In a lot of ways, Cell is an update of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. King has replaced the mall full of zombies as the representation of mindless consumption with modern technology. Specifically Cell phones.
Clay Riddell is a graphic novelist who is returning home to his estranged wife and son after after a year away pursuing his dream of selling a graphic novel. After arriving home, he is talking to his wife and son when his cell phone dies. He calls them back on an airport pay phone, but suddenly, everything is interrupted by a high pitch noise being emitted from cell phones. People start frothing at the mouth and then start attacking everyone around them.
Clay tries to avoid being attacked, making his way down to the subways, where he finds several survivors. He learns the subways train is shut down due to the emergency, and tries to convince everyone to make a run in the tunnels. Only two people, Tom (the train conductor) and another young man join him. They are attacked in the tunnels and make their way to the surface, with Clay and Tom making it out alive. They make it to Tom’s apartment, where they run into a young woman named Alice. One of Clay’s neighbors, she is shaken as she has had to kill her mother to save herself. They proceed to make their way across the the state as they meet various survivors and try and avoid the zombies.
Like the book, the source of the “zombie” (these are not actual zombies, the individuals are alive) infection is cell phones. And like the book, the actual source is never revealed. The movie tries to explain the infection in general terms, though never going as far as King’s original novel. The infected in the book are slowly mutated, opening their minds to new abilities, such as levitation. The movie includes the notion of the hive mind, with Clay realizing they can see where people are through the eyes of any of the “zombies”. And early on, Stacy Keach’s headmaster suggests it is a new stage of evolution. The infected “sleep” at night, which the sole remaining student Jordan suggests that the people are having their brains “updated” with new programming.
Clay’s goal is to locate his son, and the intelligence behind the infected use this to draw him out. For reasons that are never clear, it is implied that Clay is important to the infected, which ends up being undermined by the end of the film.
King adapted his novel as far back as 2009, and had help from Adam Alleca (screenwriter of the Last House on the Left remake). The film’s largest change is the ending. The book had a sad, but emotionally engaging ending. King states he took a lot of crap for the book’s ending and so he changed it for the film. Here, King opts for an ending more depressing than the Mist.
This was a film I was excited to see. I recall when I read the book thinking the beginning would make the most intense twenty minutes of a movie. And yet, somehow, the film feels like it downplays the terror of the opening events.
The film often fails to create tension. And both of the film’s big event moments are dragged down by uninspired digital visuals.
That said, the performances are good. Samuel L. Jackson’s Tom is one of his quieter performances. This is not the loud and brash stock Samuel L. Jackson performance (which is usually pretty darn enjoyable). And John Cusack tends to be able to make characters who do lousy things (like walk out on his wife and kid to chase comic book dreams) still come across as sympathetic. He becomes more and more desperate, making some pretty terrible choices. Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is strong as Alice. Anthony Reynolds turns in a terrific manic performance as a Ray, a man so disturbed by his dreams, he has avoided sleep for days.
But unfortunately, none of these save Cell from being a mediocre adaption of a Stephen King novel. Sure, this is not Sleepwalkers or Maximum Overdrive…but those films are almost so awful that they become amusing. Cell is just pretty average.