In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t really care for the novel Cell, first published by Stephen King in 2006. In particular, the resolution of that novel sparked such a degree of fan disapproval that King stated he had crafted a new ending for the film adaptation. Well, that film is now upon us, and, boy, is it a mixed bag.
If you’re not a King reader, or simply missed this one, Cell is the story of Clay Riddell (John Cusack), a comic book artist and writer returning from a business trip when the world goes sideways. As he searches for a power source to charge his drained cell phone and continue the plot-necessary conversation with his estranged wife and son, a signal turns cell phone users into rabid maniacs who seem to attack anything they see. After a wild flight from the airport terminal, Clay finds himself in the company of subway engineer Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson), who accompanies Clay out of the tunnel and to the relative safety of Clay’s bachelor pad.
There, they pick up another survivor, Alice Maxwell (Isabel Fuhrman), and decide to journey out of the city of Boston to find Clay’s missing wife and child. Those affected by the cellular signal begin exhibiting increasingly odd behavior, including group-mind activities like marching together and sharing information through some ill-defined psychic connection. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of Cell is how little time is spent explaining the threat. Sure, they’re crazies bent on murder, but little distinguishes them from the rampant spate of zombie villains in any number of films. The technological origin, which could be the stuff of nightmares under the right circumstances, instead feels confusing and poorly realized.
That’s the story of Cell, really. It’s nice to see Sam Jackson and John Cusack together again in a King adaptation, and they both turn in solid performances, despite the fact that Jackson’s Tom McCourt has little to do in the film besides provide a sounding board for Cusack, and there’s some mention of a tragic backstory for McCourt but nothing ever comes of it. Just like nothing really comes of the film’s central villain, The Raggedy Man, who we are to assume is somehow a de facto leader for these zombified cell phone users… or something. It’s all so poorly described, but just hinted at enough to offer the promise of an intriguing origin for this psychic infection, or the vague plans for the rest of the world in light of this new variant of humanity appearing. Jackson is the one to offer some kind of explanation for the events of the film, but, much like the original Night of the Living Dead, no concrete explanation is given. That’s fine if the characters are isolated in a farm house, but, given the number of characters musing about the nature of the threat, something more than maybes and shrugs are necessary to make The Raggedy Man or his minions truly terrifying.
As our heroes venture deep into the land of the cell phone mutants, the evolution of the enemies feels more like a plot device than a natural extension of the story and misses the opportunity to ratchet the tension. In a perfect world, the ability of the zombified minions to spread their infection should be horrifying, but it just becomes another thing that happens as we move toward the ending. And that ending…
Let’s forget for a moment that we discard most of our main characters at a certain point to focus on Clay. Fine. There is something to be said for the downbeat ending, which Cell attempts, but so little in the way of explanation or definition of the threat has been done at this point, it’s very difficult to feel the anxiety of the conclusion. While less ambiguous than the end of the novel, it does nothing to make the conclusion of the story any more satisfying. Too many things are left unanswered. Too much left unsaid.
I had measured hopes for this movie, not only for the pedigree of King as both author of the source material and contributor to the script and Jackson and Cusack reunited to bring the master of modern horror’s words to life, but because the story reflects a thematically rich terror that could foster great discussion of reliance on new technologies and the insidious way they might be changing our culture in none-too-pleasant ways. What results is a half-baked zombie story that is equally familiar and frustratingly obscured by the writing, with performances which would be fine in a better film. The greatest frustration of the film is that there are glimpses of a good movie buried beneath the haphazard camera work and imprecise dialogue, a movie I very much want to see. Perhaps someone else may try again one day instead of Tod Williams, director of Paranormal Activity 2, or, perhaps, I should just watch the superior Pontypool one more time.
Only recommended for King completists.