Directed by Tod Williams
Opens July 8 at Cinema Village
In 2007, the movie 1408, based on a Stephen King story and starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, made $72 million in sweet, sweet horror money at the summer box office. Just a year shy of that movie’s tenth anniversary, Cusack and Jackson have reteamed for a movie version of Cell, which is based on a much bigger King story (much of 1408 is an extended Cusack solo) published shortly before 1408 came out in theaters. Cell premiered to little fanfare on VOD last month, and plays in select theaters starting this weekend, including the Cinema Village. Confirmed, then: It really was the pictures that got small.
Once earmarked as a possible Eli Roth directing vehicle, Cell seems like an easy match to any number of storytelling trends that may have been more zeitgeisty a few years ago but nonetheless maintain some hold on popular imagination: it’s a post-apocalypse narrative, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreliance on digital technology, it’s got zombies. In film form, though, it’s not much of any of those things. The opening credits roll over realistic footage of people at the airport using their phones that almost looks documentary-like, a starker bit of scene-setting than the usual ominous dread-summoning. This seems like a canny choice until it comes time, a few minutes later, for director Tod Williams to unleash the story’s terrifying hook: A pulse emits from all cellular devices, scrambling the brains of anyone unlucky to have their ears in the vicinity, turning them into rapacious, 28 Days Later-style zombies (fast, cracked, and violent; not undead or shuffling). Williams stages the chaos as a generic, surprisingly un-scary scrum, with Clay Riddell (Cusack) gawping at the action as if Cusack is looking at a green-screen, trying to appear scared (he may be; at very least, a chintzy plane crash looks emphatically Not There). It’s sudden, but not in a jolting way; for the onset of an apocalyptic zombie-making e-plague, it’s borderline perfunctory, showing off the limits of you-are-there handheld and semi-fast cutting.
From there, the movie almost immediately scales down, eventually settling on Clay, Tom McCourt (Jackson), and teenage Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrmnan) traversing the wrecked environs of the greater Boston area, searching for other survivors, trying to avoid the cell-zombies and, for Clay, hoping his estranged wife and son happened to make it through alive. The eeriest moment is actually one of unexpected respite: the trio is pursued by the zombies until an unseen signal draws them away, en masse, at dusk. (Maybe they’re retreating to watch some kind of in-brain Netflix, a service that wasn’t a streaming giant yet back in the novel’s 2006.)
Cusack, dressed in his late-period usual skulking-around clothes (black coat, ever-present black winter skullcap), could make a strong King stand-in, but doesn’t; he and Jackson are only there to lend the material some respectability, and make it feel less cheap and claustrophobic.
Cell is somewhat faithful to its source material, just somewhat truncated—and it gets more truncated as it moves along, as if slowly running out of funds (or interest in the book, which admittedly flirts with a Kingly petering out). To that end, it tweaks King’s ending at the last minute, haphazardly introducing an interesting twist with no time to register (is it one-off symbolism or a peek into the mind of a zombie?). Even its changes to the novel are weirdly condensed. Some movies inspire awed questions of “How’d they do that?” Cell prompts the opposite: How didn’t they do that? How did they not make a good movie out of this novel? How did they make a gripping horror story look like a relic of the flip-phone era?