When a mysterious cell phone signal causes apocalyptic chaos, an artist is determined to reunite with his young son in New England.
June 10th, 2016
Samuel L. Jackson
For my avid readers (all 2 of you), you’ll probably remember one of my occasional catch-phrases. I generally only pull these words out, dust them off and put them back into use when they’re really, really needed.
Well, after taking in the John Cusack starrer Cell – adapted by the great Stephen King from his own novel – it’s time to reanimate this particular exclamation – or is it a warning, dear friends?
It’s Faye Dunaway portraying Joan Crawford in the camp cult classic, Mommie Dearest. For those of you who are new to my reviews, and unfamiliar with this determined piece of dialogue, it’s a moment on screen where “Joan” lifts up a script (no doubt a film meant to star her, but clearly unworthy of her talent) to her lover, and in a gasp of exasperation, shakes it and says, “It’s not good!”
With the absolute disaster I’ve just witnessed in the form of this apocalyptic horror-thriller, no other words can properly express what I’m thinking right now about Cell. A disappointment and an embarrassment – for all those involved.
Based on the 2006 novel by the master of horror, the film boasts an absurd amount of talent in front of and behind the camera: a screenplay adaptation by King himself, along with Adam Alleca (who wrote the remake of The Last House on the Left), director Tod Williams (who helmed the pleasing Paranormal Activity 2), actors John Cusack (who exec. produced here), Samuel L. Jackson, Stacy Keach and Isabelle Furhman (who was fantastic in Orphan) and for goodness sake a cameo from Troma Pictures’ own Lloyd Kaufman. And yet, this was one of the biggest piles of garbage I’ve seen in quite some time – the stink rises almost as high as the pile of fried cell phones you see in the film itself.
Clay Riddell (Cusask) is a graphic novel illustrator. On his way back to his estranged wife and son, he gets caught up in a massive violent attack in the airport. Anyone using a cellular device is affected by some mysterious signal sent over their phone. They’re turned into insane and ultra-violent creatures with no remorse and no way to reason with them. Clay meets up with a train operator named Tom McCourt (Jackson) and they begin to make their way through the countryside, which is crawling with these aptly-named “phoners”, carrying the hope to reunite with Clay’s wife and child. Along the route, they are joined by Alice Maxwell (Furhman) and several other survivors.
None of the performances from these acting vets (and in the case of Samuel L. Jackson – Oscar nominee) are good. And it’s sad that I’m able to place such a blanket statement over all of them. How often does that happen? I’m reminded of a quote from Tangina Barrons (the late Zelda Rubinstein) in the original Poltergeist, “I don’t know what hangs over this house…” And the thought is apt – “I don’t know what hung over this film production…”
There is nothing in this film with any energy, any inspiration or anything to draw us in. I cared nothing about the characters in Cell. We barely get any history behind these folks, and the morsels provided do nothing to gain our sympathies. There’s also never any sense of danger. The suspense is virtually nil. And it doesn’t help that the character reactions to these horrific and highly unusual events – never reach the frantic fearfulness they should – to properly illustrate this dire situation. I hate to say it, but the actors really “phoned” this one in!
Now, I love a good road-trip flick – meeting strange personalities along the way, overcoming dangers unforeseen and seeing the characters making their way to their final destination. But Cell even fails on that level.
The ending was apparently changed in the adaptation, as King’s readers “complained” about the novel’s conclusion. I, for one, was pleased with the book’s ending – and can’t believe that what was chosen to wrap-up the film, is in any way better.
Oddly enough, knowing the story of the book, I was still acutely confused by the film. The lack of reasonable or even remotely understandable explanations is striking and irritating. And if I was unsure of what was going on, I can’t imagine any audience member who didn’t read the book; having the slightest clue.
The visual effects were terribly lacking. From the moment we get our first view of the city in disarray, and the very common images (in practically every apocalyptic thriller) of smoking/burning buildings across the city-scape – I could tell it was going to be a problem. And I was right. Time and time again, explosions and large masses of the “phoners” appear chintzy, and so obviously CGI – but not good CGI.
Now, there are a few creepily effective images. The novel Cell was intended as Stephen King’s homage to his long-time buddy, zombie-godfather, George A. Romero. And in the film, we get plenty of zombie-ish hordes attacking. But while Romero’s zombies are famously slow-moving, the “phoners” are quick and agile – like the “infected” of the 28 Days Later franchise. And when these creatures begin to move like a flock of birds (so wonderfully described in the book), you’ll get some genuine chills.
Do yourself a favor and pick up the book. It’s a quick, exciting and pleasurable read. Avoid this film if you can, and try to forget that this awful mess ever existed. The novel is (as they so often are) far superior to the film – but if you’re comparing novel-to-film transfers – even things like Silence of the Lambs, Misery or any other such adaptations – get thrown to the wolves. The films, as good as they are – just can’t match the book. But Cell… this lackluster adaptation goes way beyond. It’s just a complete mess.
The film was released on June 10th, to VOD. And if Cell were an actual phone, I’d insist that you turn the device to silent, ignore and/or block every call – or better yet, turn it off completely and throw it into the nearest body of water you can find – and hope against hope that no one has a bowl of rice on their person.
With all of the mega-talent surrounding this production, I have to ask, “Seriously, what happened here?”