December 25, 2016

Cell (2016)

Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is a comic book artist in Boston airport when a strange mobile phone signal turns everybody using a cell phone into a screaming, violent lunatic. Barely escaping the airport with his life, Clay joins a train driver (Samuel L. Jackson), a mournful teenager (ISabelle Fuhrmann) and a terrified schoolboy (Owen Teague) on a journey north to find his estranged family and keep them safe.

You would think from Cell's set-up that it would be a sizeable hit. It's essentially a zombie movie, released at a time when people still seem to really enjoy zombie movies, and is based on a novel by hugely popular author Stephen King. It stars decent actors like Cusack, Jackson and Stacy Keach. It is clearly a film that went through some trouble, though: despite being shot in 2014 on a moderate budget it took until the middle of 2016 for it to limp direct to home video, with a very limited theatrical release in the USA grossing less than a million dollars.

How could the film do so badly? One viewing makes that pretty clear: Cell isn't any good.

A key problem is that so much of the film has effectively been seen before. The masses of civilians being transformed into violent, murderous lunatics was already done in 28 Days Later and its sequel, and the whole journey on foot along America's east coast has a very strong feel of 'been there, done that'. There are some clever ideas buried in the film - the so-called 'phoners' begin to move in flocks like birds, for example - but they get the chance to properly play out and never really get explained.

The climax screams of reshoots by a different director. The visual aesthetic is radically different. It has clearly been shot in a studio rather than on location, and it exchanges any kind of explanation for the film's story for an explosion and a confusing confrontation with the mysterious hooded man. It's a scene that effectively kills the film stone-dead. It feels like it may be worth persevering through the first and second acts in order to get an explanation for what is going on in the third; that third act gives the audience nothing, and then rolls the credits. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and completely ruins any chance of success the film had.

While the cast is good - John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson reunite for their second King adaptation after 1408 - the direction by Tod Williams is lacklustre. The camera angles are banal and uninvolved, denying the film any tension or suspense. The editing is slack, leading to some scenes feeling a little dull. There was potential here. It was squandered. Cell is a horror movie very easy to leave unseen on the shelf.

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