R | 98 min | Tod Williams | USA | 2016
Cell is a disaster, and I say that as someone who has read (and liked) Stephen King’s novel and was very much looking forward to this adaptation. Moreover, the fact that Cell is directed by Tod Williams, who also directed Paranormal Activity 2 (in my view, the best entry in the franchise), stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, and was written in part by Stephen King himself, promised much more than what, unfortunately, has been delivered.
Cell is something of a cross between Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), though not nearly as good as either (yes, not as good as The Happening!).
Clay Riddell (Cusack) is at the airport in Boston when everyone talking on a cell phone (which is just about, well, everyone) starts foaming at the mouth and savaging their neighbors (this is the part that’s like 28 Days Later and all of its fast zombie successors). Managing to escape the mayhem, Clay meets up with Tom McCourt (Jackson) and they make it back to Clay’s apartment where they pick up fellow survivor Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman), traumatized from having just killed her mother. Together, the three of them decide to head up to New Hampshire where Clay’s estranged wife and son live: he was talking to his wife on the phone when the “Pulse” struck, and he desperately wants to find them, hoping against hope that they are unaffected.
On the way north, Clay, Tom, and Alice realize that the behavior of those affected by the Pulse is changing. They are less violent, starting to flock, and seem to be moving and acting in some kind of concerted, collective way (and this is where the parallel to The Happening comes in). Passing by a prep school, Clay, Tom, and Alice meet the headmaster, Charles Ardai (Stacy Keach) and one of his pupils, Jordan (Owen Teague), who show them an entire stadium full of what they are calling “phoners,” all laying on the ground, apparently recharging and somehow connected to a central signal.
What happens at the school brings the thus-far only rather confusing series of events into the realm of absurdity. The group sits around having a relatively lengthy conversation about how the phoners no longer seem to be a threat; indeed, Ardai speculates that they may represent the next stage in human evolution, a progression to a “eusocial species,” like a “colony of bees or ants,” acting “for the good of the group” with “no competitiveness, no selfishness.” Despite these insights, and proving that they certainly haven’t evolved beyond selfishness, the survivors then suddenly and inexplicably decided to burn all the phoners in a mass conflagration. This moment—deciding to kill beings whom the group also recognizes as human—is a genuine moral dilemma in the novel that has lasting psychological consequences. In the film, however, the characters talk about the phoners’ humanity, burn them all, and then move on.
More things happen; the group continues heading north; they meet more people along the way and figure out more about the mysterious “phoners,” all events that are seriously underdeveloped. In the end, Clay finds his son. But is he still his son? The ending of King’s novel is notoriously ambiguous, hated by some, defended by others. The ending of the film is not ambiguous and is, in its lack of ambiguity, actually one of the most interesting parts of the film.
Cusack, Jackson, and Fuhrman, in particular, do a serviceable job with what they’re given. The cinematography is striking in places, offering us desolate scenes of the northeast in winter, tracking constantly to the cell phone towers always dominating the landscape, even as the characters get out of the city and into the rural terrain of New England. Everything else, though, is a hot mess, as the film careens wildly from one event to another with no clear exposition, no character development, and no sense of continuity.
Most notably, the film makes no effort to develop a coherent storyline about the cell phone signal, trying to cram everything from the novel into one short film. There are frantic, savage zombies, flocking phoners, phoners joined by some mysterious signal, the push for everyone to head north, some mysterious figure who infests the survivors’ dreams, a strange signal tower up north. But why is all this happening? It’s not even purposefully ambiguous, which at least you could say about The Happening (for all its flaws). The film just seems designed to doggedly hit all the major plot points of King’s novel, heedless of developing any meaningful context for them.
The only part of the film I found interesting was the invocation of 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When the phoners (in their non-savage flocking phase) stand still and seem to be receiving some sort of signal, they do so with an open mouth that echoes the famous last moment of Philip Kaufman’s film—the moment when Donald Sutherland reveals himself as an alien pod person rather than human. The same sense of a concerted, collective, and ineffable threat hangs over the main characters of Cell, but, unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s been no investment in the characters that might actually make us care about any of them, and the unfolding of the threat has been ludicrously incoherent, driven by scattershot and gratuitous scenes not a developing narrative.
In the end, then, I can’t recommend Cell, even with the occasional interesting idea from King’s novel, which ends up seeping through, and even with the provocative echoes of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers narrative. Chalk it up to yet another disappointing Stephen King adaptation.