Forty years ago, the first adaptation of a Stephen King work, CARRIE, was released. Since then, we’ve had dozens of adaptations, and as sure as night follows day, they can’t be all good, though some have turned out good despite being poor adaptations of his novels or short stories (admittedly, I’m going on second-hand knowledge here, as apart from Carrie, I’ve not read any of his work). We all have our own opinions about the best and worst Stephen King movies.
Now, because I haven’t read them, I go through seeing (and reviewing) the movies based on how they stand up in their own right. And CELL does indeed stand up. Mostly.
It opens in a busy Boston airport, as the credits roll and we see hundreds of people all on their cell/mobile phones. Among them is graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack), trying to reach his wife and son, displaying the usual dysfunctional family stuff you expect. His phone battery runs out, and everyone around him is sitting on the floors using the outlets to recharge (seriously, airports, you need to scrap the phones on the walls and put in chargers with universal adapters). He calls them on one of the public phones but he runs out of money.
Just then, people around him begin screaming in agony. They fall. They spasm. They go bug eyed like they’ve just got a wasabi enema. Then they start attacking others. I mean full on 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead remake zombie. It’s a startling graphic scene, and the fact that it happens just minutes into the film is a very good sign, given how many films Scott and I have watched that seem to take forever to get going. Clay watches one unaffected woman pick up her friend’s phone to call for help – only to begin freaking out and banging her head into the nearest wall.
Clay flees just as an airliner, obviously affected by the weird signal, falls from the sky into the terminal… downstairs in the subway terminal, where there’s no phone signal, he finds the power is out so the trains won’t run, but he follows train driver Tom McCourt (Samuel L Jackson, who previously teamed up with Cusack for 1408, another King movie) out the tunnel, watching each other’s backs as they make their way to Clay’s apartment. They are joined by Clay’s unaffected neighbour Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), where they witness how the “phoners” outside flock together, rapidly assembling from all directions whenever they find someone unaffected, almost as if they are driven by a collective intelligence.
As they make their way northward to Clay’s family, meeting other survivors, they discover that the Phoners congregate together at night, somehow receiving and broadcasting signals like they’re receiving app updates. Also, everyone is dreaming the same figure: the Raggedy Man, an ugly dude in a red hoodie. Is he behind all of this? (What do you think?)
The novel was written in 2006, and at one point Eli Roth was lined up to film it, but he left amicably under the usual creative differences. King himself chose to write the screenplay, making some changes based on complaints he received from readers of the book (what changes? Sorry, no spoilers here). The movie was filmed in Atlanta in January 2014, directed by Tod Williams (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2), but a release has been delayed until now. Was it worth it?
Mostly. If you like an apocalyptic thriller with a bit of mystery, this is a good choice. The cast works well, and its low budget betrays it only in certain larger scenes, since the cast naturally stays isolated, moving through backwoods and isolated roads. One scene, where the survivors prepare to immolate a stadium filled with hundreds of sleeping Phoners, was especially grisly, as are the scenes of the zombie-like men-turned-monsters twitching and making weird sounds. The idea of an apocalypse courtesy of the ubiquitous phones is intriguing (is this a serious version of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE?)
But it’s not perfect; there are production problems where dialogue is barely audible, and the low budget means we don’t get a proper scope of how far this calamity has spread. We don’t get a proper explanation as to what’s going on, except for some clumsy speculation. And the constant movement of the characters, rather than taking a siege scenario, means character is sacrificed for action.
Still, it’s worth the watch. Just don’t watch it on your phones.
CELL has just had a limited video on demand, which will be followed by theatre release in the US on July 8 and in the UK on September 1. The trailer is below.
- Deggsy’s Summary:
- Director: Tod Williams
- Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
- Gore: 5 out of 10 skulls
- Zombie Mayhem: 4 out of 5 brains
- Stay Bloody!!!