Written by Joel Harley
Released by Signature Entertainment
Directed by Tod Williams
Written by Adam Alleca, Stephen King,
2016, 98 minutes, Rated 15
Frightfest UK premiere on 26th August 2016
John Cusack as Clay Riddell
Samuel L. Jackson as Tom McCourt
Isabelle Fuhrman as Alice Maxwell
Clark Sarullo as Sharon Riddell
As we watch footage and unfolding news stories of flocks of Pokémon Go players swarming through the streets, diving Lemming-like over clifftops and wandering into back gardens and busy roads in pursuit of anime creations on a mobile phone screen, Stephen King’s Cell has never been more timely and accurate.
Too timely and accurate, in fact? What was once allegory is an actual thing, human beings literally acting like brain-dead zombies and being herded into furious hordes of the rabid via domineering ‘social’ media (just read Ron Jonson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed if you don’t believe me), leaving this adaptation feeling awfully on-the-nose and, at the same time, outdated.
Not top-tier King in the first place, his Cell is nevertheless an immediately attention grabbing piece of work – the author’s attempt at a zombie horror novel. As a mysterious signal turns mobile phone users into vicious, bloodthirsty monsters, so a gang of survivors band together to reconnect with their families and hopefully not die in the process. Leading the group is graphic novel artist Clay Riddell (standard King creative type, missing only an alcohol addiction and life-changing car accident). Trapped in the city as all hell breaks loose, Clay befriends train conductor Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson!) and jittery Goth neighbour Alice. Together they attempt to survive as Clay goes in search of his ex-wife and child.
To say Stephen King has a rocky relationship with the movies is to undersell a filmography which takes in such mighty highs and lows as The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, IT, The Mist, Dreamcatcher and Maximum Overdrive, to name but a few (I’ll leave you to decide which is which - although I will physically fight anyone who tries to claim The Dark Half as a bad movie). While Cell could go either way, there’s no denying that the lack of a Frank Darabont type doesn’t bode well, following a recent losing streak which has so far taken in the utterly terrible Under the Dome and patchy (to be charitable at best) 11/22/63 TV adaptations. This one is, at least, shorter.
You’ll be thankful for that. While Cell starts off strong, with a chaotic, gory outbreak that’s up there with the action of Dawn of the Dead 2004, it soon settles down into a sadly all-too familiar funk of slow plotting and weird tonal choices. Like so many Stephen King adaptations before it, it’s beholden to an atmosphere which doesn’t really work on screen – King’s mom, pop and apple pie style of American storytelling only suited to the page and his characters. It’s a magic that even King has trouble capturing in his own screenwriting, as in his TV adaptation of The Shining and, sadly, Cell.
Clay Riddell is a man without character or personality, and John Cusack plays him as such, your standard modern DTV era Cusack performance. Gone is the charismatic, cool actor of Grosse Point Blank, High Fidelity and Con Air, instead replaced by a bored looking man who can just about bring himself to ape Nicolas Cage for the earlier action sequences. He’s not alone in his indifference though, paired with a surprisingly sedate Samuel L. Jackson, who also seems to be playing the role on autopilot. With the exception of its overacting nobodies (and a brief Stacy Keach), the performances of Cell feel utterly phoned in.
Which is a shame, considering the moments of wit and originality that the film does show. While its zombie action is unimaginative by most standards, its little eccentricities are truly fascinating. Witness as Clay and Tom steamroll a field full of zombies as Eduard Khil’s meme-famous ‘I Am Glad ‘Cause I’m Finally Returning Back Home’ song (the ‘Trololo’ tune to most) is loudly broadcast via zombie acoustics. No, really. It ends on a similarly bizarre note, teasing what could have been one of the great bad movies of our time. Its creepy, dial-up Internet voiced zombies are like 28 Days Later meet the Borg, led by… um, a guy in a red hoody, a truly bathetic villain, robbing the film of even a decent ending. King has often been brought to task for his resolutions in the past and, somehow, this is even worse.
A staggering collection of bad ideas and disappointments heaped onto a promising template, Cell is not likely to be one of the better remembered Stephen King adaptations. Technically there, but functionally useless, it's a whole film running in aeroplane mode.