By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **1/2 out of *****.
Technology is turning us into autonomous drones. This is becoming all the more true with the passage of time. Modern dependency on social media as the primary source of wide-spread communication is all the evidence we need to back this accusation. It is also the central statement behind Stephen King’s ambitious, but overlong, Scribner published novel from 2006, Cell. In this undergoing, the term “zombie” was replaced with “phoners”. Yet, the overall comparisons to the undead are undeniable. Such is also the cornerstone of the ninety-eight minute film version. This uneven, sporadically engaging but technically inept entity will receive its official theatrical run beginning July 8th, 2016.
This notion is a perfect pulpit for King’s intended commentary. It is also wonderfully form fitting for his trademark, dark sense of humor. Such is also in line with his ability to turn real-life circumstances into otherworldly terror. These were all utilized well in the literary rendition of the saga. But, the cinematic experience, though nowhere near as overblown as many similar efforts of late, is a more tepid, straightforward affair. In turn, it is just as much a sufferer of the ‘hive mind’ its transformed counterparts suffer from. Even these aforementioned antagonists look no different than what we expect a non-living creature to traditionally look like. They are also of the grating ‘fast runner’ genus. Such is especially disappointing. This is made all the more melancholy given the way King went out his way to introduce a rather new, and intriguing, modus of morphing from man into thoughtless monster into the plot of both book and film. Furthermore, the mechanical screech these fiendish beasts elicit is far more annoying than creepy. It would laughable if it weren’t so irritating.
The fiction, King’s first elongated stab at such an apocalyptic exertion as this, primarily concerns Clay Riddell (in a depiction by John Cusack which starts shaky but gets progressively better as it goes along). He is an artist from Maine. Riddell is on his way to Boston as part of a comic book deal. Almost immediately he meets up with a middle-aged gentleman amid the chaos, Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson in a likable, but serviceable, portrayal. Still, it is but another variation of his usual role). They are attempting to survive the threat of “The Pulse”. This is a signal sent over a global cell phone network. It is one which causes individuals using their calling devices to turn into mindless, savage brutes. All the while, Riddell is trying to return to his son, Johnny (a well-done presentation by Ethan Andrew Casto), in New England.
Along the way they, predictably, encounter a varied group. All of these are trying to avoid transformation. Among those is Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman), whose role is much smaller here than it was in the foregoing King authored epic of the same name, Charles Ardai (Stacy Keach), Chloe (Alex ter Avest), and the surviving prep school pupil, Jordan (Owen Teague). We also eventually meet Raggedy, or “The Raggedy Man” as he was dubbed in the hardcover, (Joshua Mikel). All of these personalities are intriguing in their own way. They give the piece a finer edge of watchability. Their performances all respectively back up this attribute splendidly.
The motion picture form of Cell, which will disappoint gore hounds with its nearly non-existent and perceivably faux use of the red stuff, wants to hammer us over the head with its now fairly exhausted thesis declaration. In so doing, it greatly constrains the entertainment value. Such merely ebbs and flows throughout the effort. This is also drown out by the all too conventional sub-plot of Riddell’s search for his immediate kin. There is also a general air of soullessness, as well as a blatant disregard to the traits which make audiences care. These are cast out through much of this endeavor. Such King co-penned with Adam Alleca in the most lackadaisical fashion imaginable. Regardless, the quiet, subtle atmosphere maintained through most of King’s 384 page tome is refreshingly reverberated, at least for a vast portion of the duration, in the Tod Williams (2004’s The Door in the Floor, 20010’s Paranormal Activity 2) directed undertaking.
What also hurts the more recent transition of Cell is Williams’ lack of vision and flare. His behind the lens contribution is mediocre. Williams constructs the scenes, especially those meant to provoke fear, in a mechanical manner. The approach is essentially what you would easily call: “point and shoot”. This is done with little to no build-up or suspense. The style Williams uses here is practically indecipherable from your garden variety undead narrative. Likewise, the overall feel is far too much in line with the plethora of similarly idealized horror opuses that have also been arriving in theaters and Video on Demand in droves. Such is especially observable in the ten years between the release of the text and the photoplay variants of this chronicle.
This overwhelming familiarity is only heightened by cringe-worthy computer generated effects. Both the optical and special aspects in this category, from a collective group of over two dozen people, are equally unappealing. Such is especially evident in the various instances herein showcasing fire. What also mirrors this sensation, and parallel, is the limp characterization. This is most noticeable in the almost too fast paced initial act.
Here we are given only the briefest bits of exposition. This arrives mostly via McCourt. These moments are so rushed, and artificial, that we endure another case of those in a thriller spouting unnecessary backstory. This is while running from one routinely erected threat to the next. Luckily, this construction largely settles down in its last 2/3rds. This gives a chance for the fiction to breathe. In turn, the quality of the picture increases exponentially. The same can be said for the human categorizations as well as the enactments which embody them. During this near hour long stretch, we actually find ourselves caring for these individuals on-screen. Yet, even this component is held back by a commencement that places action above all its other aspects. This competent duration mixes with the breakneck speed of the first half hour. Such creates a general movement of events and an arc that is choppy and bizarrely structured.
King and Alleca’s strangely bland and unusually coy screenplay oddly leaves out many of the crucial details which made those in the earliest evokation of Cell so relatable. This is also what made it pivotal to its place and period. It almost seems as if it is deliberately taking out important bits to add a sense of confusion to the proceedings. Perhaps, the screenwriters, who give us dialogue that ranges from semi-potent speeches to merely plot serving quips, were trying to instill a sensibility of what those who dominate the screen are themselves feeling. This is as they jump from one hazard to the next without much of an opportunity to contemplate their deeds. But, the conclusive result is the sensation of King and Alleca only giving us the bare essentials of the account. This is one of those rare modern silver screen occasions when the production could’ve benefited greatly from at least another twenty minutes of explanation added to the product. Such could’ve cleared things up remarkably. The engineers of the script also give us a completely different climax. It is well documented that this is because of the negative reactions to the shoulder shrug that was the last page of the tome. Though this one is satisfying enough, and far less open-ended, it still seems modeled after too much that came before it.
Further hindering this misfire is Michael Simmonds cinematography. Simmonds goes for an almost too dark veneer. Such could easily suit an endeavor such as this. Yet, what we are given is simply too drab and unpleasant to look at. This only makes the variety of flaws at hand all the more difficult to peer around. Marcelo Zarvos’ music is fair, but unmemorable. Jacob Craycroft’s editing is sloppy. This is during the unimpressive and unimaginative sequences meant to provoke excitement. Such is especially noteworthy in the opening scene in an airport in Boston. This has the incredible benefit of a cameo by schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman. In the bestseller, this was set inside Boston Commons. This drastically alters the most exhilarating, and lengthiest, segment of King’s prose rendition of the tale. Yet, it becomes more proficient, as well as the case with the source material, when the fiction begins to slow down and become more focused. The art and sound department contribute skillfully in their singular regions. Alex McCarroll’s art direction, Kristen McGary’s set decoration and Lorraine Coppin’s costume design are impressive. But, these admirable items cannot hide the fact that we have seen this far too often, and in many superior incantations, prior.
Cell, in its original format, was partially dedicated to master of the flesh-eating ghoul, George A. Romero (1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead). King even had an uncredited bit as the voice of a Neswreader in Romero’s fifth opus of the similarly equated ilk, Diary of the Dead (2007). Their masterful 1982 anthology, Creepshow, which Romero directed and King penned, and 1993 pairing The Dark Side, where Romero successfully adapted King’s 1989 yarn with a matching moniker, resulted in two instant genre classics. There is an obvious mutual respect between these two terror maestros. It is this motivation which Cell, in both its volume and movie interpretations, appears used as an indirect catalyst.
This is especially accurate when considering the modern day consciousness, eerily reminiscent of Romero, which is injected into the fabric of Cell. In the 2006 take, the power of the imagination combined with this parallel to make the labor a nearly cinematic homage to the seventy-six year old director. In the flick, this article comes across as too much of a forced wink at its core spectators. It seems to imitate and never truly evoke the foundation laid down by Romero. Ultimately, it is the grand promise that came with the premise, the fact that it could’ve been something that could’ve been used in the same exclamatory breath as one of the previously stated cracks by Romero which is most disheartening of all. This makes Cell all the more underwhelming.
But, this is not to say that many of the bricks in said groundwork are not worthy of praise. Yet, Cell, as a whole, could’ve been a monument of an achievement, as well as a subtle letter of respect to Romero. Instead, it is just another building. One that has little more for the eye than all the other edifices on the block. Fellow King admirers and genre addicts may like it well enough to find it an intriguing diversion. But, I cannot imagine that this pairing of King, Cusack and Jackson, who gave us one of the best adaptions of King’s short stories with 2007’s superb 1408, will merit the appreciation of a second look. This is by the standards of anyone who dares travel down its all too acquainted path.