Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Terror, brief Sexuality and Language
Directed by: Tod Williams
Written by: Stephen King & Adam Alleca
(based on the novel CELL by Stephen King)
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach & Wilbur Fitzgerald
Even people who have never picked up one of Stephen King’s 54 novels are bound to know the man from his many big screen and small screen adaptations. CELL is the latest of these movies. Based on the 2006 zombie novel from King, this film has long been in the works with Eli Roth originally slated to direct and Dimension Studios backing the budget. Years passed. Nothing happened. People moved on with their lives. After a long and troubled production history, CELL has finally been unleashed onto the public. Is it worth the almost decade long journey to the big screen? Nope. Not even close. This is simultaneously one of the worst Stephen King movies and one of the worst zombie films to come out in a long time.
Graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is at an airport, when a mysterious electronic pulse is sent through every active cell phone in the world. Those exposed to the signal (anyone who happened to be on the cell phone) has transformed into a screeching, blood-thirsty “phoner” that wants nothing more than to eat your flesh. After escaping with the help of train operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), Clay desperately wishes to reach his family…if only to confirm whether they’re phoners or totally safe. Soon enough, the pair are joined by teenage Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and the newly formed trio of survivors make their way across the bloody cell phone apocalypse to rescue Clay’s family. As if things couldn’t get any more dangerous, phoners have formed a hive-mind and are now killing in flocks.
I wanted to give CELL the benefit of the doubt. Believe me, I tried. I was a fan of the novel upon its release and have revisited it a few times since then, one of those was deliberately in preparation for this movie adaptation. Though it’s not exactly original, the book is a creepy, compelling and entertaining read. That being said, this movie is a complete and utter mess. As an adaptation of the source material, it fails to ignite any sense of suspense that the book carried so well. Part of this results from an obviously low budget that didn’t allow for the large-scale chaos and hysteria that King brought to life on the page. This is glaring in the consistently awful CGI that’s used for plane crashes, fire, explosions, smoke, and hordes of phoners. However, it seems outright useless in places, like when cheap CGI is employed for falling snow. I find it very hard to believe that this production couldn’t afford cheap plastic flakes that look more convincing than an obvious flash animation effect.
Even when viewed as a standalone creation that’s loosely based on a Stephen King novel (a category in which some of the best King films fall into), CELL remains a boring, stupid slog to sit through. These 98 minutes feels like a chore to endure. The film opens with cheap lazy credits that hinted I might be in for something painful right from the start, but never gains any big momentum to make you feel that the world has fallen into a zombie-filled wasteland. The whole movie basically follows a repeating pattern of characters running into other characters, encountering a phoner flock, and meeting more characters. Some of these survivors happen to be plot points in the novel, but every side character (aside from our trio of survivors) is treated with an equal amount of disinterested blandness.
John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in one of the best King movies of the 2000’s: 1408. Cusack was even an executive producer on this film. In CELL, both of these talented performers look bored and I got the sense that they knew this material wasn’t working on the screen. Other supporting characters come and go in a forgettable flash, giving a variety of dull or comically over-the-top performances. One shining star in this bleak mess of a film comes in Isabelle Fuhrman (the creepy child from ORPHAN) as Alice. In the book, this character represents an innocence lost in the apocalypse. Fuhrman captures that relatively well, but is frequently swiped to the sidelines so Jackson and Cusack engage in tedious conversations. As far as other side characters go, Stacy Keach looks like he’s in pain as a boring school headmaster, Owen Teague receives about ten lines as a tag along student, and Anthony Reynolds goes beyond the point of over-the-top as a technological savvy survivor.
For a zombie movie, CELL is shockingly dull and relatively tame in terms of gore. There are only about three or four notable zombie (er, I mean “phoner”) encounters after the airport chaos. These bits mostly include characters running away from zombies or firing guns (complete with Adobe after effects). However, these phoners aren’t exactly that threatening or scary to begin with. These zombies pretty much run in circles and emit electronic sounds from their mouths. While those details worked in the book, they look insanely silly and laughably bad on the screen. The main phoner antagonist, a red-hooded Raggedy Man, also comes off like a lame-brained, half-assed afterthought.
To add insult to injury, CELL’s mind-bogglingly stupid ending lacks emotion or creativity. It should be noted that the film’s conclusion strays from the original novel and the author himself is partially responsible for this haphazard screenplay. Apparently, King had issues with the book’s finale (which was slightly ambiguous, but sent the story out on an interesting/possibly uplifting note) and attempted to remedy that here. He did about as good of a job as he accomplished in 1997, by “fixing” THE SHINING with a godawful six-hour miniseries starring Stephen Weber. The crappy ending is only more disappointment added onto this big failure of a film that somehow isn’t getting an F…thanks to a Isabelle Fuhrman’s good performance. This is easily one of the worst Stephen King films I’ve seen. It’s down there with THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and THE LANGOILERS. Avoid CELL and stick to the book…or just watch a bevy of better zombie films.