For the first sixty minutes of its ninety-ish minute running time, Cell – based on Stephen King’s 2006 novel and with King on co-scripting duties – is a perfectly serviceable, if not especially over-accomplished, apocalyptic thriller. The scenario intrigues – a rogue ‘Pulse’ transmitted through the mobile phone network turns users into rabid, foaming murderous psychopaths (we’re trying to avoid using the word ‘zombie’ because of all those preconceptions it now comes loaded with) – and a handful of survivors flee a burning Boston to find safety. John Cusack plays graphic novelist Clayton Riddell, desperate to be reunited with his estranged family and Samuel L Jackson is kindly train driver Tom McCourt who’s surprisingly handy with firearms. Together with Clay’s neighbour Alice (Fuhrman), they pick their way through a treacherous landscape, occasionally pursued by “phoners” who are exhibiting increasingly bizarre and unified behaviour which suggests some sort of ‘hive mind’ mentality.
So far so seen-all-this before – and there’s nothing much wrong with it apart from a marked lack of real spectacle (apart from the opening sequence set in Boston airport where ‘the Pulse’ kicks in, causing a nicely-shot orgy of bloody violence) and some odd pacing and slightly ‘off’ characterisation. The film’s budget clearly won’t stretch to showing much of the immediate after-effects of ‘the Pulse’; out on the city streets we see just a handful of roaming “phoners” and a few long-shots of smouldering buildings. There’s not much sense of scale here, it all seems a bit low-key and never really gets its motor running. Clay and co. venture out into the countryside and meet up with other survivors – but the ‘phoners’ are never far away. The film throws in a few interesting concepts about the nature of ‘the phoners’ and sequences where they stand stock-still, mouth gaping, the static-like screech of ‘the Pulse’ emanating from somewhere deep inside them, are striking and occasionally chilling.
But somewhere along the way, around that sixty-minute mark, the wheel comes off an already-wobbly wagon. Clay starts to see visions of a grotesque red-hooded figure created for his unfinished graphic novel and he begins to wonder if some manifestation of the entity is responsible for ‘the Pulse’. Eventually, determined to find his missing son (he discovers his wife already ‘turned’ when he returns to the family home) Clay sets out alone and wanders into a pretentious, murky and eventually utterly unsatisfying finale – apparently rewritten by King from the novel as he was displeased with its original ending – which fails to really get to grips with any of the story’s core questions and leaves us more than a little puzzled as to exactly what’s happened, much less why. By now, however, the film’s run right out of steam and whatever goodwill it earned in its explosive first few minutes (and in an eerie sequence at a school run by veteran Stacey Keach) has long since dissipated and we’re just left with a film with the potential to make some cogent and incisive commentary about the ubiquity of the mobile phone phenomenon but throws it all away for the sake of a bit of esoteric mumbo-jumbo. Cell is just about worth a look (Cusack and Jackson are always worth spending time with) but it can’t help but disappoint; if we knew who to call, we’d probably ring and complain...
CELL / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TOD WILLIAMS / SCREENPLAY: STEPHEN KING, ADAM ALLECA / STARRING: JOHN CUSACK, SAMUEL L. JACKSON, ISABELLA FURMAN, OWEN TEAGUE, STACEY KEACH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW