Cell. 2016. Directed by Tod Williams. Screenplay by Adam Alleca & Stephen King, based on King’s novel of the same name.
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacey Keach, Joshua Mikel, Alex ter Avest, Griffin Freeman, E. Roger Mitchell, & Wilbur Fitzgerald. The Genre Co./Benaroya Pictures/Cargo Entertainment.
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Cell is one of the few Stephen King novels I’ve not yet read at this stage. He’s one of my favourite writers, as well as a huge influence on me as an author myself. His influence is large and encompasses generations of weird kids who read his work growing up, whose touch made us more confident in mining the darker regions of our minds. Not only does he inspire readers, writers, he further has left a mark on horror directors, many of whom cut their teeth in the genre first by reading his books. Regardless of who you are or what you do, King is able to get to you. My mother was an avid reader. Then she passed his books on down to me, as they always interested me on the shelf and she’d say “Not until you’re a little older” and so eventually I read them all, devouring each page until there was nothing left. Now, 31 at the time of this writing, my bookshelves at the home which I share with my girlfriend are filled with a small library of solely Stephen King books. His writing is almost like a family tradition between myself and my mother. His work transcends genre, which is funny because those only familiar with a few of his stories always peg him as a horror writer, or that guy who writers creepy stories, and other descriptions. But he is capable of crossing genres and while captivating you with scary moments King always has something bigger happening underneath.
With the film adaptation of Cell, King had a hand in the screenplay alongside screenwriter Adam Alleca (wrote the remake of The Last House on the Left). Some King films suffer because his writing isn’t always easy to adapt for the screen, so I’m inclined to give the movies he’s more involved with a better shot. A Good Marriage was, to me, enjoyable even if it wasn’t great. Because the writing was good, even if the casting wasn’t spot on. Here, I can’t judge versus the book. I can only come to this adaptation with fresh eyes. Although it can’t be too bad to take another ride into creepy King territory with the likes of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, right? Add in Isabelle Fuhrman, who was amazing in Orphan, and that’s a solid three leads to keep things grounded.
One of the more initially unsettling moments is just after the half hour mark. A bunch of the infected people scream in unison, their mouths open, and it’s super eerie to watch and hear at the same time. Quite Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a nice homage without being a rip-off. A trippy, brief scene that only gets creepier right afterwards. The imagery shows us the horde of people together in a scary huddle, then the shot goes up, fading into the cell tower, and then we cut to a beautiful waterfall. There’s an excellently juxtaposed feeling of nature v. man-made structures, further in that we’ve perverted nature and now this return to a primitive state has thrust people back into a more basic, more savage world. Subtly, the camera work takes us through that amidst the small trio’s efforts to understand the situation around them. Not long after is the terrifying scene where Charles Ardai (Stacey Keach) introduces the stadium full of infected, laying in piles, all lulled by the cellphones. Almost a parallel to those hordes of people out on the sidewalks, walking with their heads down and face, eyes, everything stuck on a screen. That’s the wholly intriguing aspect to this King story, in either form. It takes on our nearly disease-like addiction to technology in an appropriate way. Sure, this takes the form of what we’ve seen many times before, another zombie flick, another form of the same story, the same types of characters. A certain amount of that still applies. Something I dig is that these characters are a little atypical, in that they’ve come together more randomly than other movies – another one I like in that regard is the Dawn of the Dead remake. So you’ve got less of that stale family first ethic, instead focused on just a bunch of people, all with their own fears, emotions, thoughts, plans, hopes, et cetera.
Another scene that got to me was the nightmare Clay Riddell (Cusack) had – the imagery all around was scary as hell. Loved it. Not only that it leads into them all having a collective dream about the same character, one that Clay drew in his comics previously. But simply that brief scene where Clay finds the red hoodie man getting a blowjob in a decrepit bathroom, the tear in the man’s cheek, the blood, his odd demeanour, everything adds up to be totally unnerving.
I do think Alleca and King wrote a decent screenplay. There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. However, disappointingly enough I feel like neither Cusack nor Jackson does anything worthwhile with the characters. You can’t say there’s nothing interesting about the characters themselves. First you’ve got Clay, he’s a guy who draws comics, he has a tough family life with a son he loves, and all kinds of personal stuff. Problem being maybe we’ve seen this character type too many times from Cusack, and no longer is there anything to mine from that starved patch of ground. Secondly, Tom McCourt (Jackson) is a Vietnam veteran, he’s a tough son of a bitch. And maybe again, we’ve seen this style of character from Jackson so often that seeing him in a zombie-type story to boot only makes it more cliché. However, that’s meant to be the power of an actor, if they can make you believe them and their portrayal, over and over. Though I do love both Cusack and Jackson in their own rights, having performed a ton of great characters between them, they don’t give us what we need here.
That task is left to Isabelle Fuhrman. Her portrayal of Alice Maxwell is really good. She doesn’t always get the right amount of time to do her thing, but when she does it’s solid work. If only her character were given more then it’s possible that could have made the movie better than it comes off. She’s a talented actor who I hope will get some bigger, better roles. Here, she’s able to root us emotionally before destroying us after the arc of her character breaks your heart.
Ultimately, I’ll say Cell is about a 3-star zombie flick. There are a couple elements that make it less typical, mainly in its approach to the entire infection sub-genre of horror. Stephen King and Adam Alleca adapt King’s novel into a decently creepy piece of work. Plenty of flaws to boot and there are definitely lacklustre performances out of Cusack and Jackson. At the same time, I found myself creeped out at times. More would be better, but the terror King’s story is able to bring out makes this better than most low budget zombie movies floating around out there. In addition to the writing, there’s great atmosphere; some nice cinematography, as well as a score that’ll keep you on edge while it swells and falls and sucks you in.
Some scenes will stick out, from the one in the bar to a short time later when Clay unmasks an infected man he – for a moment – believes to be his son. There’s enough to enjoy and to make this worth watching. Plus, I really enjoyed the ending. Not near one of my favourite King stories adapted to film, though. Perhaps I’ll enjoy the novel more once I get around to giving it a read because the premise alone is horrifying. The execution of the film is what leaves much to be desired.