10 years ago, Stephen King wrote Cell – a novel about mass consumption and portable “horde” culture in the digital age. It’s not one of his better works, but is considered pretty decent by fans. It’s just “okay” in my book. The novel definitely has its moments. And those moments are captured surprisingly well by director Tod Williams in the adaptation of the same name. Williams – who had the awful crutch to bear helming Paranormal Activity 2 – does an excellent job capturing King’s spirit – a blend of cynicism and hopefulness amidst horror. The problem is, it’s just not that interesting a King story to begin with.
Cell stars the always-reliable Samuel L. Jackson and recent DTV champion John Cusack. The latter has been in a ridiculous amount of pay-the-bills movies lately – Frozen Ground, Grand Piano, The Prince – while also delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in Love & Mercy. Seriously. Cusack is devastating in that one.
Here, Cusack stars as Clay Riddell, a graphic novelist trying to become the father he never was, connecting with his estranged wife. It’s a beautiful moment that kicks off Cell. As he flies into Boston’s Logan Airport, a cell signal goes out that turns everyone into a raging, murdering asshole. Luckily, Clay’s phone dies right before that electromagnetic pulse apocalypse. Timing is everything, pal.
He ventures out with gay MBTA subway driver Tom McCourt (Jackson) – one resourceful bastard – and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman). Also in the mix is Stacey Keach, a genuine god of genre films and The Simpsons (look him up). So across the board, the cast delivers. Cusack and Jackson are terrific. The problem is, the story itself is wicked flimsy.
Cell follows Clay, Tom, and Alice as they wander the outskirts of Boston – fighting against the signal people (essentially zombies with a hive-mind) and average Boston douchebags. It starts off really promising, with an awkwardly shot action sequence in Logan. Williams does not know how to film action. It’s an ugly sequence that utilizes shaky cam in the place of honest action.
Given the absurdity of the premise, you’d think Cell would be an entertaining ride. It’s not. It’s gratuitously grim and gloomy, with no real message to drive this misery home. Throughout the film, there are references to the unfortunately named “King of the Internet” – known as “The Raggedy Man in King’s book. He’s almost like a Freddie Krueger character who terrorizes people in their dreams. At one point, Clay and Tom meet the most Boston guy ever in the woods, who hasn’t slept a week because of the “Internet King.”
So where do all these references to “Internet King” and Clay’s sullen art lead? Nowhere. Cell closes out on a finale that will justifiably frustrate most. The story packs absolutely no punch and the solid stable of actors look bored for most of he film.
Why is it so hard to adapt a King novel? His monsters live in the mind, at the heart of America. Putting literal monsters on screen always dulls the impact.
Cell is available to rent now On Demand.