I bought Stephen King’s Cell when it was first released, back in 2006. It was one of the books which felt infused by King’s new found cynicism after almost being wiped out by an idiot in a car – the very same accident which wormed its way thematically and psychologically into the final chapters of The Dark Tower. Already in 2006, cell phones were the norm and much of the criticism of the book was from people who claimed the story would have had more foreboding impact had it dropped five years earlier. When I first read the story – I got the subtext, but I was much more interested in the simple fact that it seemed to be King’s take on the zombie genre, having spoken out in support of movies like 28 Days Later. I quite enjoyed the book, even if it was on the silly side and didn’t always make the most coherent sense. I additionally felt that the book would make a very entertaining movie – the zombies were fresh enough that a cinematic take could be unique, and there were several setpieces which could have translated well from page to big screen. I waited for years watching rumour after rumour drop on a film version – I was keen to see what Eli Roth could do when he was attached, and then I was excited when I saw the triple threat of cast of John Cusack, Samuel L Jackson, and the great Isabelle Fuhrman. Is it any good?
Where to begin with this mess? I saw some reviews when the movie was released – they weren’t good. I hoped that these were simply the usual snotty elitists who can’t appreciate a King translation for the silly fun they are usually meant to be. I waited until the film was available on Prime to stream, and lordy, it’s not good. The plot is taken wholesale from the text – an artist is in New York away from his family when some sort of attack takes place. Basically, anyone who was using a cell phone (making a call) is turned into a blood crazed maniac and begins bashing anyone and everyone in sight. Clay, the Artist, escapes this initial wave, allies with a group of survivors, and plans to make his way back to his family in the hope they were not turned. Throw in a Big Bad who can control the zombies, some psychic dream nonsense, and you have a recipe for something already convoluted and junky. King’s gift in the story is making all of this, if not plausible, but relatable. We know it’s silly, but we trust King’s eye for character detail, emotion, and story-telling. The film has none of these things – major plot points are dropped (or not) without explanation, and the story unravels in sequence without emotion, suspense, or meaning – it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.
King’s gifts are not equated by director Tod Williams or screenwriter Adam Alleca. Williams, I have gone on record as saying that he made the best Paranormal Activity movie – so he knows what he is doing. I can only assume the production was the negative opposite of lightning in a bottle – the stars aligned to ensure that the worst possible outcome in every facet of the movie was achieved. Cusack seems like he’s having a stroke when trying to force out a tear, Samuel L Jackson seems bored, a few of the supporting characters are apparently genuinely damaged people that the filmmakers decided to put on camera for a bit of a laugh. Stacey Keach is fine for the three minutes he’s there, and Isabelle Fuhrman thinks she’s in a better movie than she actually is, or at the very least she’s trying to elevate things. On top of this, the soundtrack is filled with bizarre musical choices, the dialogue is low in the mix, and there are are three endings which you are free to choose as the one you want to be real.
Cell is a film I did want to love – I hold out hope that one day someone will make a good version of this, but I can’t see it. It’s a messy story, already dated, and that’s only going to get worse with time. There’s not a lot here for anyone to enjoy and everyone who you think would choose to watch the thing – horror fans, Stephen King fans – will be disappointed.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Cell!