Note: This is a spoiler free review
Since 1976 there have been almost sixty films based on the works of literary Horror master Stephen King, not to mention countless more straight to TV films and series’. While some of these have translated well to the big screen treatment like classics The Shining, Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption, others have been less successful and in many cases have earned the scorn of King himself.
This year it’s the turn of King’s 2007 novel Cell to get a movie makeover and while it is far from the worst adaptation of the writers work it ultimately ends up being a solid but totally forgettable watch.
Cell is the story of Clay Riddell (John Cusack) a graphic artist who has recently gone through a bit of a midlife crisis, leaving his wife and child to pursue a life of drawing comic books and drinking too much. As the film starts Clay is at a busy Boston airport, trying to get home to his estranged family after a year of living as a man child in an attempt to patch things up.
Things quickly go awry however in a brilliant opening scene as Clays’ fellow travellers are turned into blood thirsty zombies by their mobile phone signals, brutally and bloodily attacking each other in an opening which is punchy and effective at getting viewers engaged in the film. There’s a fair few cringe worthy or “oh damn” moments in the first fifteen minutes of Cell even if we’ve seen it a hundred times before in the likes of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead.
Clay is quickly introduced to Tom McCourt (Samuel L Jackson) a Vietnam veteran come train driver and the pair devise a plan of trekking through the destroyed state to rescue Clays’ family from the flocks of technology possessed “Phoners”. What ensues is a typical post-apocalyptic tale as the duo fight for their lives, trying to figure out the cause of the disaster and bumping into an eccentric cast of survivors along the way.
This is the second time that Cusack and Jackson have joined forces for a Stephen King adaptation (2007’s 1408 being the first) and the pair do a great job of elevating the film above its generic concept with some strong performances. Cusack is spot on with his pithy but determined father role and Jackson is clearly enjoying a chance to let loose with some trademark swearing and screaming making the back and forth between Clay and Tom a great thing to watch.
What lets the casting down however is the script. Every character in Cell seems to adapt to their new found survivor status far too easily and outside of a few quieter moments every conversation had simply serves as a little bit of exposition before moving on. In our modern age, where “what would you do in a zombie apocalypse” is a favoured drunken conversation topic of many, it can perhaps be forgiven that Clay and Tom get comfortable with things a little quickly but the problem arises when they deliver up thirty second explanations of the causes and logistics of what is going on and then never address things again.
Outside of the strong leading performances Cell also has a decent supporting cast. While many characters in this film are simply there to be eaten or bludgeoned horrifically Isabelle Fuhrman gives a decent performance as Clay and Toms part time party member Alice and Stacey Keach of American History X fame gives an almost scene stealing performance as the slightly unhinged school master Charles Ardai.
The decent cast is also helped by some great special effects and cinematography. Cell sometimes stays dangerously close to Walking Dead territory with its washed out desolate look but its shot in a confident and stylistic manner (with some beautiful snow covered scenes towards the end of the film) and the action delivers some suitably visceral gore drenched moments.
King clearly devised some pretty interesting creatures with the “Phoners” in Cell. The technology drunk flesh eaters scuttle across the screen acting as one large consciousness, chirping and sputtering out phone signals together and coming across far more interesting than just plain old zombies. Cell hints at underlying themes of loss individuality and a reliance on an overly connected technological world that seem more relevant now than they were nine years ago. These hints could have made Cell something rather unique but instead are left by the way side in favour of a steady flow of generic shocks and scares.
In defence of Cell this rapid, almost dream like movement through the film may be intentional. As hints that Clays’ grip on reality might not be all that strong start to emerge, but the film does little to capitalise on this concept and by the time things wrap up it results in a confusing finale that felt too straight forward to be conceptually obtuse and too strange to be satisfying.
Overall this is perhaps the most disappointing thing about Cell. There are some great ideas just below the surface, religion and destiny are touched on throughout the film running alongside this creepy “Hive Mind” concept. All of which could have come together to be something really cool. Instead Cell ends up being a watchable but confusing mess of a film that can’t be forgiven when it clearly had some great ideas that could have set it apart.
If you love the Zombie genre then your hour and half with Cell would not be a waste. It’s a solid, well made film with a great cast and some satisfying action. It’s just a shame that it had enough to work with in terms of themes to be something great and never fulfilled its potential.
Cell has the makings of something great. A strong cast, a popular premise backed up by some unique ideas. It’s just a shame that it never fully takes advantage of everything it has to offer. Instead of a great, gory and through provoking romp Cell ends up being a solid popcorn horror flick that might deserve a casual watch but does little to cause horror fans to revisit it.
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Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L Jackson. Dir: Todd Williams
Released on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on October 17th but Signature Entertainment.