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At Logan International Airport in Boston, graphic novelist artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) lands and calls his estranged wife, looking to tell her some good news about a big deal he’s just made. He also wants to reconnect with his young son, and vice versa. In the middle of the call though, his phone dies and he’s forced to used a payphone. Good thing because a moment later, the airport lobby erupts in horror as those using cell phones begin shrieking and running amok, slaughtering each other while foaming at the mouth. It’s instantaneous and horrific, and as we soon see, widespread.
Riddell manages to battle his way to the subway where he meets the driver of a train named Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) among a few others taking refuge in a stopped subway car. When McCourt, Ridell and one other decide to make a run for the surface, only McCourt and Ridell make it, and end up in Ridell’s apartment. Soon after, an upstairs neighbor named Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) joins them. She’s doused in blood and terrified. Things have not gone well for her. The men take her in. From the safety of the apartment, they watch the zombies on the street, noticing they move like birds in a flock, and make a plan to leave the city, Ridell especially looking for a way to reach his family. Now it’s just a matter of surviving.
Directed by Tod Williams and based on the 2006 novel of the same name by horror master Stephen King, who also wrote the screenplay, Cell is an often clever horror story that is marred by derivative dialog and a peculiar lack of authenticity, which might seem odd in itself when describing a zombie movie, but is evident when scenes play out with such sterility. King is trying to make a point, but the very idea of cell phone users becoming zombies already feels obvious and contrived.
That said, there are some genuinely good moments, in particular the zombie mentality of synchronous behavior. There is one chilling moment by a riverbed where a ‘flock’ of zombies assemble, open their mouths and emit a near mechanical howl at the setting sun that sounds like a misdialed warning. It’s creepy and effective and hints at something larger that unfortunately doesn’t pay off. Another is at a school where the three meet an aged Headmaster (Stacy Keach) and a pupil named Jordan (Owen Teague) who have discovered another strange zombie habit that only happens at night, leading to a truly grotesque moment on a football field, but also some theories about what it might all be about.
There’s also some surprises with the cast that come with unexpected shock, including a great little moment with a character named Ray (Anthony Reynolds) who thinks he needs to stay awake forever to beat the plague. In truth, most of the cast handles the material well with Cusack convincing throughout. He’s aging into a gravelly-voiced bedraggled statesman of sorts who can still carry a film. His recent turn as Father Mike Corridan in the sensational Chi-Raq was stirring and proof enough of his legacy. Fuhrman is also compelling, though Jackson (who co-starred with Cusack in Chi-Raq) comes off the worst with a mostly one-note performance, but it might not be entirely his fault. At a brisk 93 minutes, the movie chugs along pretty quickly and never stops long enough to let the characters grow or develop.
Williams fails to bring any sense of style to the production, instead churning out a steady steam of conventional horror movie tropes that are sometimes so bland and obvious, it just feels perfunctory. ‘Scary’ music cues alert us to every single jump scare. Nonsensical zombie tropes persist such as not once but twice where a lone figure with their back to us is suspected of being normal but as they turn around are in fact not. Every door and every corner is a source of a ‘fright’ and characters make dumb choices in service of the plot rather than in reality. There’s also some shockingly low-grade CGI work, including what must be the contractually bound crashing airplane scene, and a city up in smoke.
Most aggravating is the ending, which I suppose is meant to have a grander metaphorical message, but falls flat and feels forced. There are no answers to why, and even though a zombie movie needs none, this one should, simply because of its intriguing start. But worse is the infuriating last moments that cry out for us to contemplate but only succeed in making us angry. And a repeated image of Riddell at the close is a devastatingly bad choice that reveals a deeper mistrust in the audience to work things out on their own.
While it’s not all bad, Cell is a disappointment that should have been better. An interesting story and characters, the production simply does put the investment required to make this as good as it should be. A few solid moments might make the experience worth it, this is a horror movie for fans only.
Director: Tod Williams
Writers: Adam Alleca (screenplay), Stephen King (based on the novel by)
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Owen Teague, Isabelle Fuhrman