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[KING'S CORNER] Cell (2016)

Updated: Mar 19

Cell - King's Corner Review

Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.

It is hard to imagine a time when we didn't have mobile phones. To not have the capability to have instant communication through a call, text or some form of instant messaging feels like something from a different age. As the technology developed over the years, so too has our overreliance on it due to the conveniences it offers. We're arguably slaves to our devices as they're like an extra appendage to some and one which we can't live without even if we can't admit it to ourselves. It is almost a case where we let them do the thinking for us leading to a form of zombification where many of us are incapable of any sort of critical thinking. This is one such idea explored in Stephen King's 2006 novel 'Cell', an apocalyptic story where a signal known as "The Pulse" is transmitted through mobile phones turning anyone who hears it into a murderous zombie-like creature known as a Phoner.

Director: Tod Williams

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Isabelle Fuhrman, Clark Sarullo, Owen Teague

Written by: Stephen King, Adam Alleca

Produced by: Michael Benaroya, Shara Kay, Richard Saperstein, Brian Witten

Cinematography by: Michael Simmonds

Original Score by: Marcelo Zarvos


When a mysterious cell phone signal causes apocalyptic chaos, an artist is determined to reunite with his young son in New England.


In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 2005 Stephen King said the idea for the book came to him after passing a woman on her cell phone on the way into a hotel. In the interview he said, "I thought, what if she got this message on her cell phone and she had to attack everyone she saw - and she started with the doorman, she ripped his throat out". He viewed it as something that was the opposite of 'The Stand'. In that novel a group of survivors band together to face a post apocalyptic threat whereas 'Cell' was a story where everyone was for themselves for the most part.

In March 2006, Dimension Films announced that they would be adapting the novel with Eli Roth hired to direct the film. After sitting in development for three years Roth departed the project due to butting heads creatively with the Weinstein brothers over the direction the story should take. In the same year Roth left the project, King took a crack at adapting his own book into a screenplay. At a book signing in Maryland he went as far as saying that it would contain an alternative ending to his novel. After sitting in limbo for another 3 years 'Paranormal Activity 2' director, Tod Williams was hired to helm the project.

The film opens at Boston International Airport where graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is trying to board a flight to reconnect with his estranged wife and son after a successful sale of one of his graphic novels. Out of the blue an electronic signal known as the Pulse turns everyone who is using a mobile phone into a feral killer. It is a good opening as you are plunged straight into the chaos and panic that Riddell is experiencing. There are a lot of fast cuts and frenetic camera movements as those affected by the pulse attack anyone in their path (including themselves). Eventually Clay manages to make his escape to the subway under the airport where he meets train driver Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson). They both leave to seek shelter at Tom's apartment.

As Clay, John Cusack does a fine job in his third King adaptation to date (after Stand By Me and 1408) despite the limitations of the script. An artist in a mid-life crisis, you sense the weariness in the character through Cusack's performance as tries to make sense of the world falling apart around him. He is someone who never left the asshole rebellious phase of his teenage years and now seeks redemption by trying to save his family that he abandoned due to his selfish lifestyle. Unfortunately you don't get much more than that from the character (and by extension Cusack's performance) as he becomes nothing more than one note in his quest to find his wife and son. As the film plods along it is apparent that his interest wanes with every passing scene despite the high stakes.

This lack of character depth unfortunately doesn't end here (and is in fact right across the board). Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly fine as train driver and Vietnam veteran Tom who seems to be cut form the same cloth as Peter from 'Dawn of the Dead' in how he tries to make sense of the apocalyptic world he now lives in. There isn't much more to him other than this which is a shame in how the film fails to utilise the talents of an actor of his calibre. He feels like he is nothing more than a cardboard cut out of a sidekick for Clay who utters the odd line of religious dialogue (which feels like a homage to Pulp Fiction that is a little too on the nose) in the face of all that is happening.

Along their journey they are joined by various characters such as a young woman called Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) who has had to do and endure horrible things to survive and a bright young boy called Jordan (Owen Teague). Again there is little to no depth to their characters at all. They are merely a collection of tropes and traits with little to no emotional depth to them. It is all the more baffling given King's co-writer credit on the script when one of his major strengths is how well he writes and develops characters. These issues also extend to the antagonist of the story who is known as The Raggedy Man. Acting as the face of the Phoners he haunts the dreams of the main characters. The problem with these nightmare sequences is that they carry little to no fear or tension as there is nothing particularly frightening about the character. They are just a regular Phoner in a red hoodie. It almost feels like they are a last minute underdeveloped addition to the film that ultimately feels quite redundant.

The structure of the film is quite episodic and repetitive as the main band of survivors bump into one group after another resulting in some kind of tragedy which comes about due to some kind of stupid decision that could have been completely avoided with a bit of common sense. One such case involves Clay, Tom and Alice at the private school run by headmaster Charles Ardai (played by a criminally underused Stacy Keach). There they find out that the Phoners have some kind of a telepathic hive mind whereby they have collective vision and that they are rendered imobile by the continuous playing of music. The choice of music in this scene is the irritating Trololo song which does the film no favours. Together they devise a plan to burn all of the Phoners on the pitch by using a sprayer truck filled with fuel to douse them before setting them on fire. When Charles lights the field on fire from too close a range it results in an explosion that kills him in what is an infuriatingly stupid moment. It is this kind of poor writing that makes the film so frustrating to watch at times.

The Phoners in the film draw parallels to the infected from '28 Days Later' in that they aren't exactly zombies and attack based purely on primal instincts. Unlike the traditional zombie they run making them all the more threatening and their telekinetic link should make them even more intimidating theory but in execution it is not the case. In the end they are nothing more than your typical zombie which becomes less and less threatening as the film progresses. As with all great zombie/infected horror movies there is some sort of social satire at work with George A. Romero being the master of this. Here however the message doesn't go beyond the idea of "phones are bad" which feels like a waste especially how technological advances in mobile phones have changed over the years which could have presented the opportunity for something relevant to our time.

With the amount of talent involved with 'Cell' both in front and behind the camera you expect at the very least a serviceable piece of apocalyptic horror but sadly the film can't even muster up the energy to be that. The cast all do a perfectly fine job with some severely underwritten character work and flat dialogue but it isn't enough to save the film. It lacks any sense of style in the direction and resorts to the typical fast cuts and frenetic camera movement which is more irritating than disorientating when it is repeated throughout. King has proved in the past how well he can write an apocalyptic story as shown with 'The Stand' but 'Cell' feels like a paper thin variation on that great novel.

Verdict: ⭐️½

- Joseph McElroy

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