel, which certainly seemed more topical in 06 when cell phones were first taking over society, replacing the ambitious Boston Common meltdown that opened the novel with more cost-effective, contained locations (airport, subway station), utilized judiciously enough.
What he doesn’t do is keep the plot going into its second hour, as stimulating characters are killed off and others are just largely forgotten about. A “phoner” zombie in a red hoodie known as “Mr. Internet”who apparently is key to all that’s going on, appearing in multiple characters’ dreams, never satisfactorily develops, and the big finale at an overrun cell phone tower has a weird, fairly creepy ambiance but no clear dramatic logic, especially in how it ultimately plays out.
Cusack, who for some reason keeps putting on and taking off a skull-cap throughout, stays fairly engaged with the bizarre proceedings, while Jackson does his typically proficient and professional job, disappointingly not being directly involved in the film’s climax. Isabelle Fuhrman has some nice moments as the young woman who comes along on the journey, and the cinematography by Michael Simmonds is skillful on a budget.
CELL is in the end minor, because it is neither timely nor dramatically fleshed out. It IS creepy, and King’s screenplay works in some honest suspense that director Williams doesn’t flub. The biggest problem is that King fashions an antagonist in Mr. Internet who neither proves engaging or scary enough to involve us in Cusack’s ultimate confrontation with him. This, coupled with only passable CGI effects and sequences that don’t break new zombie ground, makes CELL an inconsequential footnote in modern horror. But it works as a de-facto sequel to MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, with mature 80s icon Cusack replacing youthful 80s icon Emilio Estevez as the po-faced lead, comparable gore effects, and an analogous lack of dramatic logic. But it’s a better film – CELL is far too capably made to challenge OVERDRIVE as a loony cult-item, which I guess is a downfall of basic competency. CELL won’t horrify anyone into ditching their cell phones, but a few of its more creepy images may stick for a while, and is worth a look for King, Cusack and Jackson fans.