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Stephen King’s Cell Review

By  · Published on June 20th, 2016

Cell Drops the Call

The latest Stephen King adaptation is thankfully not the last.

Stephen King adaptations are enjoying something of a resurgence these days evident in the success of Hulu’s 11.22.63 mini-series and the currently-filming The Dark Tower with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. It and new TV adaptations of Mr. Mercedes and The Mist are in various stages of pre-production too, and there’s even something called Cujo: Canine Unit Joint Operations that part of me hopes is a joke while the other part of me is already salivating at the prospect.

The latest to hit screens though is the long-delayed Cell, based on King’s 2006 apocalyptic thriller about a virus that spreads via a cellular signal and turns its victims into homicidal maniacs doing the bidding of a mysterious dream figure. The novel is a sleek (for King anyway) ride that reads at times like a slimmed-down, overly convoluted, and ultimately slight redo of The Stand.

The film never really reaches those heights.

Clay (John Cusack) arrives home at the Boston airport and attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife and young son, but his cell phone battery dies forcing him to go old-school and call them from a pay phone. As he talks with them he notices something strange occurring throughout the terminal. Everyone currently on a cell – the majority of the people it turns out – suddenly writhe in a combination of agony and spittle before collapsing to the ground. Almost immediately though they’re back up and sprinting after those unaffected with the intention of causing severe bodily harm.

Clay narrowly escapes the bloody mayhem, and along with a handful of other survivors – including a train driver named Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) – they make their way through the tunnels and out of the city. The group fights for survival as Clay searches for his family, and it’s not long before they discover the cause, and the man, behind the madness.

There are some nice beats in Cell – a guy eating a service dog stands out as a creative moment, the visual of thousands of infected bedding down for the night is striking, and it’s fun seeing Cusack and Jackson reunite for a second King adaptation – but so much of the film lacks style or life of its own. Director Tod Williams (Paranormal Activity 2) presents much of the action in the most matter-of-fact and unexciting manner possible. The opening assault feels like a series of scattershot beats stitched together, and later scenes fare no better.

The script by King and Adam Alleca (The Last House on the Left) is equally bumpy as it tries to cram far too much plot into its downtime. Stacy Keach shows up as a school headmaster with all of the answers (and exposition), and the characters’ theories about the virus and the mysterious figure in their dreams come fast and furious. Alleca has delivered suspense and thrills previously with the Last House remake and the recent Standoff, but nothing here really manages any degree of momentum.

Plot details rarely catch and hold our interest as the developing scope of things builds towards some lackluster revelations. The idea that the infected act as Bluetooth speakers just doesn’t work, a tease regarding Clay’s deeper connection to it all is under-developed, and the ending is just a misfire in every possible way. Many fans complained about the end of King’s novel, but I’d wager those same readers would prefer it to the film’s conclusion.

The normally reliable Cusack is missing in action here as he never seems to display much in the way of urgency in Clay’s quest for survival and for his son. It’s just a lifeless journey with him slowly leading the charge. The antagonist is even more underwhelming in part because no one ever looks threatening in a red hoodie. No one. Ever.

King’s penchant for the nitty-gritty normalcy of America faced with something crazy is visible here – there’s nothing more ubiquitously American than a cell phone – but while the film teases the idea of a populace too attached to their phones it never manages to approach the social commentary of something like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Instead the movie plays more like a poor man’s 28 Days Later with infected who run and make aggressive verbalizations but fail to generate tension or scares. We never grow to care about these survivors.

Modern horror cinema is filled with zombie films – yes, I know these “phoners” aren’t technically zombies – and Cell has nothing to help it stand apart in a crowded field aside from the names King, Cusack, and Jackson. Let this one go to voicemail, and just re-watch 1408 instead.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.