Cell is the film adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. Virtually every mainstream book that Stephen King has written has been made into a film, TV Series or Mini-series and just like his books, some have been more successful than others. Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery and many more have all been made into successful and highly profitable films. Cell is not one of them.
The film stars John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson who have starred together in another one of Stephen Kings projects, an adaptation of his short story, 1408. A story about a writer who is told to stay in a haunted room in a hotel to rate his experience. The film opened to positive reviews but others found the experience underwhelming. I personally found it interesting and the elements of the room told Cusack’s character’s backstory which is an innovative way to tell a story. On top of that, John Cusack more than managed to hold up most of the film by himself which is a difficult thing to do.
Before I start dissecting, lets have a rundown of the plot. Spoilers ahead so don’t read if you want to see this film.
Clay Riddell (Cusack) lands in New England after being somewhere else to pitch a graphic novel he has been developing. He calls his ex wife or estranged wife, it’s not specified, and talks to his son who hasn’t seen him in a long time. Soon after, World War Z Syndrome sets in. 5 minutes of playing happy families before shit gets fucked. Every where around, anyone who is on their phones starts to have fits and then start to attack everyone else. Clay gets out of the terminal just as a plane slams into the airport and ends up on an underground train where he meets a group of survivors who have sealed themselves in. There he meets Tom McCourt (Jackson) who is the train driver. Tom advises against starting up the train because the tunnels will be flooded with water if no one is manning the pumps that keep all of the ground water out of the underground.
Together, Clay and Tom reach Clay’s apartment where they meet Alice, Clay’s neighbour who is standing in the doorway, covered in blood and brandishing a huge kitchen knife claiming she has just killed her mother. And they let her in. She gets cleaned up and Clay puts forward his desire to travel to Kent Pond, where is (ex) wife and son are. Along the way they come into contact with the ‘phoners’ and happen upon a boarding school where they meet Jordan and learn more about the phoners. There is a metric fucktone of phoners lying on the football ground, all listening to music. I suppose all that running around really took it out of them so it was time for a nap. The group decide it would be a good idea to burn them all to death.
Upon succeeding, Jordan joins the group and they head to a bar where they meet up with some more survivors. It is here that they learn of a colony where there are no cell towers so the phoners don’t go there. By this point the phoners seem to be evolving. After first
freaking out on the phone like everyone simultaneously were told they were adopted, all it takes now is for one of them to scream in someones ear and their sanity is lost. In the skirmish, Alice is killed whilst saving Tom and they bury her in the woods. All the way through the plot so far, all the characters have been having dreams about a mysterious phoner in a red hoody and Clay claims that this figure is a character from his graphic novel.
After burying Alice, the gang meet up with Ray and Denise who have stolen an ice cream van and are living out of it. Ray is clearly bonkers and Denise is oblivious. Ray reaches maximum bonkers when he takes Clay out into the middle of the forest, hands him a mobile with a number attached to it, told to ring the number ‘when he reaches the
end of the road’, then sets off his necklace made of high explosives.
Clay quickly reaches his house and searches said house for his family. He discovers a message of his fridge, left by his son in perfectly placed fridge magnets explaining that
his mum is now one of the phoners and he has gone to the safe zone, on his own apparently. Clay finds his (ex) wife in the attic and Tom is the one who kills her although Tom seems more devastated about the whole affair than Clay does.
Clay decides to take the ice cream van which Ray had packed with enough C4 to re-enact any given New Years fireworks display and goes to the safe zone to find his son. Tom, Denise and Jordan are left behind to go somewhere else. Before they leave, Clay gives Jordan a can of spray paint and tells him to paint their initials every few miles so he will know where to go. This leads to the most bizarre and confusing ending I have ever seen.
SERIOUS SPOILERS NOW!
Clay drives the van to the safe zone only to find one cell tower and thousands of phoners circling it, as if they are worshipping it. Clay slowly plods through the crowd and reaches the centre where he finds the phoner in the red hoody. Clay shoots the phoner over and over again until you would think that he is dead. Clay pushes past the other phoners who seem oblivious to the very loud noises that just happened around them and he reaches the outer circle. There he finds his son who is now a phoner. But he doesn’t attack him. Instead, he just stands and screams the signal. Clay reaches into his pocket and rings the number from the phone that Ray gave him, detonating the bomb. The blast destroys the tower, takes out the phoners along with Clay, his son and the phoner with the red hoody who has sprung back to life for some reason. The scene cuts to Clay and his son walking through the woods and spotting the tags left by Jordan. Clay mentions that they are going to Canada. The scene cuts back to the tower which is fully intact and so are all of the phoners. The camera swoops of the heads of the phoners until we see Clay, shuffling along with the rest of them having become one of the phoners.
First of all, it mystifies me how a film idea with so much potential and so much talent behind it could manage to balls it up so spectacularly. Let me go deeper, the plot is
loosely based on the book with the characters only visiting a handul of the locations that they do in the film. That is what happens when a 300 page book is turned into a 90
minute movie, there’s only so much you can pack in which is not the film’s fault. But what is the film’s fault is how inconsequential the locations seem to be. All the locations
are strung together to meet the next character and move on with the plot. Clay dashes from the terminal, ends up in the train where he meets Tom. They go to Clay’s apartment
where they meet Alice. They go to the boarding school where they meet Jordan and so on.
Also what bothers me is how quickly the characters become acclimatised to extreme violence. Tom McCourt is a Vietnam veteran so the knowledge of how to use weapons was already in his background, but Clay is a graphic novelist. The only exposure to violence he has is drawing it on a piece of paper. When the characters break into an NRA nut’s house and steal all of his guns, Clay asks how to load a gun and in the very next scene he is duel wielding pistols like Dirty Harry. This is not character progression. Also, I mentioned that
Tom is a vietnam veteran, so why is freaking out when he sees someone getting murdered? Clay is standing right next to him and he doesn’t seem that bothered by it, like he’s seen it all before and springs into action. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
The characters are also very, very stupid. After leaving the gun nut’s house, they see a young man sat on a swing with his back to them. To see if he is human or a phoner, Tom
shouts at him. The man turns around and attacks them but doesn’t get far as Tom fires a shotgun blast into his chest. Seconds later, they are chased by a horde of phoners. When they give the phoners the slip, they wonder how the phoners knew where they were. Could it have been the fact that Tom fired a gun in their vacinity? Nope. Instead, some bullshit theory about them being telepathic is thrown into the plot to try and make the phoners seem more interesting and that fails miserably.
The apocalypse happens really fucking quickly aswell. And I’m not talking about the spread of the infection, I’m talking about the post-apocalyptic landscape. When Tom and Clay make it to the surface, there are buildings on fire, cars crashed on the pavement, shopping trolleys being strategically used as cover and the apocalypse has only been going
on for 10 minutes. Normally it takes weeks for this level of destruction but it is a film based on a book so shit needs to get moving.
I almost hesitate to berate the performances of the main actors but we are dealing with highly regarded professionals here. Both John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson are fantastic
actors and that’s not just my opinion. Both of them have been nominated for or won Golden Globes, BAFTA’s, Independant Spirit Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards. There is no need for the level of boredom that is plastered across their faces for the entire film. Only Samuel L Jackson seems to be giving it a go but if you catch him at the wrong
moment then you can see just how bored he looks.
I have saved the biggest amount of bile for the ending. No matter what the rest of the film looks like, the ending is what paying movie-goers will remember. Stephen King was
quoted as saying that the fans didn’t like the ending to the book so he changing it for the film. Why not go a step further, Mr King and change the whole film? I’m not joking.
It would have been better if the film had started a few months into the apocalypse and Clay had had some time to adapt to his surroundings so his knowledge of how to use weapons wouldn’t seem so convenient. It would have been better if his (ex) wife’s death was a little bit more emotional so we could have gotten a sense of what he had lost and the hell that he had been through to get to that point. It would have been better if the film ended with Clay detonating the bomb and the producers had saved the money from shooting Clay and his son walking in the woods and used the money to shoot Tom, Denise and Jordan finding a true safe zone that was phoner free. Jordan could have spray painted their initials outside and maybe the plot could have had some sense of closure rather than the confusing mess that we’re left with. All I’m saying is, make the most of the talent. If I had two top actors at the top of the bill for my zombie flick, I would give them some bloody good characters to sink their teeth into. Characters of depth and moral complexity who are forced to change who they are because the world has changed. I would not have them following the main character around wherever he goes because they have nothing else to do.
A cynical person might suggest that Mr Cusack and Mr Jackson were only in the film because they were in 1408, another Stephen King project and much better film, so they were the first people to call when he needed awesome actors for his low budget film. And it is low budget. It has to be. To this day I haven’t found an exact figure but the locations are boring, repetitive and decrease in cost. Starting in airport then underground, zombified street, apartment, woods. The CGI is low res and can’t render convincing explosions or convincing smoke.
To close, it wasn’t just one thing that went wrong with this film. It screams of something that had a lot of ideas but had to cut out a lot of content at the last minute. They had the premise and they had the talent but went forward with a sub-par experience that would leave audiences questioning the reason of the last 90 minutes. Even the release of the film was done in the wrong order. Cell was released on Video On Demand on June 10th, 2016 before being getting a limited release in cinemas on July 8th. No one wanted to mention that a theatrical release comes before the digital release. This could have been why the film didn’t break $1 million at the box office, sitting at nearly $736,000 but I think it’s because people went to see it with high hopes but were disappointed and so was I. I know what this trio is capable of and I know what they can do. If you like Stephen King, John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson, then I would recommend 1408 over this.